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Photo by Kate Gross-Whitaker

Learning as an ABC

I learned how to write my name,李乐玲(Lǐ Lè Líng), my first day of Chinese class in Kunming. Although given to me at birth, I didn’t know my Chinese name until this summer, when my grandfather wrote down a family tree for me to take to China. China has always felt inexplicably close to me, and as a plane carried me and this family tree over the Atlantic this September, I still felt that taking a gap year in China— especially Yunnan, where my family lived for over 300 years— was a homecoming.

My homestay uncle told me that my name sounds like bells ringing. The alliteration and the sing-songy way people tend to say it does evoke the tinkling of brass bells, and I’ve grown an affinity for the sound. While for a couple of days he tried to call me by my English name, Lǐ Lè Líng comes more naturally. With him, some friends, and my co-workers calling me Lǐ Lè Líng, my ears have accustomed to picking up its sound. It now feels as much my own as Lauren.

I have language class four times a week, and at the start of every class, I write my Chinese name down on an attendance sheet. For the first two weeks of class, I’d arrive confident I learned the strokes of my name by heart, but everyday, I’d forget a piece. Somedays, it was a full character, and other days, a piě or the way the lines stack upon one another in 玲.  I soon grew unsettled by my inability to remember three simple characters, but even more disconcerting was that those three, small collections of lines was my own name— shouldn’t I be able to remember it?

This question of “shouldn’t I” weighs heavy on my experience learning Chinese as an ABC (American Born Chinese) in China. When I don’t speak, I blend in seamlessly. As I bike around Kunming, weaving through cars and riding around buses, going and stopping in a wave of wheels, no one looks at me a second time; everyone assumes I belong. However, when I speak, I usually can only get a few words in until the other person’s brows furrow in confusion. I’ve rehearsed and performed countless times a schpeal that explains my vocabulary of a two year old—  Yes, I look Chinese, but I was born, and I grew up in America. My mother is from Taiwan and my father is from Yunnan. No, my mother doesn’t speak Chinese, and my father only speaks a little bit.

I’ve begun to wear down after having to explain myself so many times. Not knowing Chinese feels like a deficiency, as if there is some checklist of what is required to be Chinese and not knowing the language somehow revokes my heritage. I should know the language, but I don’t.

While the shame that arrises from not knowing Chinese pressures me to study harder, more pressing an issue is my inability to participate in conversation. At the beginning of dinners with my homestay family, I tell myself to listen. Listen closely, listen hard. I give up (and yes, I probably shouldn’t) after 10 minutes of spit fire conversation, and my mind inevitably wanders and finds itself at home. What are the people I loved doing? What are they thinking? I imagine life in Austin: my mother’s hugs, the view of the greenbelt from my bed, waking up on weekends to my brother playing the piano, the sound of the garage door when my father comes home from work… drifting away from the surrounding chatter and unable to connect through language with the people around me, I feel the absence of home, of belonging, most strongly.

At first I channeled my feeling of being stranded into studying Chinese. I spent every moment with one question in mind: how can I improve my Chinese? I had Pleco, a Chinese-English dictionary, continually open on my phone— I once used the app for over two hours in one day—  and I was determined to learn as quickly as possible. I ended each day mentally exhausted and increasingly discontent with my lack of improvement. Chinese sounds like a solid block of sound to me, impenetrable and enigmatic. Even if I can catch the first phrase someone says, once I hear a sound I don’t understand, the rest of what they say falls through. It’s as if I’m staring at the landscape from a car; when something catches my eye I can’t look away, but because I hold on, I lose the rest of the picture. Eventually I look down at my lap and away from the window, bitter. A couple of weekends ago, I buckled under a hollow feeling of alienation in China, the pressure to learn Chinese, and homesickness. The length of my stay in Kunming came crashing into me, and fear that I would always be an outsider made the year feel impossibly long. Overwhelmed and intimidated by the coming months, I did what any child would do when they are lost: I called home and cried to my parents. I never knew how much strength I derived from my family until I decided to move 8,000 miles away from them, but even from halfway around the world, they still give me more than I have ever given back.

As an ABC, I hoped, naively, that China would prove to be a second home. However, I’ve discovered that I introduce and explain myself by my Americanness— my Chinese heritage feels at times like an obstacle to the truth. In America, however, my heritage qualifies my relationship to the country I grew up in, and not in a way that preserves a complete sense of being American. I’ve been bullied and my family talked down to because of how we look, and I don’t feel, nor do I necessarily want to feel, unconditionally, simply “American.”  Moreover, since my upbringing is inextricable from my worldview, I do think I will always be an outsider in China, but hopefully I will not always a mute one, unable to express how I view my place in the world. I can abandon my heritage and my childhood as much as I can my skin, and I believe that means sacrificing a full sense of belonging in both countries. Maybe striving for this feeling of complete home in either country— trying to define myself through a national lens— is the wrong way of going about defining my cultural identity, as others will always cut away at either answer I give. I need to be okay with knowing I can be both Chinese and American, and I can be those things in a way that is unique to me.

Instead of discovering my roots in China, I’ve been afloat, but letting go of my conception of what I should be is an essential part of personal growth. This year I hope to grow in many more areas than just heritage; I want to release what has no constructive role in my life—such as toxic mindsets and vanity— and come to know what really matters to me— like home and the people who make it.

One afternoon, my bridge year group spent time at a Daoist temple, making incense, doing calligraphy and trying out Tai Chi. As our guide showed us around, he pointed at a 10 ft high bell. They ring it, he explained, in the morning for breakfast, but the ringing serves as a reminder of not just duties; it is a reminder of themselves. As I looked at that bell, I recalled the ringing of my name. When it rings, I hope to be brought back to the reason I am here, exactly 8385.07 miles and 0 miles away from home: to discover what living means to me.