English itself is just as diverse as the hodgepodge of narratives, lessons, and history stories in my Chinese school textbook. They unfold the tales of Greek gods, teach problem-solving skills through a character’s mishaps, and describe daily life and customs of Chinese culture. But like Chinese dialects, English possesses languages, each with its own patterns, structures, and tones. The fixed geographical regions in which Chinese dialects are spoken mirror the distinct settings and people with whom I use particular "Englishes". Whether I am using casual English when chatting with a friend or an English of formality with a teacher, each of my "Englishes" are distinguished by nuances, affecting my relationships, learning, and most of all, myself.
Recently, I’ve been noticing how language plays a valuable role in my culture and background; I use it just about every minute, either when verbalizing or socializing online. Though my family is from China and I attend Chinese school, I consider English my mother tongue. Communicating with my cousins, aunt, uncles, and grandparents has always been a fair challenge, our conversations usually a series of forced smiles, weak attempts to answer burning questions, and awkward silence. Of course, there is always catching up to do whenever we reconvene as one big family, along with plenty of hugs and pictures, but Chinese is a distant language I struggle to connect with in order to express myself. My nods, facial expressions, and simply crafted Mandarin sentences replace the natural, breezy English I have come to voice living in America. Often, I find myself saying “Ng” or “Shi de,” brief, terse replies for lack of a better answer (or words I can’t find).
In a way, this is the English I speak with my relatives, a combination of active listening, hand gestures, and 8th grade Chinese school vocabulary. My finite language comes in handy when describing a concrete object or idea, such as a book I read or my hatred for celery, but reveals its limitations in more abstract and personal realms, like emotions or expressing love. Saying “Wo ai ni” in Chinese—versus “I love you”—is like making an empty promise to someone that I can’t keep because I don’t understand what I’ve promised. My English allows me to touch on more intimate topics with a fuller heart—I can feel what I’ve said and express it in a way that reflects the genuineness of my emotions.
But, to avoid confusing my grandfather, any English is illicit; one word can throw his mind off course and leave him befuddled. In these situations, I seek out verbal assistance from my mother, who can communicate my thoughts in a few seemingly complex sentences, something I could never do. I think and speak most comfortably in English, while in Chinese my thoughts run through my head before each word is articulated. Still, after years of hearing my parents speak Chinese in the comfort of our home, understanding—and writing—Chinese has become a part of me. It makes me whole, rooting the branches of my soul deep in the soil of my heritage. Yet, my "Englishes" do the same—except in a way that words cannot illustrate.
This “Chinglish” I speak, a concoction of Mandarin terms and my English glossary to fill in the blanks, limits the moments, laughs, and conversations I want to share and take part in. But my mother isn’t the only person I turn to for help. These experiences strengthen the bond between me and my Chinese American friends who share language barriers with their own families. English is what we use during our own conversations, to express excitement, jitters, and the trials and tribulations of multilingual teenagers. Through trying to piece broken phrases into logical sentences and attending Chinese school, my Chinese American friends are the most encouraging and relatable, experiencing the ups and downs in navigating a space between China and America’s cultures along with me.
Blow air into a mixture of soap and water and you’ve created a bubble; put me and my friends into a room and a bubble of friendship will have formed in no time. In other words, the conversations I have with my friends are far from the ones with my family. These chats are like full-course meals with a side of crazy and a sprinkle of inside jokes. Add goofy and an unhealthy dose of laughter to the menu, too. All too often, my friends and I will be laughing over a pathetic pun we tried making, complaining about inhumane teachers, or recalling golden memories back in sixth grade, all the while speaking an English intelligible only among ourselves. This English I use among friends consists of code words, slang terms, onomatopoeias, and standard English with a tinge of French or British. During these moments, the worrying I’m prone to ceases and I can enjoy myself, with no expectations, doubts, and rules to restrict me. Recently, over a FaceTime call with my friend Madilyn, our conversation went something like this:
“Oh my gosh, your Gudetama is so cute! I have one too, except it’s upstairs.”
“I know right? Let me show you Fernando.”
“Ugh, his hair looks voluminous as always. Honestly, I didn’t even comb my hair today and it looks the same.”
“Yeah, your hair is like, amazing. If I don’t comb my hair, it would be like, ‘poof!’”
I laugh. “Madame Lichtenstein would not be okay with that.”
“Madame Lichtenstein is really fit, though.”
“Yeah, I know right? Lyssa and Sofia saw her working out at the JCC before.”
“Oh my goodness.”
See, as quickly as our minds jump from one topic to the next, our conversation leaped from her large Gudetama plush and stuffed alpaca to news about our classmates encountering our French teacher at the gym. This occurred within a minute, a fraction of our ninety-minute call. Without any limits to the ideas I want to convey and emotions I want to express, the English I use with friends acts like the refuge of the gym locker room, where there are no adults to chastise you and what happens there, stays in there. When I list just about every way my oral presentation would go wrong, Madilyn or another friend cuts me off and just says, “Hannah, you’ll do fine. Stop doubting yourself. I’ll probably do a lot worse than you.” Or, if my elbow partner is as irritating as I expected, Calina chimes in: “Okay, look. He literally pays no attention in class and has no respect for anyone but himself. It seems like he’s never changed since elementary school. Ms. Carter better assign you another seat.” (Calina has very strong opinions.) Sometimes, straightforward reassurance or support is what I really need, unlike my parents’ attempts, which only stress me out. That is not their intention, but every now and then, merely hearing Chinese pressures me to process the incoming words carefully and thoroughly, thus giving me a headache. This symptom never appears when I use the English with my friends, where I’m free to voice my emotions and ideas without worry of misinterpretation or communication. And when my ninety-minute call with Madilyn came to a close, with a lighthearted laugh she said, “Time flies by when you’re having fun!”
As much as my friends and family are significant in my life, so too are the teachers at school who share a love-hate (or just hate) relationship with every student. Eight-hour school days and a few additional hours of homework consume nearly 183 days of each year, with special gratitude for my teachers, of course. Madame Lichtenstein, a French teacher who frequently crops up in her students’ conversations, once made us copy a 97-term Quizlet set into our journals, with both English and French definitions, and expected us to upload it to Schoology by 5:59 pm the same day. Submitting the assignment minutes late results in a large zero in the gradebook, while turning it in during the school day reveals your “lack of focus” in other classes.
As you can imagine, Madame Lichtenstein is someone I address politely to spare myself from the wrath of her alter ego. Strangely enough, using the right English in French class is just as fundamental as applying the proper conjugations in our partnered dialogues. Perhaps an inquiry about a project would sound like: “Madame Lichtenstein, would you please clarify what you mean in the rubric?” while posing the same question to my friend would look like, “I don’t get any of this.” In emails, beginning with a greeting, easing into the question, and signing off politely is the three-step process necessary for a prompt response. This is an English of structure, etiquette, and responsibility, though not in a confined manner like my Chinglish. Rather, it coaches me to be considerate and attentive, a reminder of the old-school motto “Think before you speak.” Of course, not all teachers stroll the hallways of torture with Madame Lichtenstein’s renowned repute, but using this English of formality is never an impractical decision. There is no English quite like this, one that demonstrates presence, structure, and care.
Like with any sort of Chinese delicacy, I can’t say I prefer any one of my Englishes over another. Each dialect has its purpose, its role, and its intention, all of which serves as the backbone of another. My outlook on the world, mentality, and actions develop from the blends of Englishes I voice, each uncovering hidden aspects of my qualities and personality. Whether I grapple with my Chinese-speaking endeavors or converse with fellow comrades, the dialect I speak reflects the aura and mood of my location and who I am talking to. But gauging from how I, my knowledge, and relationships have transformed, there is no doubt that the character of English does works far greater than the characters of any Chinese school story written.