Never Learnt to Speak
August 13, 2015
When my mom dropped me off on my first day of Kindergarten at Mesa Robles Elementary School, I spoke 12 words of English: my first and last name and the numbers one through ten. I suppose I actually knew 14. The 12, plus “Hacienda Heights,” the city where we lived. But that was it. Days before school started, my parents drilled me on English. What is your name? Hacienda Heights. How old are you? Jonathan Chang. Hmm… Let’s try one more time…
My Taiwanese parents spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese at home. So for the first 4 years of my life, that was all I spoke too. When I confronted my parents about all this years later, they both gave apologetic shrugs. “You were our first child. We didn’t know what we were supposed to do.” They had heard from a family friend that all a child had to know before starting Kindergarten was how to write their name, the alphabet, and the numbers one through ten. The point of school, after all, was to learn everything else.
To my parents’ credit, I believe they taught me how to write our telephone number down. Just in case I got lost but managed to bump into a kind stranger walking around with a pencil and paper in hand.
I have a theory that one can survive in France with seven words of French: bonjour, merci, non, oui, bonsoir, bonne soirée. Plus nonverbal gestures, a smile, and the kindness/pity of the locals.
Prior to coming to France for a summer writing course, I’ve only ever been in two countries where I didn’t speak the language. In Japan, we had a tour guide and in Korea, I had several friends who acted as tour guides. The closest semblance to a tour guide I’ve had in France was wandering an outdoor market in Valence d’Agen with a stout, bald man named Francis. He exhibited unusual amounts of energy for a retiree and he gave us the inside scoop on local produce and baked goods. Turning and covering ones side of his mouth, he whispers, “See these macarons? They might look good but they taste like absolute shiiiitttt.” Though the tour only lasted one hour, I liked our guide.
I did not like my Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Baker.
I do remember liking one of the class helpers who was much older and wiser and in middle school. I can’t remember his name but he had glasses and dark hair. He slipped Pokemon cards under the table to students when we did a good job with reading and writing. They weren’t rare or even moderately valuable Pokemon but they were gestures of good will. I did not feel any good will from Mrs. Baker.
Mrs. Baker wanted us to write our names in booklets. On the first week of school, we received our first reading booklet. It had a light blue cover on the outside and it was about blue jays. I carefully started on the back of the book. I was a slow writer and this was extra hard and extra slow work because the glossy finish wasn’t a good surface for pencil. But I finally succeeded in writing “Jonathan Chang,” and I marched triumphantly forward for affirmation. Anger flashed across Mrs. Baker’s face when I showed her my book. Her piercing eyes narrowed and she yelled, “No, the inside cover!” She rammed her finger at where my name should have gone. “You’ve ruined the book!” I slumped back to my seat.
I saw the blacksmith one weekend in Auvillar’s main square. He looked oddly in place, his anvil chained to a giant stump sitting on the cobblestone ground by the ancient Roman grain hall. A fire danced on a bed of hot coals as he stoked the flames with a hand crank.
He was a round boulder, forearms as thick as young trees, wrists and hands just as sturdy. A clean bright blue denim overall covered his grey t-shirt and lower body and cradled his round belly. Greying hair and a widow’s peak framed his round head, clean-shaven skin, sleepy eyes, and black smudges above each cheekbone. There was something about him that felt familiar, though I couldn’t pinpoint it. He didn’t smile but he existed and worked so serenely and contentedly. I wanted that too.
He casually brushed burning coals with his bare hand onto a heating iron rod. He pulled the rod out, glowing orange and hammered it on the anvil before bending the end into a spiral. I watched transfixed for a while before I began looking at his work— large iron grates, small three dimensional sculptures, and flat wall decorations shaped like into cowboys and animals. I wanted so badly to express that I liked his work, that I liked him. I picked out an ornament made of flat metal sheet. It was the length of a shoe and shaped into a boar. Like its creator, it looked gruff but cheerful and strangely cute. The blacksmith seemed surprised and smiled when I paid him for the boar. I wanted to ask if he liked being a blacksmith and where he learned his trade. Questions swirled and built up in my gut. Do you have a family? Children? Grandchildren? Are you happy? I hope you’re happy. But all I could do was have the furniture designer translate that I liked his work and put my arm around his broad back after he agreed to take a picture together.
The blacksmith made me really happy and I hoped he understood that. But I still felt the heartbreak of our inability to truly connect because of language. I could smile all day, buy 20 boar ornaments, and take a hundred pictures but it would never be enough to close that separation between us.
Mrs. Baker soon divided the class into kids who were doing well and kids who weren’t. Every day, she read and talked to kids who were doing well as they sat on a rug in the classroom area. I got to peer across the classroom at the other kids while I sat in my chair. I was the only person at my table.
I dreaded going to school. School made me sad and scared and very alone. I did not show Mrs. Baker my work. I did not want to speak to her. It was frustrating to speak fluidly at home and at church but at school become completely voiceless.
Seeing my classmates and myself struggle with French made me think back to the previous summer, when I studied in Beijing. Because of the program’s Language Pledge, we were only allowed to speak Mandarin.
Second-years ignored the Pledge out of necessity and survival. They needed to eat, after all. Fifth-years ignored the Pledge out of arrogance. They were here to learn Classical Chinese, which likely fed into their elitism. But to a fourth-year like me, the Pledge was realistic and my vehicle to Mandarin fluency. But regardless of language ability, the Pledge forced us to treasure expression.
I spent a fair amount of time in Beijing pitying the second-years, who knew the least amount of Mandarin. So much of a second-year’s summer is spent keeping afloat that friendships were often a matter of utility. I saw this scenario over and over. A group of second-years, broken Mandarin, nonverbal cues, reading eyes: Oh, you’re trying to get food too? We should become friends. We should all become friends.
I also struggled to voice my inner thoughts. Every day, students had an hour with a personal tutor. I spent many of those hours in silence, eyes closed tightly shut, fist clenched against my forehead as I tried to squeeze my thoughts out as Mandarin sentences. I stumbled and stammered and translated from my English words. I couldn’t wait to use English again.
Yet when I returned to Yale, I realize that English was really no better. Though I could speak in sentences faster and recite information cleaner, I was still translating. This time it was from the language of my thoughts. My English felt far too slow and disjointed to keep up.
Three weeks into my first semester back from China, I dropped a discussion seminar. I quit and told my professor the class just wasn’t for me. I told my friends it’s because it was at 9:25 in the morning. I told my parents it was because I wasn’t interested in the subject. But it was really because I started stuttering while presenting in class one day and after that I could no longer bring myself to raise my hand to speak.
I let all the other kids cut in front of me in line. I wrote so slowly that I couldn’t keep up with the lessons. I did not talk. My Kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Baker, did not think I was mature enough to start school.
Mrs. Baker told my mom that she didn’t think I should be in the normal class. She wanted me in the ESL section. My mom, who has always been my loudest advocate, wanted her son with the rest of the kids. She spent $60 for an oral assessment that could quantifiably prove that I could stay in the class.
My mom wasn’t sure if I would speak to the interviewer during the assessment. So right before, she told me that the test was for muteness. You have to talk, my mother said, because otherwise, they might think you can’t talk at all. I don’t remember the test. But I passed. I’m not sure if my mom worried during this time. She must have, because she worries about everything. She was so proud of her son, who at 18 months, started repeating everything the Taiwanese preacher said on the pulpit. Who, by 22 months, memorized in Mandarin the 23rd Psalm, word for word. Who, before the age of two, spoke in complete sentences and would not and could not stop talking at everyone around him. She must have worried. Because now the only time he talked outside the house was if she tricked him into it.
I’m not sure where or what I would be without my mom’s worry. A couple weeks after the test, she became a volunteer in Mrs. Baker’s class to help me. She made sure I didn’t let all the other kids cut in front of me in line. She made sure I kept up with the lessons. I started to talk. I don’t remember the rest of kindergarten, but I passed.
My mother nurtured me past elementary school, middle school, high school. She even convinced me that a school like Yale would actually consider accepting a timid, Utah public-school kid. She sustained me all the way into this summer, before my final year at Yale.
This summer, my professor’s mother asked me why I decided to come to France and study travel writing. “I’m a bad storyteller. I can’t do it.” But there was much more, though I didn’t know quite how to express it.
I wanted to prove to myself that I could tell a story. I also wanted to find a voice. Any voice. Not speaking the language of a place was frustrating. But even my fluency in English had its limits. Because what I got to say is not what I wanted to say. And what I wanted to say still wasn’t what I needed to say.
Writing is a struggle but I realized I didn’t need to be brave to write. Just open enough for a millisecond to silently jot something down. And just disciplined enough to keep revisiting the words. I could respond on my own time, take days before replying. I could say things— brave things— that I couldn’t yet speak in any tongue.
In a better world, language won’t separate two minds. I’ll have to endure and write until then. For now, I am content in trying to transmit my innermost thoughts across the rift, content in hoping that someone on the other side will receive them and understand.