Thursday, July 20, 2006

Stream of Consciousness No. 5: Language Inadequacy

EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. - Forgive me, but I'll be in emo mode in this entry.

My grandmother from Taiwan is here again this summer---she arrived last night---and it leads me to once again reflect on how unfortunate it is that I never got a proper education in the Chinese or Japanese languages.

Actually, that's not entirely true. For about five years, I did go to a Chinese school when I was in elementary school---on Saturdays, East Brunswick's Churchill Junior High School doubled as the Mid-Jersey Chinese School. So I know a little bit---but not enough to be able to speak with anything close to fluency. I stopped going after a while, and, other than a few moments of flirting with picking it up again and a year of taking Elementary Chinese at Rutgers (during my sophomore year), I haven't really, seriously returned to it since.

This, of course, makes it difficult to have anything close to meaningful conversations with my grandmother, who can barely speak a word of English. Simple things like "Good morning" or "I'm going out" I can say, but I'll probably never be able to talk to her about, say, my future---and sometimes I feel like she'd be a lot more supportive of things than my mother sometimes is.

It's a shame. I think I've been too Americanized.

And of course Japanese. I guess my father was never all that interested in teaching us, and I guess I was too passive to take it up myself. I also took Elementary Japanese in my sophomore year at Rutgers, but while I was at least able to learn my hiragana and katakana (the Japanese equivalent of the ABCs), its grammar is just as complicated as any Romance language, if not more so. In short, I'm not sure I got much out of the course, and I'm still not much closer to knowing even a little Japanese than I was before my sophomore year started.

And don't even ask me about culture, either. Most people could probably tell me more about Asian cultures in general than I could tell anyone. My exposure to Asian cultures is limited to Asian film---Kurosawa, Ozu, Zhang Yimou, Wong Kar-Wai, and others. Well, I guess that gets me somewhere, although there's nothing like visiting a culture for yourself to at least get a better idea.

All this stuff I usually like to keep to myself. Sometimes I feel something akin to shame for not knowing a lick of Japanese and barely knowing Chinese---a shame increased by people who assume I know the languages just because I'm Asian. I guess a lot of people I know don't make a big deal out of it, but it's always been a sore spot for me.

I wonder why my grandmother sometimes bothers to come here at all. I guess love makes you do crazy things, especially when you know---as I'm sure my grandmother knows---that you probably won't be able to communicate with your grandchildren all that much. (My father doesn't talk much to her either, even though she also knows Japanese pretty well. Wish I knew why this was; maybe he just doesn't care to have her around the house.) My mother has told me in the past that my grandmother took great care of me when I was a baby as she worked, so I guess she makes the trip nearly every summer to check up on me and, by extension, my brothers. I should be grateful, I suppose; if only it wasn't so awkward to be reminded almost every day that we can't really communicate meaningfully with each other.

I wonder how she feels sitting around the dinner table hearing my brothers and I talk in English all the time, barely connecting with her. I know how I'd feel.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

It is really a wonderful thing that you have a grandmother from a culture outside of America and that she is here to visit with you. Even though you cannot converse on a deep level, she will still enjoy seeing her grandchildren and the memories of her visit will remain with you forever. Maybe try to learn as much of her language as you can so you can relate to her a bit, but even if you barely speak I am sure you will gain alot from her visit. Maybe you can plan to visit with her in her country next summer? You are lucky.