Chinese was far from my first choice of a foreign language. My first choice was Spanish, which my older sister was learning at her high school. The idea of having a secret language that we two could use to communicate without our parents understanding held a wild appeal. But on my school registration form, my father ticked off the box for Mandarin. “China will be a very powerful country in the future,” he declared. His prescience was uncanny. It was 1986, and the sleeping dragon had yet to wake.
We already had a secret language in our family. My parents’ first language is Bengali, and at home we spoke colloquial Bengali as well as English. But I was a little embarrassed when my parents spoke Bangla to us in public, further marking us as outsiders in Honolulu, Hawai'i. With only a handful of other native Bangla speakers on the island, my knowledge of the language was rudimentary, and I never had the opporutnity to learn to read or write. My ties to Bengali were tenuous, my cultural identity unsure.
But from day one, in Mrs. Hope Kuo Staab’s Chinese class, I loved Mandarin, with its elegant characters and musical tones. I dutifully practiced writing characters in thin notebooks, their pages filled with small boxes, each to hold a single character. Chinese characters were alive. They walked, with arms and legs and mouths. They encapsulated nature: sun, moon, water, grass, and trees. Speaking and comprehension came naturally to me. The tones that seemed so mysterious to others—even, rising, falling-rising, and falling—were, in my ears, crystal-clear.
I continued studying Chinese long after I had fulfilled my high school and college language requirements and chose to spend my junior abroad in the People’s Republic of China. Beijing was my first genuine experience living abroad and living as an adult. At a time when few Chinese spoke English, communicating in Mandarin was the key to my experience of growing up—and growing out of the sheltered life I’d lived in Honolulu. I remember my elation when I successfully ordered my first taste of baijiu (clear distilled liquor) at a restaurant, tempered only by my bewilderment when the waitress sat down at our table to take our dinner order. I bargained with street vendors for sweaters to stave off the cold of Beijing winters. I traveled on a third-class train car to the south and cruised the Yangtze River, not realizing at the time how historic my experience was; the river would be forever transformed just a few years later by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam.
By the time my year abroad ended, I was fluent in Mandarin and more literate than most Chinese citizens. I was also comfortable piloting a 3-speed bicycle through Beijing traffic and riding sardine-packed buses and trains. I knew how to handle the crowds that inevitably gathered around me at outdoor markets, shouting “Hello, lady!” and “Thank you!” My command of the Chinese language had not only opened doors but enabled me to stride through them. I was only 20 when I left Beijing, but I felt more competent and confident there, more capable of navigating the world, than I had in my life. I had lived and thrived in the most populous country on earth; I had soared, on the wings of a dragon, all because of a box ticked on a school registration form.