In 1997, I started to study Mandarin. Back then everyone was talking about Monica Lewinsky’s blue dress, things were getting a little too ironic for Alanis Morisette, and politicians discussed China as a trading partner rather than an economic threat. While road tripping with my college sweetheart, racing to New York City in a red Tercel, he taught me lyrics to a famous song from his boyhood in China. He taught me some Chinese phrases. Sunshine dropped below the Pocono Mountains.
When I spoke his language, I woke a sleeping personality inside myself. At the rest stop in Ohio, the three of us made love in that tiny car—me, my sweetheart, and my new Chinese Self.
Later, he said, “You should study Chinese. It will open doors for you.” He was full of youth and ambition. I was a rascal. Sure I am more grateful than Caliban was to Prospero: more than how to curse, I’ve also learned how to con.
Later, I studied Chinese in graduate school in New York City and pretended to be an academic when I was an artist. After we were married with children, we lived with his parents; I feigned kindness when I wished them back in China.
Recently, I interviewed for a position as a Chinese language instructor. When I arrived at a grimy preschool room in an industrial park in San Diego, the director, assuming the English name Grace, looked at me and said, “Oh, you are foreign. Foreigner cannot teach Chinese. Maybe make you office assistant?”
In the middle of the interview, she answered a cell phone call. Her phone’s volume was so loud I could hear every word the auto Claims Adjuster was struggling to communicate. Grace kept interrupting. She grew increasingly panicked that a stranger was trying to pull one over on her. Grace drives a 2010 white, convertible Mercedes Benz, and she squealed, “Big damage. Very big.” She moved the phone away from her mouth to say to me, “Oh, you can wait or leave if you need. I get into car accident and take care this now.” I waited a few minutes with my hand extended until Grace put the Adjuster on hold. As I shook her hand, I spoke this sentence in Chinese: I am The Monkey King’s daughter; of course I can teach Chinese. She looked puzzled, shrugged, and continued to protest into her phone.
As I was leaving, I looked over her car in the lot. Not a scratch. In the wake of feeling rubbed the wrong way, I cursed the effort I’d made to learn Chinese. How is it so difficult to land a job?
Oh, I thought, where’s my sense of humor? So, I flattened my nose up against the driver’s window of Grace’s car, breathed a cloud of my foreign devil’s breath over her glass, etched a double happiness character with my finger, and raced home to my family.
Whenever we meet a family whose children are American born Chinese, they insist, “You must teach your children Chinese because China is a rising world power.” Or “China is becoming the economic giant.” To me, learning and speaking Chinese have little to do with the People’s Republic. It's these doors that open and close in my face that keep teaching me something about myself.
Sure kids, learn Chinese. You will expose the secrets of the Chinese government, engage in pillow talk with future Chinese economists, and bring democracy and the rule of law to China. That is, if China will ever really let you in. Better yet, you children of all ages, do learn the language, any language. Forget about doors. Child, simply realize the fascinating personalities you carry within yourself and start talking to yourself in a foreign language.