In this series of essays, Lawyers Update helps you to get into world's top law schools.
Words and Language
It might sound silly, but for most of my life I forgot I was part Chinese. With auburn hair, deep-set eyes, olive skin, and a conspicuous Italian surname, I am racially incognito. Over the years, Brazilians, Pakistanis, and even Turkic Uighurs from China's westernmost Xinjiang Province have tried to claim me as their own. Fleeting reminders of my Chinese side emerged with my expert use of chopsticks and taste for pungent thousand-year-old eggs, but still it was easy to forget. Mom wanted me to speak only perfect American English and told me to be grateful that I resembled Dad. That way, she thought, her daughter could sidestep discrimination and enter the real world unshackled by minority status.
Until I enrolled in Elementary Mandarin at [my university] on a whim of curiosity in 2002, I had a four-word Chinese vocabulary: "Kiss," "sleep," "baby," and "puppy." For eighteen years I admired my Chinese heritage from afar as an exclusive community to which, despite my genetic link, I had no access. By traveling the demanding and rewarding road from a four-to six-thousand-word vocabulary, I have evolved from an observer to a participant of Chinese culture.
I began to study written Chinese by robotically scrawling each character seventy-five times with a pencil. This crude method caused my hand to dissociate from my brain and resulted in zero recollection the next day. Today, I use a brush and ink to write each character ten times at a deliberate pace. One glance at my lopsided calligraphy would make any member of the Chinese literati cringe, but now I can compose articulate handwritten essays without a dictionary. While memorizing visual characters is difficult, learning the associated spoken tones (high, rising, dipping, falling, or neutral) makes Chinese downright sinister. To a novice who once confused the vaguely homophonic li mao (polite) and liu mang (vagabond) in public, remembering that shí líu means "sixteen" and shí lu means "pomegranate" seemed impossible. In response, I devised a method of memorizing tones by reciting words in the exaggerated style of a Beijing opera singer. I usually remember to shed the dramatic accent when I participate in weekly conversation classes...
Now and then, I give myself "environment quizzes" to test my ability to name every object and action I see. "Laptop, keys, insecticide."Any unknown item joins my list of experiential vocabulary. Last night, I begrudgingly added "centipede" to my inventory when I saw one scuttle across my bathroom floor. For a lighthearted twist on informal practice, I translate pop songs to Mandarin. Instead of singing in the shower, I speak in Chinese. My strangest technique, exuberance training, derives from an approach by which entire stadiums of Chinese students of English shout their lessons in unison. This method is said to imbue people with confidence to speak their second language in public. The first time I shouted about "seeing a doctor" from a grassy knoll on the outskirts of campus, a public safety officer interrupted my lesson. She shot me a bewildered look when I explained my method and told me to keep it down. Now, I save exuberance training for soundproof study rooms.
Exuberance training improved my confidence in the classroom, but it did not fully prepare me for my months abroad in 2004. Within days of arriving in Beijing, I stood at the gates of the Summer Palace, twirled my umbrella like a baton while humming a tune by Fleetwood Mac, and clocked an unsuspecting elderly woman on the head. Mortified, I blurted out, "Sorry!" as a knee-jerk reaction before realizing she didn't understand English. The unlucky victim muttered " Yang gui " (foreign ghost) under her breath and scurried away before I could redeem myself by apologizing in Chinese. At that moment, I felt disappointed in my failure to communicate such a simple message. My ability to read sixth-grade versions of Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Art of War meant nothing if I could not function in Chinese society.
Despite countless hours of calligraphy, tones, and grammar, I still spoke Chinese with the sluggish step of silent translation. To coach my brain to achieve the next level of fluency by thinking in Mandarin, I limited myself to a Chinese-Chinese dictionary and defined all new words in simple terms I already knew. In my mind, "owl" became "big-headed bird", and "battery" became "energy pill". My rudimentary definitions did not deviate far from the correct literal translations: "owl" is "cat-headed hawk", and "battery" is "electricity pool", Within weeks of using this method, I began to drop the step of silent translation. Upon returning to the United States, I even dreamed in Chinese. At last, my brain could function solely in Mandarin.
During four and a half months in China, I explored a socialist village; shared a banquet with local officials; interviewed prostitutes for a research paper; toured a factory that manufactured feminine hygiene products; harvested cultured pearls from an oyster farm; camped on the Great Wall; circumambulated the Jokhang temple with Tibetan Buddhists; and helped a girl catch her runaway pig. I spoke with people across China about religion, terrorism, foot-binding, plastic surgery, gender roles, and other controversial topics. Inquisitive taxi drivers who drove me between my dorm and workplace in downtown Beijing treated me as a window into U.S. society: "Why does the U.S. bully other countries?" "Why do Americans eat so much?" On my final day in Beijing, the driver who took me to the airport said, "We need people like you to make sure the U.S. and China become close friends. You will return to work in Beijing." Now that I have exhausted my university's Mandarin classes, I attempt to carry out [the driver's] prophecy by eddicating two hours a day to studying Chinese on top of my regular course load.
Back in the United States, I wondered when I would use Chinese outside my conservation classes. To my surprise, my newfound bilingualism enabled me to help thirty people escape the cold one night. As we waited in a freezing downpour on the sidewalk of Eighty-eight East Broadway for a midnight Chinatown bus from New York to D.C., the ticket seller approached my boyfriend and asked, in Chinese, if he spoke Mandarin. I interrupted with, "No, he's Korean." Her eyes lit up at the sound of my slight Beijing accent; she was relieved to find a Chinese speaker among the diverse group of travelers. She instructed me to lead the crowd to a shelter seven blocks away, where we dried off and sipped hot tea while waiting for the delayed bus. If only that poor lady I hit on the head in front of the Summer Palace could see me now. May be she would realize that I am more than a good-for-nothing yang gui after all.