A Deeply Personal Journey of Learning Mandarin (Part I)

Note: There has been a lot that’s been going on in the adoptee community lately and I plan on covering more of those topics in the near future. At the moment, I don’t have a lot of emotional space right now to cover some of them, but those posts will be coming soon.

Many times learning languages are seen as an opportunity to explore cultures, as a means of necessity, and as part of a well-rounded education. As an adoptee, learning other languages was always something that I struggled with, especially given my feelings surrounding Mandarin.

Previously I took Mandarin in middle school, but I didn’t retain much of the language afterwards. During high school, I didn’t choose Mandarin as my foreign language requirement, but instead opted for German because of my mom’s side of the family. Mandarin, like many other languages, was omnipresent as something that “I might pursue in the future”; but it was never a priority. I ended up studying English during college, and now teach English as an adult. As an adoptee, I assimilated into the English language and consumed it with my fullest intent to become an expert in it. Ironically today, I still hold this same intention, as one of my goals is to complete a PhD in English while studying other forms of rhetoric in the field.

During college, I worked with several students on improving their English and writing skills, and I always was amazed at their ability to pick up English so quickly. I also admired their perseverance in learning how to write and speak English fluently, even at a university level. I unfortunately thought that I was “lucky” a times because I had grown up surrounded by English and was able to write and read the language at an advanced level. However, I soon realized that my desire to hold English so tightly to my identity was flawed, because I was missing out in “making meaning” through other languages and seeing more perspectives. Most importantly, I realized that going beyond English is part of my de-colonization process; as English is a very dominant and colonizing language throughout the world.

While this point keeps me aware and focused on de-colonizing my own studies and pedagogy in the field, I realized that I was missing a part of my roots by just studying English. When I thought about the languages that I wanted to learn in high school and college, I believed that Mandarin was “too challenging” and “too complex” to learn.

When I traveled to China in 2012, we always had a translator with us, and the group I traveled with were primarily Chinese adoptees. When people on the street spoke to us, I’d feel a little ashamed of not knowing the language, but I would just play it off as something that I had to experience as an adoptee. In other spaces in the United States, I’ve also been approached and expected to know Mandarin or Cantonese; and when I am not able to speak it, I have felt a sense of shame.

My shame of not knowing the language is deeply rooted in my identity as an adoptee. Not all adoptees feel close to their birth culture, but the majority of us will connect with it at some point of our lives. Recently, I was inspired by my partner, who is learning Amayra – an indigenous language of the Andes, to pursue learning Chinese. Although I am learning one of the most widely-spoken languages in the world, it feels like I’m learning a lot about myself in the process.

My pre-verbal memories still exist. I’m not an expert in language development, but I often wonder how my brain interprets different languages based on my experience hearing Mandarin before I was adopted.

Just starting has been the most difficult part of this journey. It’s about saying “I can” vs. “I can’t”. And it’s about searching for a language that was taken away from me through international adoption

I was worried about feeling shame about a language that I should already know. As an adoptee, I was also worried about being in a class with other people who would not understand the complex feelings I had surrounding this language.

But I began this journey anyway. With my teacher, we started from the very beginning with the simplest words and phrases.

After reaching out to a mutual connection, I found a teacher who was willing to be patient with me and who understood my need to connect with my roots. Even after just practicing for a month, I know that this was the right decision. Now, as an adult, I actually find it easier to learn the language than I did in middle school, since I can recognize syntax and language patterns.

Some day I hope to use Mandarin in China without a translator and to learn my own regional dialect. For anyone who is thinking of reconnecting to their roots through language, my only advice is to just start. Starting can bring feelings of shame, of incompetence, and be a scary endeavor, but I promise you that it is attainable when you have the desire (ganas).

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