The One Lie I Always Tell

I’m about to let you in on a little secret. Though I consider myself a fairly honest person, there is one lie I always tell.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

My moral compass is otherwise intact.

Many official documents demand the completion of a “native language” field. And, despite the fact that I was born in a Chinese-speaking environment, I always respond that my native language is English.

Let me tell you why.

~

I am what some sociologists call a 1.5 generation immigrant, indicating a person who immigrated to a foreign country before their early teens. In my case, I was born and raised in China for the first six years of my life; then, right before primary school, I immigrated to the United States with my parents.

Me in the '90s, when I was still fluent in Chinese and just learning to be 'Murican.

Me in the ’90s, when I was just learning to be ‘Murican.

I had come to the US knowing how to speak Chinese, but I had not learned how to read or write. Over the years, my command of Chinese further weakened as my parents and I communicated with each other in a patchwork of English and basic Chinese.

By third grade, I was taking out seven books a week – in English – from the local library. My fluency in English had far surpassed my previous knowledge of Chinese.

When I finally reached the age of filling out paperwork independently (a beautiful milestone in a young woman’s life), I regarded the “native language” field with confusion. Possibly, the following questions ran through my head, as they still do each time I see the field.

  • What does “native” mean? That means related to birth, right?
  • Does Chinese count as my native language if I don’t speak it well and don’t know how to read it or write in it? 
  • If I do say Chinese is my native language, will they try to contact me in Chinese?
  • If so, why don’t they use another term?

As it turns out, there isn’t a tidy phrase to describe a person’s language of greatest fluency. Both “native language” and “mother tongue” presume fluency in the language of birth — a sometimes false presumption.

Linguists deploy a different but still confusing term. “L1” might refer to one’s chronologically first language or one’s language of greatest fluency.

What do I write in this little white box?

What do I write in this little white box?

I have to admit, linguistic imprecision is one of my major pet peeves. It boggles my mind that with the number of immigrants in the US, we still don’t have the words to distinguish between a native language and the language of greatest fluency.

Some might see this distinction as inconsequential, but I don’t.

If I had answered honestly in my application to grad school that my native language is Chinese, I would have been required to take the TOEFL (the Test of English as a Foreign Language), most often required of international students applying to study in the US.

The application would not have provided an area to qualify my answer, for instance, with an explanation that I am no longer fluent in my native language or have taught English professionally for years.

As a result, I did what I always do when confronted with the field.

I lied.

~

I’m going to end here with a relevant snippet from the first Pokémon movie. In that great classic, the genetically engineered Pokémon Mewtwo says, “I see now that the circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.”

I would make a similar argument in the case of one’s native language relative to one’s language of fluency. While the two are usually the same, sometimes they’re not.

So let’s start asking the right questions.

At least, let’s reform our forms.

So glad that the '90s - and Pokémon! - are back.

So glad that the ’90s – and Pokémon! – are back.

 

Matryoshka Dolls

I don’t remember where I first learned about what I’ve come to think of as the “matryoshka doll” theory of personality. Most likely, a book introduced me to the idea by comparing a character’s personality to a set of Russian nesting dolls. The character at her oldest, wisest, most generous, and most morally developed was the largest nesting doll. But inside of that doll existed the person she was as an adolescent, as a six year old, and even as an infant.

matryoshka dolls

These.

Most of the time, the largest nesting doll was able to keep the little ones under control. But occasionally, one of the smaller dolls would slip out. This explained why people sometimes felt so small and so out of control. This also explained why, once in a while, an otherwise level-headed person could be reduced to tears over something ridiculously petty or trivial. According to this theory, we’re all walking around carrying other versions of ourselves inside. All it takes is a little twist of the waist and – pop – these other versions start acting out.

After a bit of clicking around, I found a Wikipedia article referring to this concept as “the hypostatic model of personality.” Whatever it’s called, it’s something I’ve been thinking about recently as I’ve begun teaching ESL in the afternoons. Even given a small class size with a 10 student maximum, I’ve found myself tapping into different versions of my personality in an attempt to connect with every student.

~

In many ways, I have a very easy class to work with. Most of the students range in age from their late teens to early twenties, so they’re used to being in a classroom environment. In addition, no two students come from the same country, which means I don’t have to wrestle with side chatter in a language other than English.

My biggest challenge is trying to meet the differing expectations of such a diverse group. Some students want to get through as much of the workbook as possible and learn as much new grammar or vocabulary as possible. Others want to dispense with the book entirely and simply jabber about everything under the sun. Still others are just trying to make it through the afternoon — the evening and New York City nightlife is what really interests them.

And perhaps this is the mark of a newbie teacher, but I want all of them to get what they want.

Who do you need me to be?

Who do you need me to be? Just let me dig through my wigs…

I want all of them to get what they want, and I want to be the teacher who delivers what they want. That’s the unvarnished and slightly embarrassing truth. Even though I realize I’m striving towards an impossible end, I nonetheless hope that each of them will leave – in some measure – satisfied.

I would love to satisfy the sweet, wide-eyed teenager who volunteers  all the answers. There is a part of me that has been in her shoes.

The totally lost and timid student: she recalls a part of me as well.

The haughty twenty-year-old with a hangover staring at her phone throughout class? Actually, I’ve been there too.

And I can easily imagine myself in circumstances similar to the forty-year old taking a break from work to travel and to study abroad.

following footsteps

Are you coming this way too?

Of course, I haven’t been in the exact shoes of any of these individuals; I can’t really know what they think or feel. Still, I try to relate and to adapt classroom activities accordingly.

At the end of the day, the proof of my efforts has been coming back to me in the form of student evaluations.

“The class was OK,” wrote some.

“It was good,” wrote others.

And then there was that one note. “Even though she is a new teacher, she has much capacities.”

(When I read that one, every version of me smiled.)

My Father’s ESL Teacher

During one of my breaks in college, while rummaging through boxes in my parents’ home, I made a surprising discovery. On the back of what looked to be a scrap piece of paper, I found a short text written by my father. It had been written for an ESL class he took in the ’90s, shortly after we moved to the US.

I could only guess what the writing prompt had been. Perhaps, “Write about regret.”

In the text, my father narrated the story of how child-me had asked my parents for piano lessons. Apparently, many of my Chinese-American peers at the time were already learning piano. Given our family’s precarious finances, however, he’d had to say “no.” He wrote about how deeply sad he’d felt denying his child.

Maybe I shouldn’t have been so surprised, but the text contradicted my own vague recollections. I’d always had the idea that it was my parents who had pushed me to take lessons, and that it was who had stubbornly refused. What I remember for sure is my dad’s proud statement on the topic. “You’re different from the other immigrant children.”

Had his pride been a guise? — I wondered, after reading the text. Like flocking birds, other incidents suddenly converged in my memory.

What about the time I was 6 and expressed admiration for my classmate’s white, patent leather shoes? My dad had sniffed derisively, “You can hardly move around in those things.” My admiration had then turned to the girl’s smooth, unmarked skin. At the time, to my great embarrassment, my own limbs were covered in raw scrapes and old scabs.

My dad had simply shrugged. “Who wants a perfect looking daughter?”

Scabbed and wearing frills

Don’t let the frills fool you. See if you can spot the scab.

~

The name of my father’s ESL teacher was Robert. I remember this because my dad frequently talked about him after class.

Robert, frankly, seemed like a saint to me. How could he deal with my father’s halting English and endless questions about vocabulary and grammar? Eventually, my family moved and my father stopped taking ESL. I became his de facto authority on English, even though – as I got older – I resented the never-ending task of editing my dad’s every email, his every cover letter as he applied for job after job.

Teenage me sulked, sighed, and outright shouted at my dad for his errors. He never seemed to get it right. To all the abuse, my dad simply responded, “Your English is so good.” The more impatient I was, the more convinced he was of my competence.

The prouder he grew.

I was nothing like Robert. From time to time, my dad wondered aloud what his former ESL teacher was up to.

~

I’m now in training to become an English teacher to speakers of other languages. My course (called the CELTA) finishes at the end of May. As part of my training, I teach an adult class once a week, and – while the pressure can be intense since I am observed and graded – I have to say it is a whole new kind of pleasure.

The students hail from Venezuela, Turkey, Japan, Tajikistan, and every corner of the world. They range in age from college students to retirees. Their motivations for studying English are just as varied. From a professor in sports economics wanting to bolster his research skills, to a girl learning to sing pop songs … I am frankly amazed at all the reasons folks give up 2 1/2 hours on a weeknight to better their English.

I try to picture my dad’s ESL class. His classmates. Robert.

My eyes follow the arc of desks and rest on my dad himself. And I finally see him through Robert’s eyes: a young man (unemployed, terrified) … with a kid and a wife trying to make it in a whole new world.

It is then I realize — there is no language on Earth that can carry my gratitude.