English and my Identity Crisis
“Please spell the word ‘special,’” the substitute teacher, with a dictionary as thick as an obese brick in her hands, looked up at me from the margins of her glasses.
I stood half frozen in front of the white board, obviously struggling with a wave of panic that was growing thicker in my throat. I looked down at the brownish-red carpet on the floor to avoid her stare. In the mean time, I was quickly arranging several letters that could be part of the word “special” in my head and trying to find the version that seemed most “normal” to me.
“She’s from China,” a voice said from the back of the room, “and she has trouble spelling certain words.”
“Well then she’s gotta learn how to spell them,” the substitute teacher answered firmly. Then she decided to give me one more shot. “Would you at least just try to spell it? I mean, you can spell it out the way it sounds,” she slowed her pacing as if she were unsure whether or not I could understand her.
Still unsure of the correct spelling, I slowly exhaled, releasing one letter at a time in a helpless sense as if those letters were autumn leaves falling from a tree, “s-p-e-c-i-l-e…special.”
The room was dead silent. I only remember feeling relieved that there was no sudden burst of laughter coming from my classmates. Perhaps they felt uneasy to watch me being “bullied” in such an awkward situation.
“I’m sorry but your answer is wrong,” the substitute teacher finally let out the sentence that she had been withholding at the edge of her tongue. I quietly walked to the back of the room.
It was my first time attending school abroad. It was also my first time in the United States. Although I had been learning English for a few years back in China, I still struggled quite hard to fit in when I began my new episode in life at Edwin D. Smith Elementary School in the beautiful community of Oakwood in Dayton, Ohio. Other than the embarrassing incident that happened during a pre-Spelling Bee contest in my Language and Arts class, there were still many challenges like reciting “We the people of the United States...” in Social Studies and reading flow charts about the ecosystem of a pond in Science. Fortunately, I still had Math as a friend who brought me the warmest touch of familiarity and security, as long as the problems were written in mathematical expressions. Art, Music, and P.E. were also manageable: I was either busy with colors or I only had to follow what the others where doing when I couldn’t quite understand what was going on. I also had Spanish lessons, but just like what my Spanish teacher told me on day one, my priority was to learn English.
I received much help and care at Smith, and I tried very hard to make progress because I wanted to avoid getting caught up in situations where people would instantly find out that I did not belong in the community. Surely and gradually, my English improved. I learned to sign my letters to Mrs. Snyder (my Language and Arts teacher) in a daily journal with appropriate phrases such as “sincerely” or “best regards” instead of a sloppy translation of “happy everyday.” I got rid of my weird Chinese-British accent and picked up a more natural American one. I learned to say, “what’s up” and “how are things going” instead of sticking to the classic “how are you.” I caught myself saying “awesome” more frequently, putting much emphasis on the first syllable to sound like my peers instead of quietly muttering “good” or “cool.” I felt like a sponge in a realm where English was the language that ruled; I was always attentive to anything new about the language and I was eager to absorb all of them. I guess there was a part of me that refused to accept defeat caused by the language barrier. Even though I was aware that making progress required much effort and was very challenging, deep down I knew I needed to master the language to be able to fit in: I was one door away from wonderful friendships and amazing achievements, and English was the key.
And later on I realized it was not just about making progress in English learning. Nor was it only about trying to fit in. As I became more fluent in English, it felt as if something had taken hold of me, crawled underneath my skin, and started to grow in my soul. It was something that urged me to volunteer by shooting my hand up high when Mrs. Andrews (my homeroom teacher) asked for someone to raise the Star-Spangled Banner out on the front lawn of our school or to bring the flag back into the classroom and carefully fold it into a triangular pile. It was something that urged me to stand solemnly every Monday morning to pledge allegiance with my hand to my heart. It was something that made me spend an entire day at home just so I memorized the names, locations and capitals of all fifty states of America. It was something that made me feel proud of the Freedom of Speech and the victory of the Revolutionary War. I kept the melody of the American National Anthem to my heart. I believed in ideas like “a big melting-pot” as well as “liberty and justice for all.”
When I was fluent in English, I felt American.
It was a typical weekday afternoon at the Wright Library. As usual, Christoph brought tasty white cheese sticks and a box of colorful Fruit Loops . There was also one thing that he was happy about: his new red pencil case. To me it looked more like an ordinary plastic container. But if he decided to have an oversized pencil case and was pleased with it, I figured it was better not to argue with him.
We each stacked our textbooks and binders onto the round wooden table. I was about to start on my math homework but couldn’t help watching him open and close his “pencil box” over and over again.
“I’d better write my name on it,” he began to dig for a Sharpie in his bag.
“Good idea,” I replied. So that even when it grew legs and ran away, someone can bring it back to you.
Interestingly, Christoph started by drawing a line right in the middle of his “pencil box.” It probably took a thousand years before he finished neatly printing “高野 ...” onto the left side of the line. He pulled his head away from the table and stared for a while, then added “Japanese” in parentheses below his name. He swayed his hands back and forth above the newly written Sharpie marks to make sure that the ink of the Sharpie would dry soon enough so that the letters would not become blurry if he accidentally placed his hands on them. His face was so serious that I almost laughed aloud.
“What’s next? Will you draw your favorite Pokémon on the right side?”
He threw a tough look at me, “You’ll see.”
So I looked away and waited. When I glanced back, the words on the right side of the line read: Christoph Cikraji, American. I smiled and admitted that it was a brilliant idea. When he was satisfied and moved on to do his homework, I decided that it was my turn to show off my Chinese name.
I looked at my pencil case and was disappointed because it was not big enough for me to write my “two identities.” Then I flipped open my math notebook to a blank page and convinced myself to settle for this alternative. I asked for his Sharpie and drew a line in the middle. I carefully printed “毛麒雅 ” on the left side of the line, added “Chinese” in parentheses below and waited.
Christoph asked in disbelief, “You’re using Sharpie to do your homework?”
I shot a tough look at him, “You’ll see.”
I braced myself as if I was creating a masterpiece. Holding my breath, I slowly printed “Kaye Mao” on the right side of the line.
Then it was when the panic hit me. I had written half of a parenthesis when I realized I could not write “American” under “Kaye Mao”: I wasn’t American.
I only spoke English. I only had an English name. But I wasn’t American.
Having this epiphany was like opening a can of worms. It felt like having something ripped out of me. And as soon as it was out, it was gone like dust in the wind. There was no way to pin it down because it had never existed: I have always had only one identity, and it had never been an American one. It felt as if English had cheated me: I knocked at its door and asked for shelter; it hugged me, patted me on the back, then pushed me away. And once again I was alone, a hopeless stray out in the rain.
At that time, it seemed as if everything had fallen apart. After realizing that being fluent in a language was not equivalent to having a new identity the hard way, I was again only a foreigner--or an interloper, to be more precise--in the United States of America. It was analogous to a potential tragic experience of a refugee, who was happy to receive official documents that granted him or her a new identity and later discovered the whole thing was just a prank. Once a somebody, now a nobody. To the ten-year-old me, English was a thieve who ruthlessly took my "American identity" away from me and caused me to feel misplaced again.
I can’t quite recall when I decided to forgive English for “robbing” me of my illusionary American identity. Perhaps the crisis happened too long ago that I simply forgot to care. But I guess the reason why I reconciliated with English is that it has given me another identity to compensate for my “loss.” And fortunately, this identity is not a fake: I am a cultural ambassador of China ready to establish connections all around the world. I am a door away from creating bridges that stretch to link different cultures, and English is the key.
Throughout time, the function of language has not changed. It promotes communication and eliminates barriers that block contact and impede understanding. And being able to speak English can help me do just that. Even better, it grants me unlimited potential and more identities to discover.
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