Imperfect in Both Worlds: A Literacy Narrative

Daisy Lu, Layout Editor

As I stared down at the SHSAT practice test in my hands, I had to restrain myself from ripping it to pieces. The jumble of words that form a passage on the page make no sense to my mind, despite trying my best to concentrate. The clock was ticking behind me, and I had yet to finish the first set of questions. My hands started sweating, and my brain started to feel numb. But this feeling wasn’t foreign. I’d always hated English because, compared to my other academic subjects, I was leagues behind. It was only until I started learning Mandarin, I hadn’t realized how much I was taking advantage of my ability to simply read and write.

I’ve grown up in a strict family where academics take precedence over everything else. With both of my parents being immigrants from China, they take the idea of the “American dream” very seriously. 

“We didn’t move here for nothing,” they  say. “If you want to succeed in the future, you have to get good grades.” 

They want me to carry on their success, starting in school. So, I’ve consistently worked hard for straight A’s since I was in kindergarten. And, time after time, I would succeed. On math tests, my eyes would  immediately be drawn to that familiar 100 in the big red circle. My report card would all be in the high 90s, up until English Language Arts. All 98’s until a 90 that catches my eye. My dislike for English only grew more when it came time to apply for high school. To prepare for the SHSAT and ISEE, I took test prep every single day. But my hope grew slim as I could barely finish the English sections within the time limit, much less have good accuracy. As the days drew closer to the exam, my stress only heightened with the fear of failing, and my body remained tense, glued to my seat after school every day, doing every possible practice test on the internet. But, time after time, my English section would remain my problem, lurking in the 70s as if it couldn’t go higher than that. I could only view English as the subject that destroyed my academics, the only thing that told me I wasn’t smart enough.

My mother is fluent in many languages, which quite frankly, only made me feel worse about myself. I couldn’t even excel in the only language that I could actually speak. My mother grew up in Fuzhou, China, until the age of 12, when she immigrated to the U.S. In Fuzhou, she learned that specific village dialect called Fuzhounese. She also learned Mandarin in school because it’s more widely used. She’s always told me how much she struggled with learning English when she was younger. Yet, even so, her English remains impeccable. Then, when she met my father, she realized that his family only speaks Cantonese. So, my mother took it upon herself to learn Cantonese as well. That being said, you can imagine how ecstatic she was when I asked her to teach me Mandarin in which she could display her talented ability. 

I had to choose my 9th grade courses in the spring of this year, one of which was a foreign language. I didn’t want to face yet another language with the possibility of further disapproval from my mother. A month before the end of eighth grade, I had to make the difficult decision of taking a different language or studying all of Mandarin I over the summer to begin Mandarin II. Learning an entire school year’s worth of work over the course of two and a half months was not easy, but of course, I challenged myself. I’ve been exposed to the language a lot throughout my childhood: my mother sometimes slips some Mandarin or Cantonese into her English conversations. So, I understand basic sentences when people speak to me, and I can somewhat speak back. But, I didn’t know how to read or write Mandarin at all. I thought it would be hard at first and slowly get easier as I got used to it, but I was terribly wrong; it was quite the opposite actually. I started out strong: I remembered everything in the first 3 or so lessons. However, I realized by the 5th lesson or so, as I learned more characters, I started forgetting the ones I had just learned a week before. My brain could not hold that much information in the span of a few weeks. But, let’s go back to when it started.

I’m sitting at the dining room table on a rainy day for the first lesson of Mandarin. The chandelier above me is dim and flickering, and my mother sits across from me. It’s the first week of summer vacation and I’m already dreading it. I stare at the textbook in front of me, its words piercing my eyes, waiting for me to read them. I see unfamiliar strokes that form unfamiliar characters, hurting my head.

“I can’t do this right now,” I say, walking into the bathroom. When I lock the door, I sigh, and put my forehead against the wall. 

Through the door, I hear the muffled sound of my mother’s voice, scolding me, saying, “We just started. You can’t give up yet.” 

I spend another minute or so in the bathroom before walking back out. The textbook still remains open, waiting for me to use it, waiting to teach me.

For the first few lessons, I felt very uncomfortable speaking Mandarin. It didn’t feel right to speak words that were barely coherent to me. However, over time, I started to become more comfortable speaking it with my mother coaching me. It gave me the satisfaction of succeeding in something, encouraging and motivating me to continue talking. For a while, it was going okay, maybe even pretty well. I grasped onto most ideas pretty easily and quickly. But, starting around lesson 5, everything started going downhill as if I was back to the beginning. I had to learn around 30 new characters per week. I had to memorize every intricate detail. I practiced and practiced, but it seemed like no matter how much I wrote each character, none would stick in my mind. It became a point where all the characters simply looked the same to me, just a combination of horizontal and vertical strokes. On top of this, summer was nearing an end. So, with my time limited, it put even more pressure on me to finish all 7 lessons before school starts. This reminded me of the last couple weeks before my standardized tests. It felt like the burden on me couldn’t be lifted until I had accomplished my goal. I wanted to give up. I was worn out. Back in lesson 1, when my mind was fresh without any characters, I could memorize them in a breeze. But, as I built my vocabulary, it’s as if the new ones slowly replaced the old ones in my brain. 

It’s now 8:30 p.m.. It’s dark outside already, reminding me of how the summer is so quickly coming to an end. The mid-August chilling breeze flows in through the window, cracked open a couple inches. Despite the wind sending a shiver down my spine, my hands start becoming sweaty again, an indication of my nervousness. It’s my least favorite part of the week: the end-of-lesson Mandarin quiz every Sunday evening after dinner. My mother sits in her usual seat across from me, reminding me of when I sat down for my first lesson, which felt like yesterday. She starts giving me sentences to translate in which I’m required to write down in Chinese. My hand shakes as I try to wrack through my memory for how to write specific characters. My breathing becomes uneven, and I start to question if I even studied at all. I think of my diminishing hope, the same exact feeling: practice test after practice test for the ISEE. I can’t bear to look my mother in the eye as I hand her the paper, knowing I didn’t do well, knowing I failed her and myself. Not only have I failed her in English, but also in her own language, my family’s own language. I watch as her eyes scan over my paper. She shakes her head, seemingly making a million red marks. She keeps her mouth shut as she abruptly flips the paper over and hands me another. I’m now told to make a sentence out of the words she gives me. This isn’t any better. I begin openly expressing my aggravation halfway through the second section. It frustrates me that I can’t express my thoughts as clearly as I want to in Mandarin. I know what I want to write, but I can’t come up with the correct words. This makes me realize one thing. I never had this problem in English. I could always express my thoughts in one way or another. That was a success for me. After realizing how hard it was to simply learn a language, I started appreciating my English abilities, something I never did before. I always condemned the way my reading comprehension grades lacked, but being able to process thoughts and ideas quickly was something I hadn’t achieved yet in Mandarin. My thoughts are interrupted by my mother’s snap of her fingers, drawing my attention back to the problem at hand. 

“You’re not focusing. How do you expect to do good? If you continue like this, you will fail Mandarin in school,” my mother’s stern voice tells me. Her face shows no emotion. 

As my mother finishes grading my end-of-lesson quiz, she calls me over to review. I take my steps slowly, dragging out the time, dreading the results. My mother stares at me as I come to sit in front of her. 

“Let me ask you this: how do you think you did?” I don’t know how to respond. My mouth remains shut. She takes a deep breath and exhales, as if this was physically hurting her. 

“I think I know what your problem is,” she tells me. 

“What is it?” I ask, eagerly.

“If you tell yourself you hate something, you’re never going to be interested in learning about it. You’re making this harder on yourself.” 

“What kind of advice is that?” I exclaim. Mind tricks are not going to help me become better at Mandarin.

“Do you want to improve or not? I’m going to let you redo this quiz, and only this time, because you’ve never done this badly before. I’ll give you this week to review lesson 6,” she says, remaining stoic.

So, as I sat down to do my sixth Mandarin lesson for the second time, I didn’t think about how I could barely memorize how to write any characters. Instead, I thought about how I actually liked the feeling of knowing how to write something new, how the combination of different lines can make a whole different word. By thinking about how much I have improved over the course of the summer, I realized how much I learned, and it pushed me to want to learn even more so that when my family went out, I could start recognizing characters on signs and menus, etc. Each time my mother tested me at the end of a lesson, getting a correct answer encouraged me, which luckily happened more often than getting an incorrect answer. 

I confidently turned in my redo of my lesson 6 Mandarin quiz. I see my mother put check marks on almost every question as she moves down the paper. When she’s done, she looks back up at me, then down at the paper, and back up at me again.

“Don’t ever say you can’t do this. Because you can. This shows it. You don’t just give up when things get hard. Had you had the same mindset last week, we wouldn’t have wasted this week redoing the lesson.”

I roll my eyes. Unfortunately, I proved her point correct. But above that, perhaps that was my problem to begin with. If I thought that my English was horrible just from test grades and that it would never have any use, I would continue to hate it and not want to improve. Simply thinking of the satisfying feeling I get when I succeed was enough to push me to actual success. 

In the nonfiction narrative essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan builds on a central theme that people are judged based on their language ability. Throughout her childhood, she has been exposed to disrespect and prejudice towards her mother, Mrs. Tan. Mrs. Tan’s English lacks the proper grammar and is described by many as “broken” and with “limited” vocabulary. Therefore, everywhere she went, people did not take her seriously and would take advantage of her inability to argue back or express her thoughts. I can relate to this in quite literally the opposite way. Instead of being judged on my second language, I was judged for not knowing how to speak my native language. Whenever my family goes over to my maternal grandparents’ house, I can’t help but feel the shame of not being able to communicate with my own grandparents. When they speak to me, all I can do is nod or shake my head like a lost puppy. It doesn’t help that my cousin, who is only 6 months older than me, knows fluent Mandarin. They often compare me to her, and while they don’t realize it, their actions tell me all that I need to know: she’s a lot more talented than me. This only further supported Tan’s point that no matter who you are, people tend to think highly or lowly of you depending on how easily you can communicate with them. My own grandparents condemn me just because I don’t speak the language they expect me to. They assume I’m not smart enough to learn another language, or that I’m not dedicated enough. This reminds me of the shame that Mrs. Tan goes through when she can’t speak good English. The judgmental looks on people’s faces, like those of the waiters when I can’t order in Chinese, burn through my head. Learning Mandarin meant more to me than just being able to be bilingual. It meant proving others wrong, that I am worthy, just like how Amy Tan proved her teachers wrong, all the people who told her she couldn’t be a writer as an Asian-American. 

Now, as I stare at my writing, maybe I don’t hate English anymore. After all, I formed a piece out of a bunch of letters and strokes. What used to be a useless combination of words on an SHSAT practice test now became a way to communicate my thoughts. After realizing the challenge of learning a language, I started appreciating English and the fact that I was even fluent in a language. Just being able to understand this language is a whole talent in and of itself, much less using the correct grammar, having the correct pronunciation, or having a wide range of vocabulary. It has also come to me how much we rely on language and don’t even realize it, taking our ability to read and write for granted. It would be so hard to survive without it considering literacy is everywhere around us, including signs on roads and tags on store products. It is the connection between one human and another. We’re so used to reading texts every day and responding with the keyboard like second nature. But, we don’t consider the brain power needed to formulate your thoughts into coherent sentences. I don’t think of my English as “bad” anymore. I think of it as a way to share my mind with others.


Works Cited

Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Berkeley: The Threepenny Review, 1990. Print.