With a dazed sense of what to focus on, a blank stare is all I mustered as I faced the iPhone’s minutely pixelated screen, which occasionally lagged. On the WeChat video call, my face was visible in a small rectangle occupying the upper-right corner of the screen while the rest of it showed the faces of my maternal grandparents.
It was late January, so my family and I called my maternal grandparents, who resided in Hangzhou, China, to celebrate the new lunar year. Though I knew what to say in Mandarin to wish them a happy Lunar New Year and good health, “xīnnián kuàilè; shēntǐ jiànkāng,” I felt that I was not actually speaking those words out of aptitude but rather out of recitation.
Pronouncing the individual characters and tones felt familiar due to faint recollections of previous Lunar New Years throughout my childhood when I had heard and successfully said those salutations. Yet they felt so distant when I actually tried to relay those words to my grandparents during the call.
Instead of flowing out as a smooth stream with proper enunciation and intonation, those two phrases tumbled out of my mouth in a monotone, trembling voice. Had I not repeated my message for my grandparents, whose hearing had declined in their eighties, it would have been barely comprehensible due to the horrifically-butchered pronunciation and awkward pauses.
In this regard, I deemed myself a disgraced bilingual, who once thrived in both English and Mandarin but has since experienced a waning of their linguistic repertoire.
I lost the ability to speak Mandarin after I moved back to New Jersey from Shanghai at the age of eight. Having developed severe speech problems in English when I entered second grade, I was thrust between several speech therapists, most of whom reached a consensus that my impressionable mind was confused by the bilingual nature of my household. Thus, they recommended to my parents that they only speak one language, namely English, to me from then on.
Many of my Asian-American peers, whose mother tongue happened to be English, attested to how they grew up in the United States speaking a second language on a daily basis in their household — hence they were able to keep up their bilinguality throughout their adolescence. Unfortunately, it seemed that I was an anomaly in that phenomenon, for I no longer utilized Chinese in my life for the rest of my formal schooling years. Subsequently, my Chinese rapidly deteriorated.
So, here I am today: a disgraced bilingual who can only speak short phrases of Mandarin after reciting them countlessly. No longer was I an active participant who contributed seamlessly and naturally to a conversation. Instead, I was a robot who could only follow a rigid outline of how I should respond to basic topics and who would shut down in silence if anything deviated from that structured plan.
That video call was one of the moments in which I had become silent after timidly, and shakily uttering simple phrases in Chinese. I had nothing else to follow up the conversation with after “xīnnián kuàilè; shēntǐ jiànkāng.”
Embarrassment rushed beneath the surface of my stoic expression, fueled by the realization that I could not even sustain a verbal exchange for thirty seconds with the loved ones who were an integral part of my childhood growing up in Shanghai. Choosing to be silent, I found, was a way for me to internally lament my abysmal language skills, as well as harbor my humiliation.
My silence throughout the rest of the video call was a manifestation of awkwardness and discomfort regarding my incompetence with Mandarin. It was a demonstration of the pitiful fact that I was now incapable in a language in which I once was so proficient. Flashbacks to when I was able to both write intricate stories/essays and converse non-stop with my grandparents in Chinese underlined the reality of how much I have declined linguistically as a disgraced bilingual.
Compounding this sentiment was the fact that my grandparents’ dementia had dramatically worsened in the five years since I had last visited them. No longer were they able to engage in light-hearted conversations as they struggled to maintain their mental sovereignty.
The prospect that opportunities to connect with my grandparents are withering away, as their memory fades, amplified my regret for being unable to speak the language of my ancestors. This guilt deepened my shameful silence as a disgraced bilingual.
I have made several attempts to re-familiarize myself with Chinese, yet they never proved to be fruitful. Part of these failures was attributed, candidly, to me succumbing to the notion that Romance languages were easier to acquire bilinguality in. A greater aspect, however, was rooted in my insecurity for being one of the few individuals who could not speak Chinese compared to the rest of my Chinese-American companions.
The shame that accompanied this knowledge that I was the black sheep among many of my Chinese-American classmates in regards to fluency or discourse in Mandarin, both back home and at Princeton, was suffocating. Humiliation weighed down my self-esteem, and remorse drowned out my motivation to apply myself in that language.
Thus, I hung in silence even in conversations with friends that involved interspersed Chinese phrases. Feelings of demoralizing incompetence and an underlying sense of envy saturated my mind as I failed to understand and reciprocate the unrecognizable expressions. Attempting to engage with the dialogue, even just the thought of it, filled me with dreadful uneasiness and embarrassment.
It seemed that all of this served as a testament to my status as a disgraced bilingual, who woefully sits in silence during conversations involving the language that I have regressed in. This sentiment of contrition was all that was on my mind during that WeChat video call with my grandparents for Lunar New Year. Not another word was muttered from my mouth until our farewells.
Russell Fan is an assistant editor for The Prospect at the ‘Prince.’ He can be reached at email@example.com, or on Instagram @russell__fan.
Self essays at The Prospect give our writers and guest contributors the opportunity to share their perspectives. This essay reflects the views and lived experiences of the author. If you would like to submit a Self essay, contact us at prospect[at]dailyprincetonian.com.