Meeting Language at Its Most Elemental Place: Belinda Huijuan Tang on Re-Learning Chinese
“When we learn a new language, we may expand our notion about what truths can exist in the world.”
I was the recipient of so stereotypically an “Asian” childhood that I wonder if it is a detriment to racial representation to recount, like something out of a pandering stand-up’s set. Every summer vacation the next year’s math and reading workbooks awaited me, during the school year my mother would be furious at any grade below an A—which was particularly inconvenient because I was the recipient of many grades that weren’t A’s.
Nowhere was my incompetence reflected more than at Chinese school. My years of poor performance culminated when I was twelve. That year my parents enrolled me in a Sunday afternoon program in lush Palo Alto, where I tested into fourth-grade Chinese. The students there were diligent, appropriately deferential, prepubescent masters of penmanship.
At recess they jammed their fingers against Nintendo DS’s and nibbled at portioned snacks out of Ziplock baggies. I could crumple the tests bearing my F’s into my messy backpack nonchalantly enough, but the worst shame awaited me when it was my turn to read aloud in class.
One class after stumbling through “The Hare and the Tortoise,” I decided enough was enough. The next week, while we sped up the 280, a furious fight with father ensued. When we arrived at Chinese school my face was blotchy with tears in front of the eight-year-olds. How many embarrassments could I stand?Love was not a feeling I had towards this history, it was an act that was made through language.
I thought my argument to my father to be, above all, simple: learning Chinese was difficult. There are over 50,000 Chinese characters; you need to know about 8,000 to be considered fluent. That is the memorization of 8,000 characters, stroke by stroke. A single stroke off-kilter or two dashes instead of one is enough to render a character incomprehensible. There is no alphabet. There are no shortcuts. I’d like to present that it was reasonable I preferred to spend my afternoons licking hot Cheeto dust off my fingers. My father finally capitulated before my insurmountable incompetence, but it wasn’t without a foreboding warning that I’d regret my decision. At that, I scoffed.
It’s a testament to my father’s magnanimity that he never said I told you so. In my early twenties, I moved to Beijing. I’d given up on my plan until then, to be an economist, and wasn’t quite sure what came next. An adventure in China seemed as fine an idea as any. In my early days in Beijing, I felt ridiculed, by everyone from my relatives to waiters who, after their confusion at my poor Chinese was settled, would call their colleagues to come take a look at me, this curious specimen of warped identity.
There were many other Chinese Americans I knew in Beijing who had Chinese worse than mine and felt few qualms about it. I was only singular in the strength of my desire to feel accepted.A single stroke off-kilter or two dashes instead of one is enough to render a character incomprehensible. There is no alphabet. There are no shortcuts.
I began a practice of waking up when the sky was lightening, the only sounds the low churn of industrious laborers pedaling towards pre-dawn shifts. Each week I picked ten new characters or phrases, and each morning I copied them out thirty times each. My strokes were thick and wobbly, all awkward and angular apprehensions rather than the fluid and confident scrawls of my Chinese peers.
In Katie Kitamura’s Intimacies, the narrator, an interpreter at the Hague, reflects, “Interpretation can be profoundly disorienting, you can be so caught up in the minutiae of the act … that you do not necessarily apprehend the sense of the sentences themselves: you literally do not know what you are saying.” Something similar was happening when I copied the characters. The motions of my hand outstripped my consciousness and intention. I could only see one stroke at a time, had no idea of what compiled shape into which it might cohere. And yet, as Kitamura’s narrator notes, “something did seep out.”
The next time I came upon that particular order of pen strokes on a highway sign or text message, I would recognize it. As if I had, in those accumulations of mornings and motions, managed an inscription upon the mind, etched something into my knowing. The Chinese characters, devoid of my thought, untied to syntax, were not language, but they made language. I was meeting language at its most elemental place.
This is the era in which we speak about the importance of the body, of escaping the realm of thinking in favor of our body’s more primitive intuition of what is best for us. I am a naturally anxious person who has never been able to fully turn off my own mind to experience the benefits of meditation or yoga. The closest I’ve traveled to the promised land of embodiment is when I copied those characters every morning.The motions of my hand outstripped my consciousness and intention. I could only see one stroke at a time, had no idea of what compiled shape into which it might cohere.
As I became fluent, I felt the border between myself and the city around me dissolving. Moments of belonging came upon me in pulsing flashes, a sensation of porousness with the world that I’d never experienced in America. I had never been the kind to agonize much over if I, of Chinese background, belonged in America—or so I thought. The truth my body told me was different.
Still, I could not say that the city completely absorbed me or that I was a member of its mass, partly because I don’t think Beijing’s natives experienced the wonder, nor the awe, that I did. A simple overheard conversation or a joke plastered on a shop window was enough to send me into a tizzy of delight. I felt like a child, for whom there were still firsts to be found in the everyday, and thus the mundane transformed itself into the numinous and significant.
When I returned to the US two years later, to Charlottesville, Virginia. I had never been around fewer Chinese people in my life. Sometimes I would go to the town’s generically “Asian” grocery mart just to hear snatches of Chinese spoken around me and be filled with useless longing. It was out of this longing that I began writing A Map for the Missing. I set the book in two historical eras in rural China, the late 1970s and early 1990s, and the plot touches on sociopolitical phenomenon of that time in the Cultural Revolution, Reform and Reopening periods, and the Sent-Down Youth.
There was no shortage of English-language research written on these periods, but instead I chose Chinese sources, particularly memoirs—partly because it was a way to be, again, with the language I missed, partly because I felt ambivalence over writing about these eras I couldn’t claim. I hadn’t lived through them myself, and being Chinese American, growing up in a country of warm and ensconced global privilege, was a far cry from being Chinese. If I were to traverse the border between that history and my own, to deem myself worthy of writing it, then I had to do it by walking across the line of language. Words that a Chinese-English dictionary may have told me meant the same thing were in fact containers for some ineffable difference.
As writers have always known, the way we say things matters. When we learn a new language, we may expand our notion about what truths can exist in the world, and that truth finds its way into our writing. I wanted to get as close to the truth of that world and that time as I could manage, and I could not do that by reading in English.
My research process would have been much easier if I’d stuck to English sources; I probably doubled or even tripled the time it took because I had to constantly consult a dictionary to understand the memoirs, which were often written in flowery and formal prose.The Chinese characters, devoid of my thought, untied to syntax, were not language, but they made language. I was meeting language at its most elemental place.
As a child, my primary complaint with Chinese had been its tediousness, but now the tedium was the point. Reading the memoirs in their original language was worth the time because it was a form of testimony to those who came before me. So, too, spending hours copying the same character over and over, paying attention to the order of the strokes, I had acknowledged the history of the language. To me, this comes close to a positive definition of what tradition means: honoring what has been done before us, simply for the fact that the people we come from and the process deserve honoring.
I have often heard it said that love is the antidote to shame. If shame is what I felt then at how few characters I knew, my accented speech, my distance from my own history; then love is what I felt when I translated the words to understand those stories. Love was not a feeling I had towards this history, it was an act that was made through language.
Something amazing that happened as I was learning Chinese for the second time was how quickly it came to me, miles faster than any of my peers. In the Chinese class I was taking then, I skipped three grade-levels at one time (take that, hare!). To me, the explanation was simple. Long before I was a delinquent Chinese school student, Chinese was my first language. So I was not learning a language anew, I was simply excavating what had always been there.
If there was something elemental and formative about how that first language remained with me, then it is not a stretch to believe it also runs beneath the way I write, an animus that leads me to choose one word after the next, which drapes the forms of syntax over sentence. The Chinese words were not easy on my tongue at first, but they revealed they’d been a part of me, and would continue to be, a buried treasure that I found and only showed its true value in a different age. It was a mystery as to how they’d stayed with me all along.
In that way, learning the language again was not unlike the act of writing fiction itself. Sometimes I wish that its mechanisms could be unveiled more easily and discretely—that strong characterization could simply be a matter of adding more details of the person’s clothing, for example—but that is not the reality, of working hopelessly on a chapter for months and months, ready to give up until finding on one otherwise ordinary morning that suddenly a character suddenly jumps off the page and has the flavor of real life. This is what makes writing fiction both infuriating and stunning, and I would not trade its secrets for ease. They are why I continue to write, these revelations of the new and what I did not know I already knew, my knowing brain and secret heart both.
A Map for the Missing by Belinda Huijuan Tang is available from Penguin Press