I’m not sure if what I’m about to describe is a common experience for those who went from being monolingual to bilingual, but for me, there was a specific moment in time when I “discovered” that I had become truly bilingual. And here’s how it went: I was in the midst of a passionate argument with my partner (who is a native English speaker) regarding something so trivial that I can no longer remember what it was. All of a sudden, I paused; and I had this inner dialogue with myself (while my partner was bewildered by my temporary stupor): “Min, do you know that you are feeling, thinking, and arguing in English?! With a native speaker as your counterpart!! How cool is that?!”
Considering my chronically contentious relationship with the English language, it really shouldn’t strike me as a surprise that I came to realize my own bilingualism in the midst of a fight.
I was born and raised in China. For the first twenty-four years of my life, I spoke primarily Chinese Mandarin and my hometown dialect Kunmingnese. I loved learning English. However, I didn’t have much exposure to native speakers of English until college. My first memories of interacting with native speakers of English were filled with misunderstanding and indignation. One of my English professors in college was a career journalist from Georgia who landed in Shanghai not long before he took a temporary job at our college teaching conversational English. With the stark eurocentrism that often characterized the expats I interacted with in those days, he challenged our culture and our politics in every way possible during class. I’d often leave his class feeling enraged, misunderstood, and powerless: he didn’t speak any Chinese to understand our ways, while I didn’t have enough English to explain complex cultural phenomena in a way that could fit into his worldview. His very existence interrupted the cultural unconsciousness that I lived with up until that point. I hated him with a passion. And I couldn’t wait to transcend my own cultural insulation.
Not long after graduation, I came to the U.S. as an international student, initially to study English, later transferred to Psychology. When I first arrived, I’d often get well-intentioned compliments from the locals: “Wow, your English is really good.” Initially I felt flattered. Soon, I started to feel uncomfortable with these comments. It took me a while to figure out why I was bothered by these well-intentioned compliments: virtually any American could make a judgment on my English proficiency, while the opposite would never happen. The position is one up and one down and there is no room for reciprocity.
As I continued my graduate study, I noticed how often people equated eloquence with intelligence, and confidence with competence. To survive the competition in grad school, I learned to adapt to cultural norms that were completely alien to me: speak up (without raising your hands, before your professor even asks you); ask questions (even though they might sound “stupid”); think on your feet; think critically; take the lead…To make matters worse, in a field that was historically dominated by eurocentrism, I was often one of the few international students in the entire program/externship/internship. I found my unique identities beneficial in the application and interview processes; however, once I got in, these identities and the associated experiences were rarely addressed. What felt more urgent was the pressure to learn, adapt, and assimilate to the mainstream ways of being in that particular institution. Most of my time at grad school, I felt either invisible or inadequate (sometimes both) compared to my domestic fellow students. For most of my graduate career, my bilingualism and biculturalism, with its by-products of a Chinese accent and Chinese ways of thinking/being, were either ignored or seen as a deficiency. “How am I ever going to provide therapy to American clients with their mother tongue?” “Why would someone hire me over a native speaker, if we had the same kind of training?” I often asked myself. These doubts and insecurities led me into a doctoral program, unlike many of my fellow graduate students, who went straight into the job market. It took me another four or five years before I felt completely comfortable doing therapy in English. It took me even more time before I started to see my bilingualism and biculturalism as a source of strength and wisdom.
These days, it still feels a bit surreal at times to realize that I am working as a bilingual therapist at Amherst College Counseling Center, serving a highly verbal and highly intelligent student population. I continue to observe how my biculturalism and bilingualism impact my work with clients in tangible and significant ways. Sometimes it seems that I am automatically given an “in” to work with a mostly monolingual Chinese parent. Sometimes the very fact that I am originally from China serves as a painful reminder to my client who have been traumatized by an immigrant parent. At times my foreigner status gives me more freedom to ask questions that would otherwise seem too contrived/naive to ask, and in turn I get more information. Sometimes the fact that I am a Woman of Color who speaks with a Chinese accent gives people reason to devalue or reject my work. With my bilingual clients, we often move in and out of the two languages and two cultures, depending on what feels most therapeutic and what makes the most sense at the moment of the conversation. Being able to speak two languages and see this world from at least two different perspectives gives me some of the best gifts a therapist could ever ask for: cognitive agility, empathy, tolerance, and a curiosity about others’ humanity.
I think I’ve finally made peace with the English language.