My Letter to Mandarin
Updated: Sep 25, 2022
Posted on: January 31, 2021
Cover Image Artwork by: Janani Venkat Ramanan
I’m probably your typical Chinese-Canadian high school teen. I dress casually, care too much about academics and extracurriculars, live in a multicultural city like Toronto or Vancouver, and act very responsibly and independently for my age. I currently study the two Canadian official languages: English and French. English is definitely my dominant language, if you could not tell already, and French is still…something I’m working on, to say the least. Pro tip: send your kid(s) to a French-immersion elementary school program --not enrolling myself into a French immersion school is a longtime regret shared by both my parents and I. There are no drawbacks to this academic program because being a young bilingual individual is already an advantage that will indisputably blow everyone else out of the water. Please, I urge you to take language-learning as a serious life skill, so get your Canadian kid to learn now, but I digress.
My first language was not English. In fact, my parents kept a secret for the first five years of my childhood. Up until I started first grade, they did not speak to me in English but in Mandarin instead, my true first language. During the commencement of kindergarten, I was the shyest 4 year-old anyone could ever meet. The reason why I kept my mouth shut and abstained from being bubbly and amiable towards my new teachers and classmates, was that I couldn’t say a word in English (besides a regular foreigner’s “hello”, “thank you”, “sorry” and “goodbye” vocabulary) and I was deathly petrified of humiliation. Consequently, the best way to avoid the latter was to hide in the shadows and never let anyone know that I was the foreign-looking, introspective child who had never stepped foot into a daycare before. At home, I thought, spoke, read, wrote, and listened to everything in Mandarin. It was very comfortable for my puerile, isolated self so I put all my effort into learning it well, up until I hit my tenth-year anniversary. As my language-learning fingers were releasing its grasp on Mandarin, I drifted more towards English and French. I no longer saw Mandarin as necessary for my admission to a prestigious university - yes, I did plan my academic and career path that early -, resulting in a jaw-dropping free fall in my journey to achieving full-time fluency in my first language. It is indeed complicated.
After abandoning Mandarin for nearly half of a decade, quarantine really got to my head and an auditory hallucination of a voice incessantly encouraged me to renew my rollercoaster of a relationship with an overly neglected language. “C’mon Rory, use all of this free time at your doorstep to your advantage. If you can streamline all of your hard work and dedication seamlessly in English and French, why not use the two to retrieve your long-lost fluency in your first language?” Of course it had to be Mandarin.
I will never forget the day I cracked open my Mandarin handbook. Allow me to storify this. It was a cool spring evening of the year 2020; there was a sudden spasm or impulse in me that activated my spontaneous senses. I had the urge to crack open my Mandarin handbook and study it again --I know, 2020 was the pinnacle of nostalgia. Flipping through the weathered, beige, slightly rough pages of neophyte Mandarin texts, I thought that there was no better way to learn a language than to practice it with a native speaker. Fortunately, I had multiple candidates in my home. Upon hearing about my new ambition, Mom was not against this idea but did supply me with a shrewd piece of advice that I still find incredibly down-to-earth and necessary today in Mandarin, “一暴十寒 ”. As you may have already guessed, I was dumbfounded by this Chinese idiom, and so mom explained it to me. We often find ourselves to be giving our 100% to achieve a long-term goal for the first few moments, think New Year’s resolutions. But according to this idiom, we lose sight of our aspirations 10 days later, becoming so dispirited to the very extent we feel that putting effort to achieve the desired results does not seem worth it anymore. From that day of learning the significance of this Chinese idiom, I realized just how critical it is to push nonstop and how life is truly like a marathon, not a 100-m dash.
I have not given up on you yet; my stamina and endurance will surely last longer than 10 days. Please excuse the indolent behavior I have displayed to you these past five years. True to that idiom, I will take its significance as a permanent life lesson and apply its wisdom to any other goals I have on my agenda. I do not care about how long it will take me to achieve it; language learning, fostering relationships, academic assignments, finances, just about anything. However, this idiom will forever stick with and motivate me throughout my trilingual life to keep going.