The following excerpt from Ge Gao’s nonfiction appears as a part of a series featuring fellows in the New York Foundation for the Arts Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program. Read Ge’s essay about her relationship with language here.
I taught my mother how to say “thank you” when she stayed with me in Minnesota.
Flatten your tongue, then let the force of your upper and lower teeth stabilize the soft flesh and gently squeeze it to burst the air out, as the “th” sound. “K” is a comma between “than” and “you,” it’s easy, but don’t forget—it does make a difference. And, finally, consider “you” as the nice and cozy ending of a song, smooth and long. If you look into the person’s eyes and have the “you” sound pretty enough, no one will criticize your accent. Make “thank you” as big and fat as possible.
It was hard for her. She didn’t understand why she couldn’t just say the word. I told her that speaking English is tricky, you have to train your tongue for years to make a beautiful transition between words and sentences. She gave up immediately, and was proud that her daughter could speak American English for her.
Not really, though. I often mistake “chicken” and “kitchen,” or “restaurant” and “restroom.” I can’t really tell the difference between “micro” and “macro.” And I have to slow down when I say “usually” so it doesn’t sound like “usury.”
When I tried to explain what speaking English feels like, it didn’t make sense to her.
Speaking English is like
One of my friends helps people with speech problems. She once played the notes “do, re, mi, fa, sol” on the piano and asked her client to sing them with her. He said he couldn’t.
She encouraged him, saying that this was a safe space and any sound he made would be okay. He tried. He opened up his dry throat, waited and waited, and abruptly pierced the room with a weird noise. Then he cried, without knowing why.
Speaking English is like that.
My favorite English words to say are authority and authentic. There seem to be many layers within the sounds, like the ups and downs of a roller coaster. And I get a secret excitement when I pronounce every part of the words.
“Walk with authority,” I tell my friend, “I give you this permission.”
“Minneapolis doesn’t have any authentic Chinese restaurants,” I comment.
I praise things that I like by calling them authentic with authority. Using those words feels like narrating a little creature’s life. It starts with an ordinary “au” sounds, next reaches to its proudest moment in life—“thori”/“then”—high and clear, a straight power in the sound. The end—“ty”/“tic”—has is beautiful in its suddenness. It doesn’t need more explanation when it ends.
My least favorite English words to say are rain and pain. The sound of these two words in my voice is plain, pale, without passion. They are the elegy of English.
Sometimes is a lover who lures you to wait for her at the back of an alley but never shows up. Through is a fighter that fights you and me and time. Lost & Found is a drama. Let’s go places could be the most romantic promise.
I thought popcorn, by definition—popping corn—should be sweet. That’s why when I went to a movie theater in California for the first time, I couldn’t believe the taste of the popcorn in my hand—salty, plain, no sweet laughter, no happy memories. I asked the vendor if he had other kinds of popcorn—like the one I had in China—the pure honey, sugary kind. He looked at me as if he was hearing the word popcorn for the first time. That’s the only POPCORN we have here, he said. It left me wondering if I had used the right word for the thing I had in mind.
Years later, when I took a college class on philosophy of language, we questioned whether any word in any language could explain the thing we are thinking, as it should be, as it is expected to be, such as crazy, respect, hurt, God, and popcorn.
I like apples.
I called him yesterday.
I learned English by starting to write down sentences like these. It’s terrifying—for so many sentences I had to begin with “I . . . .” But growing up in a communal culture, you are not supposed to say “I” want this or need that. Especially me, a girl.
For thousands of years, “I” never had a name—Wang’s second wife, Chen’s third daughter, the Beauty, the Mother, the old widow . . . . We always use the third person to look at ourselves, and it is always used when we are introduced to others—some uneducated, stupid women.
After the New China, “I” still sounds much smaller than “we.”
We are comrades in arms.
We serve the people.
We are the people.
“I learned . . .”—When my seventh-grade English teacher asked me to finish the rest of the sentence in class, I didn’t know how to say “I” did something.
But I continued writing down sentences starting with “I.” So from “Gao’s daughter” to “we,” I am the one here who still writes about “I.”
The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real)—it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood.
The thing I wished my mother could say to me was “I love you.” She loved me by taking me to piano classes, by sending me to a boarding school and paying all my college tuition. It could’ve be an inappropriate thing to say—like meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time and expressing your opinions on politics, religion, and sex. Mostly, it could’ve been embarrassing. Growing up in a family where no one ever said “I love you,” I’d wonder what reaction my mother would have had if I had said it first. Maybe she would’ve said, “I love you, too.” Maybe she would’ve asked me, “So, what do you want?” Maybe she would’ve pretended she didn’t hear it and silently cried in her bedroom after dark.
The things I will wish my future partner could understand are both my left and right hemisphere. On the left, I try to pronounce the perfect “L” sound; I drink ice-cold water, go to the Gay 90s nightclub, wear a skirt in subzero weather, walk proudly on the street to a late-night party, read Nietzsche and Foucault, watch Sex and the City, write papers about third-wave feminism and on how the “personal is political.” Turn right, my fragile heart is made of Gushi, Dream of Red Chamber, and Eileen Chang. Eileen Chang wrote, “The greatest happiness in the world is to discover that the person who you like happens to like you too.” So I believed it. I secretly wish I could be melted into a piece of milk chocolate. Being sweet, happy, and lovable would be my ultimate label. Are you being a g-o-o-d girl? Yes, yes, I am working on it, don’t say ugly words, don’t poke your tongue out, smile, be thankful, love, don’t be sick . . .
No matter what side that person sees, he will know both. While I am living, we will move far away, hold hands, and fight this world together. When I die, he will dial my home number, speak the language my mother understands, say, “She loved you. She was happy.”
And I will wish my mother would’ve remembered to say, “Thank you.”