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  • Writer's pictureLisa

Initials and Finals: We’re in School!

Our textbooks

Well, I’ve officially lost my mind. Or I will at some point in the next nine months. Alison and I have enrolled in Chinese language school, which meets every Sunday from 2-4 p.m. I’m not sure which is more frightening: learning Chinese, or learning it for two hours on a Sunday. I do love our instructor, Ms. Lucy, but she has already recognized my complete lack of tonality and inability to contort my tongue and mouth to form essential Mandarin sounds. As we were practicing our initials and finals (the first and last part of a word put together to…make a word!), she would occasionally whirl around to face me and shake her head. “Please say again,” she would request as she stepped closer to watch my mouth move. On average, it took three tries for me to get it right, and even then I think she was being gracious.

Alison has begged to do this for months. I tried to find her a private tutor, but it was just too expensive. So we found language lessons at the Agape Chinese Church in Broken Arrow. Who knew? Now it becomes clear why Alison was so adamant that I take the classes with her. Sometimes what a ten-year-old really needs is to see her mother humbled. Alison, of course, is able to hit the right tone pitch perfect and her pronunciation is strangely flawless for an American kid. Maybe she’s retained some memory from her first year of life and all those Mandarin sounds and tones are coming back to her. Or the more likely reason: her brain is young. But I’ve promised to stop whining about being too old to learn this. It’s a cop-out, I know, and one that Ms. Lucy is NOT going to buy. I can already tell that our instructor is expecting me to actually begin to speak this language. And yes, I would love that too, but I’m not holding out for the day when Alison and I chatter in Mandarin together. The best I may be able to hope for is to sing Happy Birthday or count to ten together, and those occasions will roll around infrequently.

So why am I doing this?

There is something deeply gratifying about seeing your Chinese child beg to learn the language of her birth country. Her desire was probably fueled by our trip to China where she stood silent when the Chinese would walk up to her and begin speaking in Mandarin, but the initial desire was there. She IS Chinese and she will never be able to pretend otherwise. I want her to embrace who she is – an American girl who was born in China. I don’t want her to turn her back on those identities because she will never escape either of them. The duality can be both maddening and heartening, but to be at peace with who she is has always been one of my prayers for her. Seeing her desire to learn Mandarin gives me hope that she is also working toward making peace with both identities. And dare I say, she seems proud to sit in that classroom and watch Ms. Lucy help the struggling white woman who can’t pronounce pinyin to save her life. I see them together and I am reminded that my daughter has another country and culture that belong to her. I’m going to hang with this language thing because someday someday she will return to China and people will once again walk up to her and speak to her in Mandarin. I want her to be able to talk to and share stories with the people of her birth country. I want her to feel like she is one of them, because she is.

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