I couldn’t read or write in the seventh grade. Sharp, jagged lines shaped into words that looked foreign to me. I sat at my desk staring at the blank piece of paper, hearing the teacher spit out unfamiliar words. As she paced back and forth through the rows of desks I saw light bulbs turning on and off above my classmates’ heads, but mine remained unlit. I was embarrassed. I could feel the heat rising to my face as she looked down at blank paper, glaring at me with unforgiving shiny black eyes. After class she scolded me.
I was the youngest in my class at a mere eleven years old, my peers were between seventeen and twenty-eight, and I was the only American in the whole school. I felt alone and scared living in a dorm room with a twenty year old girl from South Korea who couldn’t speak English. I had to adapt to my new life. I sat down at my desk looking at the thick workbooks we were given to do for homework every night. Although I could fluently speak Mandarin, I could not read or write in the language, even if my life depended on it. I felt like I was in preschool again, connecting the dots to make a letter, or in this case, a single character. I practiced drawing character strokes and saying the word out loud. The teacher’s words stung like rubbing alcohol being pressed into a cut, “You cannot read or write in Mandarin? You’re a disgrace to your culture!” rung in my ears.
When growing up with a Chinese mother and a Caucasian father, I was always torn between two cultures. Although, being able to learn how to speak fluently in Mandarin wasn’t my first choice, I’ll never regret it because the seventh grade when I couldn’t read or write was actually the best year of my life.
I closed my eyes and see the characters drift from my imagination and slowly flow down my arm, into my hand and finally tickle the tips of my finger tips. My eyes still closed, I began to start with the first stroke, then the second… after finishing a character I would let the word roll off of my tongue, bringing the character to life. I continued to close my eyes and practice writing fifteen characters a day. I would study for hours. I was so determined to show my teacher how wrong she was.
I was confident in myself. My teacher stood from her desk and began to spew out words I memorized for hours. I closed my eyes and saw the image of the character illuminate against the black background. My hand began to work seamlessly as I lightly pressed my fountain pen onto the thin loose leaf paper. Before I knew it, all twenty words were written down, as I handed her my test, she smiled. At the end of class she pulled me to the side before I went up to my dorm, on the paper was written in red ink, “100%”.
In the three weeks that I had learned how to read and write in Mandarin, I realized my strengths and my weaknesses. I’ll never regret the year I couldn’t read or write in the seventh grade.