More than anything, I want to be able to speak and understand and sing in my mother tongue. I want to be able to write poetry and love letters in Chinese. I asked my mom why I was never able to take lessons growing up and she said that it was because the Chinese classes that were offered were far away, maybe an hour’s drive, and it was inconvenient.
It hurts me that I wasn’t able to learn my birth language out of convenience.
I once read an article with research suggesting that there is something that activates in adoptee’s brain when they hear their native language that doesn’t activate for other people who didn’t grow up hearing that language as an infant. This means that my mother tongue lives not just in my bones, but also in my brain.
Yet, there has been so much holding me back. Fears like: What if I’m not able to learn Chinese? What if I sound like the white people who try to learn Chinese who don’t understand what tones are? Or what if it’s something that I can’t relearn? Maybe English has taken over so much of my brain I have no more space for that part of myself.
Over the years, I’ve watched one of my cousins, and some of my best friends take classes in college and go abroad to China, learning Mandarin to the point where they know my mother tongue better than I do. And yet, there I am in college, taking French and Spanish and studying abroad in Argentina, as though that was more urgent than learning my language. But the truth is, it was just less scary. It was less of a risk. So many people have told me Chinese is so hard to learn. Over the years, this has made it feel like an impossible task. Especially when I don’t just want to learn it, I want to master it. I want to reclaim it. I was to speak it the way that I know English.
Last year, I finally took the plunge and signed up to audit Mandarin 101 at my liberal arts alma mater. The class was full of lower classmen. Some taking Mandarin for the first time, some who had studied it in middle school and high school and felt very comfortable with the fundamentals. Most of the students in the class were white, my professor was white, and the school was a white institution.
When I enrolled in the class, I got an email from the professor that said, “I do not generally accept auditors in language classes. Or rather, I accept them only under the following conditions: auditors must attend all classes and do all the work. They must also earn a 90 or above on every quiz. Quizzes are given daily in class. If ever the auditor’s quiz grades drop below 90 or if the auditor comes to class unprepared, I reserve the right to ask the auditor to leave the class permanently.” These were daunting expectations, but I figured I was an A student in school. Why would this class be any different? So I replied, “Absolutely, count me in.”
We began learning pinyin, the Romanization system of Chinese characters. It was challenging for me. After getting a B on the second quiz and C on the third, I got a note from the professor saying, “You can keep coming to class, but keep studying.”
At that moment, I broke down. I experienced huge grief that rocked me my entire body. Perhaps I was not up for this challenge after all. Perhaps it would be too traumatizing to have to learn my native language in a timeline and system of education that is so rigid, western and white.
I recognize why she had that rule. She wanted to raise the stakes for auditors so that they understood auditing didn’t mean showing up half-heartedly. But the stakes for me were so much higher than the other students who were just worried about getting a good grade in the class. It was about whether or not I could fully access that part of myself that I was born with and feel was taken from me. My need to learn Chinese has haunted me, a burden that I hold with me every day. It was heartbreaking to have the power back into the hands of whiteness to claim whether or not I could learn my mother tongue.
I am grateful that when I expressed this to my professor, she was completely receptive, understanding and empathetic. I was able to continue taking the class and lighten the pressure on myself to do so perfectly. I was even able to find the joy in learning Chinese.
For the first time, I learned how to correctly write and pronounce my Chinese name, 李党 (Lǐ Dǎng). Going to class every day and being called by my Chinese name was beautiful. Other students in the class didn’t even know my American name and that was incredible.
It’s been a few months since the class, and I feel like I’ve lost a lot of it, but I know that I overcame that first barrier of starting. It is true what the studies say, Chinese is at the tip of my tongue, it’s natural. The language sounds and feels so good in my mouth. It’s like eating a really good bowl of jasmine rice.
My genes want to speak that language. I think what I need now is to go to China and deeply immerse myself in the language and culture. I’m still learning and it’s going to be a lifelong journey, I recognize that, but I don’t think it’s as impossible as I once believed it would be. I embrace the challenge. I look forward to the magic and exhilaration of relearning this part of myself, because reading it, writing it, speaking it feels so right.
Julia Gay is an actor, dancer, playwright, and stand-up comedian. She is a Chinese adoptee who writes and creates to bridge the vastness between memory, heart, and home. Julia is a member of St. Paul-based professional dance company, Ananya Dance Theatre, and was the recipient of The Playwrights’ Center’s 2017-18 Many Voices Mentorship. This essay is an expansion of themes presented in her one-woman show, Motherlanded, which explores her personal narrative as a Chinese adoptee. Motherlanded premiered at Pangea World Theater in 2016 and was recently revised and remounted at Dreamland Arts in October 2019.