Hey APC! I’m Emily Liu, I’m 17, and (fun fact) I really like to read. Other fun facts: I’m Vancouver born and Shanghai raised, and I currently attend boarding school in Massachusetts. As this piece explores, my family is Chinese.
Language was something I always grappled with. Though I grew up in China, my English was always more proficient than my Mandarin. After all, I’ve attended English-speaking international schools since I was 5. I felt so much more comfortable expressing myself in English, so awkward and frustrated speaking Mandarin, so fearful of ridicule, that I clammed up around my exclusively Mandarin-speaking family as a consequence. Growing up, this slight language barrier created a feeling of alienation, of loneliness, that sometimes dominated my relationship with my family. Often, I felt I wasn’t “Chinese” enough to be around them.
Though I’ve taken steps to overcome this insecurity and bridge the gap between my family and me, I still consider this experience incredibly personal to who I am today. In my conversations with other multicultural folks, I’ve also observed how struggles with feeling “______ enough” or a “real _____” are practically universal. I hope that this story can bring a feeling of affinity and healing to anybody who has experienced similar struggles and illustrate a uniquely impactful experience for those who haven’t.
My tongue was a swollen thing in my mouth. Driving home, my mom asked in Mandarin, “did anything interesting happen at school?”
I tensed: an instinctive reaction whenever I needed to speak at length in Mandarin, my estranged mother-tongue. I envisioned my mom pursing at my rudimentary vocabulary, my Americanized accent. She never expressed disappointment outright, but I was positive. Her adamance that I bring Tang poetry volumes to boarding school, her request that I avoid speaking English at home… I threaded moments like these into a narrative that hissed: Surprise! That thing you dislike about yourself? Everyone else dislikes it too, even your mom.
The silence stretched. Finally, I mumbled, “meishenme.” Nothing.
It was going to be yet another silent drive.
My tongue was a swollen thing in my mouth. I was in an improvised comedy scene about zombies, hovering uncertainly around my groaning scene partner as he simulated being bitten by the undead. Imagining how stupid I looked, I froze, leaving my partner hanging.
The improv teacher pressed the buzzer. Relieved, I thought he’d just repeat his mantras—“take risks,” “say yes, and!” Instead, he offered one, glinting note: make your partner look as good as possible.
I considered the unsaid— currently, because I worried about myself more than my partner, we weren’t supporting each other. That perturbed me. I esteem improv in all its silliness because it honors collaboration. Humbled, I saw how my self-centered, insecurity-fueled actions damaged those ideals.
Eager to right things, I committed to treating my partners’ ideas like wonders beyond sliced bread. Sure, let’s be Galactic Bake-Off finalists fencing with baguettes! Yes, I’ll be Geraldine the Salamander Whisperer.
I noticed immediately how by focusing on others, I could dive into uncomfortable challenges with unexpected ease. My partners’ palpable joy was a tonic soothing the tense coil inside me. I wondered, can it always be like this?
A semester of practice later, I learned that yes, it can! Though my insecurities never magically disappeared, I applied “make your partner look as good as possible” to leap beyond myself. Our improv gets funnier, and I unlocked a hack for courage.
When I hesitated challenging discrimination I witnessed, I remembered friends who need advocates. When overwhelmed by how to lead ten hours of rehearsal a week and direct my first play, I remembered my personal vows to create an unforgettable experience for my cast and our audience.
At boarding school, I spoke boldly and was heard.
Winter break arrived. I flew fourteen hours; my mom embraced me at the airport.
Driving home, she asked again in Mandarin, “How was school?”
My tongue was a swollen thing in my mouth. I thought I surmounted this feeling, but my language insecurity was my oldest instinct, a sleeping tiger re-awoken. And now, it pressed my throat. It hissed that my months abroad worsened my accent, that if I stumbled, my mom would be as frustrated and embarrassed by my Mandarin as I always was.
I looked at my mom, taking in the details of her after a hundred days away. I smelled the same shampoo, but she had a fragility I never saw before.
Suddenly the urge to reassure her that she hadn’t made a mistake letting me go was overpowering. Words poured. I didn’t monitor my diction because I just wanted to watch her reaction.
With a far-away expression, she said, “When I asked you not to speak English at home, it’s because I feared losing you. That we wouldn’t talk anymore.”
Oh. I held back tears at the crushing irony of my insecurity making my mom’s attempt to bring us closer push us further away. I resisted laughing at how she wasn’t ashamed of my Mandarin, ashamed of me, which made even my oldest insecurity a paper tiger.
My tongue was swollen in my mouth. As bittersweet tears welled, I felt relieved to be finally, truly free.
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