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Two Cents

An online journal of opinion

Speaking, Being, and Becoming

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An open letter to my students at Duke Kunshan University

Austin Woerner  Lecturer in English Language, Duke Kunshan University

Austin Woerner

Lecturer in English Language, Duke Kunshan University

Dear Students:

In your responses to my first open letter, most of you chose to respond to two questions: 1) would you be willing to a competent but clumsy speaker of English? and 2) would you be willing to be a speaker of English so fluent and "native-like" that native English speakers forget that you are not one of them?

In answer to the first question, responses varied. Chunxin noted that having an accent can be charming; Xiaonan pointed out that awkward speech can make others uncomfortable; and Amy professed a desire to treat English as a "beautiful hammer," bashing through communication barriers in service of a higher ideal. But your responses to the second question were remarkably consistent. Though a few of you expressed admiration for people with the ability to slip seamlessly into the thought patterns and habits of a foreign culture, almost none of you said you wanted to be such a person. In fact, most of you stated quite emphatically that you find the idea repellent. "I do not want to lose myself and... be like a native speaker [of English]," Xiaonan concludes at the end of her letter. "English... can help me a lot," she writes, "but [it is] not my life." Youran echoes this sentiment, comparing one's identity as a speaker of a foreign language to a mask that, in Lu Xun's words, "grows onto the face," and cannot then be taken off.

The interesting thing is that most of you assumed that attaining this native-like proficiency would require one to lose one's original identity. Most of you assumed that becoming "English-speaking" to the point that a native English speaker would welcome you as one of their own would necessarily mean losing your Chineseness. 

But I didn't actually say that. So I'm wondering, why is it that you assumed that gaining a new identity would mean losing an original one? Why wouldn't it be possible to have both? 

Actually, I can very much relate to this fear of "losing yourself." It reminds me of my own language-learning experiences when I was your age. Unlike Peter Hessler, I got a lot of encouragement for my early attempts to speak Chinese, and because I learned quickly and had a natural aptitude for languages, my Chinese teachers quickly identified me as a "star student." Other people reinforced my interest: friends and family gave me books about China at Christmas; Chinese people I met in Beijing on my first summer study abroad called me a zhongguotong 中国通 (a "China Hand"). Pretty soon I developed a reputation at school as "that kid who speaks really good Chinese," and my life began to revolve around the language: I joined the East Asian Culinary Club, started to learn the guqin. When I was a senior, I was invited to represent Yale at the 2007 International Chinese Varsity Debate on CCTV, squaring off with other foreign Mandarin speakers on prime-time television and reciting Chinese classical poetry to an audience that may well have numbered in the millions. 

Why is it that you assumed that gaining a new identity would mean losing an original one? Why wouldn’t it be possible to have both? 

However, throughout this whole process, I began to feel uneasy about my newfound role of "China Hand." People reacted to me as if my skill as a Chinese speaker must be due to some mystical, deep-rooted connection with China and a love of Chinese culture. I remember some teachers of mine even remarking that I must've been Chinese in a former life. But nothing could've been farther from the truth. Growing up, I had no Chinese friends or relatives, and no particular interest in Chinese culture except a passing fondness for Chinese landscape paintings and the sticky sweet spare-ribs I ate at American-style Chinese restaurants. The Chinese language was only a small part of the larger panorama of my interests. In the CCTV building, as reporters mobbed me, thrusting microphones in my face and asking me to say Chinese tongue-twisters, I began to question my own motivation. What was the point of all this? To become Chinese? But I did not want to become Chinese, nor could I. To have my entire identity, in others' eyes, revolve around a foreign culture with which I had no organic connection, was an unsettling feeling it felt arbitrary, forced upon me in some way. I felt as if my Chinese-speaking self was not truly me.

That marked a turning point in my relationship with the language. I realized then, half-consciously, that "being a Chinese speaker" could not be my primary identity. If it were, I would simply become a performer, an exotic zoo animal, an object of fascination in the collective mind of another culture. (Moreover, it was based on a strange double standard: If I were not white, but Asian American, would people have found me so fascinating? And how often are Chinese students of English invited to show off their debating skills on CNN or recite Shakespeare on the BBC?)

I realized that I would need to be primarily something else, and secondarily a Chinese speaker, in order to continue having a meaningful relationship with the language. Right around that time, I developed an interest in creative writing and literary translation, and spent most of my twenties working to develop my skills as a writer of English rather than a speaker of Chinese. Today, though using Chinese to connect with people is something that brings me genuine happiness, I still see myself first and foremost as a writer and as a lover of literature. If I had not, at that crucial point in my early twenties, found a way to make my Chinese serve this larger purpose, then I almost certainly would have stopped studying the language altogether. 

Your study of English right now and in the future probably serves many more concrete purposes than my study of Chinese. Maybe you will never need to search your soul to ask yourself why you are studying English; the world gives you plenty of reasons as it is. But one thing my story illustrates something we both share is what a powerful pull a foreign language can have upon one's sense of self, upon how one perceives oneself and on how one is perceived by other people. As linguist Zoltan Dornyei puts it, "The knowledge of a language is part of the individual's personal 'core', involved in most mental activities and forming important part of one's identity." I'm not sure if believe that being a Chinese speaker has shaped the "core" of who I am, but it has undoubtedly changed me in profound ways, including the thoughts I think, the friendships I've had, the opportunities that have presented themselves to me, and the choices I've made. What do you think: Does being a speaker of English or any foreign language make you a fundamentally different kind of person, in your eyes and in others'? Do you agree with Dornyei?

I realized that these details all signified the same thing: confidence, as well as a readiness to grow and change.

In one of our writing assignments, I asked you to imagine yourself as a fluent English speaker, three years from now, as you are about to graduate from DKU. Reading your essays, I was struck by the subtle differences between yourselves now and yourselves in three years: a new hairstyle, a new way of dressing, a more relaxed manner or a certain spring in your step.  One student even noticed that her future English-speaking self likes to drink milk tea! (She doesn't like it now perhaps this is a habit she will pick up from long evenings gabbing in English at the bubble tea joint?) Thinking about this, I realized that these details all signified the same thing: confidence, as well as a readiness to grow and change. In her essay "English and Me," Angela Lin calls English "the language of self-worth." In your essays, I could see that greater sense of self-worth reflected in these new jackets and easy smiles and confident greetings. What do you think why is it that command of a language can often be so closely related to self-esteem? (And is English the only "language of self-worth"? Could this be true of any language?)

Secondly, I was struck by how many of you envisioned yourself speaking to friends you haven't even met yet friends with whom you imagine yourself to have carried on entire relationships in English. (One student even imagined a bittersweet parting with such a person, after their friendship had run its course.) That's one thing that resonated deeply with me: For me at least, the Chinese language has always been inextricably tied to specific people. For every Chinese word or phrase I use with any regularity, I can remember pretty specifically who I learned it from, and the specific circumstances: a stranger in a hostel in Luoyang who taught me my favorite word, cangsanggan 沧桑感; my host mom in Beijing, teaching me that handy phrase zhege zenme mai? 这个怎么卖? (How much is this?) in a vegetable market. For many years, while I was living in the U.S., the only Chinese conversations I had were with the Chinese novelist whose work I was translating; during that time my "language environment" consisted of a single person. Now, when I speak, I often feel like I am echoing his voice.

Which brings me to another important question: Can you really know a language without really knowing a person in that language? Insofar as I have a "Chinese-speaking self" it is cobbled together from all the people I learned all those words from, the attitudes and ideas they used those words to convey, the stories they used those words to tell. I would argue that true knowledge of a language means having some kind of emotional bond with speakers of that language. (I would note that this isn't necessarily native speakers: many of you wrote that your future selves would throw bits of English into your conversations with Chinese friends, which suggests to me that you imagined your shared knowledge of English would become part of your emotional connection with these people.) What do you think of that idea? In English, who are the most significant people you speak to, or listen to -- the people with whom you have the strongest connection? What are some things they often say? What words or phrases that they use have come to be a part of you?

That's my two cents for the moment. Curious to hear your thoughts.

— Yours, Austin

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