Wounded: A Letter To Myself
By Angie Shen
** To my ten-year-old self
Today you will learn English for the first time. You will imitate the twists and twirls of the letters repetitively on paper, and wrap your tongue around the “r”’s and the “l”’s. You will mix “th” up with “s” because you have never learned to put your tongue between your teeth. You will emphasize the voiceless consonants at the end of a word too much, and fail to pronounce the “l” in the middle of a word. Your intonation will be dry and flat: you will not sound as learned and sophisticated as the British, or as energetic and edgy as the Americans. The teacher will give you an English name, and you will triumphantly write it on your textbooks and desks. You will gawk at the blond girl Helen and tall boy Mike in your textbook. They have big eyes and fair skin, unlike you. You will feel your curiosity fill to the brim. You will wonder about their world, a better world.
To my 15-year-old self
Today you will look forward to your English classes. You will be excited to learn about Thanksgiving traditions in America, birdwatching in the UK, and the life of the great beauty Audrey Hepburn. You will finish binge reading Harry Potter in four days and religiously follow Prison Break. You will start feeling self-conscious when you speak your accented, awkward English. You will want to be able to say “I think” with a natural flair instead of “i-sin-ke” and pronounce the “l” in “world” in full. You will record your own voice and force your tongue to behave so that you will sound proper and smart. You will gradually pick up the American style of intonation, with the occasional exaggerated vowels and the “like”’s and “you know”’s. Snippets from the American shows you have watched will at times surface at the back of your mind; the increasingly familiar tones will become a background track to your stream-of-consciousness in Chinese.
You will start to meet Westerners: Alan the English gentleman who wears neat jackets and reads passages from Dracula in a polished and warm tone, Emmett the big American veteran who cracks jokes and teaches American business practices. You will feel adrenaline running in your veins when you talk to them fluently with a mock-American accent that you have tried so hard to mimic and perfect. You will be eager to show off colloquial words like “hyped” and “creepy” that you have picked up from American shows. You will even feel tired after talking to them for a while because you are so invested in the way you present yourself while gazing at the curious white creatures in front of you who seem to have stepped out of a film screen or a magazine ad.
Your English teacher will look up in disbelief when you sound like the American broadcasters on tape. The once familiar Chinese accent, with the vapid vowels and the stiff inflection, will start to sound unpleasant and conjure up the image of children with dark complexion in dirty clothes selling cheap, gaudy things on the street. It will sound unrefined. It will make you cringe.
The world will remember the death of Michael Jackson—your music teacher will play a documentary of him. And then Steve Jobs. Your computer science teacher will extol the wonders of American technological innovation. She will criticize the Chinese education system for exclusively emphasizing test-taking skills which smothers students’ creative talent. She will praise the American value of freedom—granting children the freedom to pursue their passion is the reason why America produces the world’s greatest minds. You will look at the portrait of Steve Jobs, the genius entrepreneur of America and of the world; a list of names will roll through your mind, Bill Gates, Einstein, names usually accompanied by admiration and aspiration.
You will decide you want to go to college in the U.S., the land of the free, where creativity and intellect thrive, where everyone owns a car and fancy gadgets, where people are polite and civilized unlike the Chinese who cut in lines, throw trash on the ground and talk loudly in public, where people are honest and straightforward unlike the Chinese who might fawn over you while stabbing you in the back. You will have no doubt that America will make you better, and happier.
You will buy SAT prep books. You will pace around your room and recite the words “obsequious”, “insouciant” and “sanguine”. You will start reading Shakespeare, The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye. You will learn about the Civil Rights Movement and the feminist movement, which will inspire your passion for race and gender studies. You will practice writing in block letters because that’s how American students write. At times you will be haunted by memories. You will remember when you snuggled under the blanket night after night and read Chinese literature—you once cried over the fate of young and rebellious characters in Guojing Ming’s fantasy novels; you once felt righteous indignation for the brave and loyal soldiers in Romance of the Three Kingdoms; you were once enlightened and soothed by the terse words of wisdom by Zhuang Zi who preached equanimity and forgiveness. You will remember you were once fascinated with Chinese calligraphy. You enjoyed writing poems in the margins of notebooks in different styles of calligraphy where each stroke was charged with life through the energy in the motion, and the rhythm of time and space traced out on paper like a dance. You will feel wistful for a while, and continue jotting down block roman letters.
You will represent your school to compete in a Model UN conference in Beijing. You will wear suit and high heels for the first time. You will marvel at the crystal lights hanging from the hotel ceiling and the bar with a glamorous jazz musician singing Autumn Leaves to the piano. You will meet delegates from 18 countries, but everyone will wear a suit and speak fluent English with an American accent. You will give speeches on humanitarian intervention in Syria and discuss the draft resolution with the session chairs from Harvard. You will also attend the first dance party of your life where everyone jumps around in the dark and sings along to “Call Me Maybe”. You will gaze at the girl whose red hair is gracefully curled like cotton candy and the guy whose thick eyebrows spread like arched wings of a flying bird. Your dress will smell of their cologne. At that moment you will feel like you are floating in a different world, a world that does not belong to you but you earnestly aspire to. You will feel like your past and present has been severed. You will feel elated. On the train back home, you will feel slightly uncomfortable in the stuffy compartment reeking of smoke and sweat where people converse loudly in various Chinese dialects. “Excuse me” will slip out of your mouth in English.
You will never expect that This American Life, the radio podcast that you cultishly listen to every Monday, will be the first to expose the wound that you never know you had. In the episode on the life of foreign expatriates in China, the American expatriates living in China interviewed on the show will say:
“Apparently, Chinese people really like seeing foreigners do Chinese stuff, Kung Fu, calligraphy. And they really like seeing foreigners sing Chinese songs to the point where there is this annual TV show called ‘Foreigners Sing Chinese Songs’. There is this fascination, and the fascination comes from the sense of cultural inferiority. Any Western investment in things Chinese is taken to be a sign of respect. The Chinese self-image is still in so many ways—it's of a very weak country. They see themselves as being very weak.”
You will panic and start reading online forums for foreign expatriates in China. You will see posts like these:
“Almost every day people would stare at me or ask to take a picture with me.”
“People often tell me I’m beautiful. But in America I’m just plain.”
“I was offered to act as a ‘quality-control expert’. No experience necessary. The only requirements were a fair complexion and a suit. I call these things ‘White Guy in a Tie’ events. Basically, you put on a suit, shake some hands, and make some money. Recruiting fake businessmen is one way to create the image—particularly, the image of connection—that Chinese companies crave. Having foreigners in nice suits gives the company face.”
“People always try to talk to me and buy me drinks when I’m in a bar. Some people even invite me to their table. Once, after several minutes in a bar, I was tongue-jousting with the most beautiful girl in the bar, and later went home with a different girl. Being American is like a status symbol. I wanna live here forever!”
You will not be able to sleep that night.
You will be reminded often of your wound. You will read about how real estate developers hire foreigners to appear in their ads so that the property will appear upscale. Clients can select from a menu of skin colors and nationalities; whites are the most desirable and expensive. You will read about how it is increasingly common in Asia for women to undergo plastic surgery—putting a crease in their eyelids so that they look bigger, more Western. You will read about sons and daughters of business moguls, politicians and celebrities who emigrate to America. The deepest part of you will hurt. You won’t be able to explain it just yet.
To my 18-year-old self
Today you will change your name, because Americans cannot wrap their tongues around the strange tones and consonants of your Chinese name. People will not have trouble understanding you because you sound just like them. You are from China? I didn’t know that! You don’t have any accent! They will say. You will feel obliged to say thank you because you know they mean it as a compliment, even though you don’t feel complimented. In a group conversation you will be the only one in a group who does not understand what a “pimp cane” or “cinnamon crunch” is and others will find your cluelessness hilarious. You will be the only one who does not laugh at a joke because you don’t understand the cultural reference. What does it mean? You will ask all the time.
Your mom will tell you on the phone that you need to buy clothes from American brands because you need to dress like an American. You don’t want people to tell you are Chinese by just looking at your outfit. She will say. Also do you have a Chinese accent? That will really hurt your chances for getting jobs. You will reassure her, no mom, I dress and sound like an American. People can’t tell I’m from China.
When you go home your cousins will laugh at your slangs that were popular two years ago, and you will desperately inquire about the latest heartthrobs and hit songs. As if trying to remember the tune of an old song, you will speak your mother tongue with awkwardness because your tongue has changed shape. Your fingers will type English letters like a machine gun, but when you type Chinese pinyin you always mistake English sounds for Chinese sounds and struggle to choose the right characters. When feeling nostalgic you will pick up a pencil; the strokes and radicals will look like estranged friends.
You will think in English and sleep talk in English. But sometimes Chinese words will slip out of your mouth in conversation. You will apologize. When writing essays, a Chinese word will jump to your mind before English, and you will often fail to find words in English that can convey the same subtle sentiments in a Chinese phrase. The dramas and reality TV shows that you used to scoff at will become a place of solace; the familiar tones and words will remind you of your favorite bed pet. During Spring Festival, you will smile at your cousins teasing each other while devouring dumplings that your grandma has made; you will wish you were on the other side of the screen.
The truth is you can no longer write elegant prose in English or Chinese without pulling out a dictionary. The truth is you can no longer navigate the delicate ways in which Chinese people deal with relationships, just as you can never eat a dozen chicken wings while rooting for your favorite Super Bowl team.
The truth is you feel like a hypocrite. You know you should not keep score of the number of white friends you have as if you are collecting prizes. You know you should not feel proud of having an American accent, the accent that has earned you a perfect score on the TOEFL test, that makes you feel confident and triumphant and attracts admiration from the audience when you speak. You know you should not cringe when you hear the Chinese accent, the accent that you have spent years trying to erase, twisting your tongue and tightening your jaw to pronounce “th” and “v”, so that you can disassociate yourself from the poor and the vulgar. You know you should not complain with contempt in your eyes about the heinous traffic, the rowdy crowds and the unprocessed tap water in China. You know you should not think you are too good for China or that you can never be good enough for America.
The truth is you feel like your dignity has been stripped off at the exact moments when you feel the most proud and triumphant. The truth is you can’t undo what you have done. You can’t unfeel how you feel.
You feel the loss, the humiliation and the injury at the deepest part of you, but you do not know who to blame or what to do about it. No one back home can sympathize with you: you are bathing in the halo of the best country in the world. Your aunt wants you to bring for her the latest iPhone, New Balance shoes and Earth’s Best Organic Baby Cereal. Your cousin asks with admiration in her voice about what your dorm, your classes and America are like. You do not know how to tell her about the deprivation, the hatred and the epidemic of depression, because those are not what she expects to hear. More importantly, you are living the life that you have always wanted, that you have worked hard for. You have chosen a path for yourself, and you have achieved what many dream of but few can achieve. You should feel accomplished, proud and happy.
Then you realize you are not even sure if anything should be done at all. Your critical consciousness is a privilege—it’s a privilege to be able to feel and make sense of your wound. Should you tell your cousin that she has been fed and has believed a degrading lie because you know better, because you have lived and received liberal arts education in America and have read Marx and Foucault? Should you tell your mom, who is trying to learn English and correct her accent so that she can live with you in the U.S., to stop so that she will not be caught in the web of coloniality?
You realize you are fighting with yourself, and with yourself alone. It’s a constant struggle of your body and mind within a world that carries so much baggage that it will never shed. The seed of the wound has been planted long before you enter the picture. It grows on you as you learn what is beautiful, what is desirable, and what is the good life. You tear it further apart by living your everyday.
This is too depressing an ending to a letter; I have tried hard to find a possible silver lining. You may never heal the wound, but there might be possibility of resistance in how you deal with this reality. If you wallow in your pain, humiliation and loss, your wound will perpetuate and fester. In the words of Nietzsche, that which does not kill you makes you stronger. The alternative to wallowing in your injury, harboring resentment or demanding reparations is employing your “will to power”—your will to control and conquer, so as to uncover and nurture an identity borne out of strength rather than injury. Your consciousness of your wounded past enables you to realize that you don’t have to be haunted or defined by it. There is always the possibility of reorienting yourself toward the future.