No, I Don’t Speak Mandarin

What does culture mean to you?

“You know how in Chinese, the first character for swan…”

“No.”

Stop right there. I do not know anything about the characters for swan. Turning to my classmate, I repeat the phrase for the hundredth time in my life: “See… I don’t speak Chinese.”

Starting when I was young, it’s always been a sore spot; I was the child of two Chinese immigrants, yet my vocabulary in Mandarin was limited to “Hello”, “Want” and “Refrigerator.” Worse, I felt like the only one with this deficiency; anytime I visited a Chinese friend’s house, I couldn’t understand many of the conversations, leaving me feeling awkward and clueless. Sure, our family celebrated Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival, but outside of that, I felt that the culture was at least a linguistic ocean away. I regretted that my parents had never taught me the language, feeling that I didn’t fully fit in as Chinese. So where did I fit in?

“No, I don’t speak Chinese,” yet it also felt like I’d missed some lessons on American culture. Cultural osmosis had given me a vague idea of what things were “supposed” to be like, but both my parents and I were clueless about the specifics; I still hadn’t found my place. It didn’t help that by the time I was ten, I’d moved twice, placing me in an unfamiliar environment where friendships and peer groups had already been solidified with time. The one thing that did help was my propensity for passion, or something like it. This let me find a shared environment in middle school, befriending others with similar interests through math team and Lego robotics competitions; I made a few friends who matched, or even exceeded my enthusiasm. Yet, it was short of critical mass; it didn’t feel like a team, a community. Perhaps two or three of us could bond over the excitement of solving competition math problems or building a robot, but at the middle school level, there was too much variation in commitment, in intensity.

“No, I don’t speak Chinese,” but who else cares? At Mathcamp, the only other language that matters is that of equations and symbols—of logic and problem solving. Though I probably heard fellow students speak more Mandarin than I would in school, I might as well have felt “No, I don’t speak Klingon.” It was here, amongst games of bughouse at midnight, commutative diagrams, and Klein-bottle hats that I found what I was searching for. I had never before met so many peers with the same unbridled passion, and it felt wonderful—to be part of a union of like minds echoing off one another, finding solace in similar things. I saw passion as the key, the unifying factor.

I took this attitude with me to high school, and even when I moved across the country, I never again worried about where I belonged. After all, I am easily ignited. Certainly in math, but also in theater, in Academic Decathlon, or in computer science, my enthusiasm makes me burn with fire. And between 12-hour rehearsals or cramming material on the plane to AD Nationals, I knew that there are others who feel the same—those willing to throw all their energy at something, because that’s just how much they love it.

“No, I don’t speak Chinese,” but I don’t care any more. I may miss out on conversations and be clueless about characters, but many of my friends that understand Mandarin will never know the joy of singing show tunes at midnight after a successful show. And most friends I made in theater won’t understand the mathematician’s sorrow when restaurant napkins are too small to solve problems on. So I will go forwards, allowing my zeal for any and every activity I do to lead me to others. For it’s when I’m contributing to a community of similarly passionate people that I feel most at home.

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