It took me just over a year to reach a conversational level in Mandarin. Not bad for a guy who was learning how to talk for the first time, huh?
I was born on Ligaw during a cyclone. I was raised on Taiwan for six or seven moons in a swirl of Mandarin and bahasa Shanghai, with Hoklo and Hakka in the streets and the markets. We moved to the mainland before I could count to three in any of the four. In those days the main land was América.
At home we spoke all Mandarin all the time. This had disastrous effects on my dad’s bid to learn English. He couldn’t speak English fluently till around the time I was in college, about two decades later.
As for me, I learned it suddenly. I must’ve downloaded the entire English language to my brain as soon as I started going to school.
When I was a kid, my parents would ask me, “Are you Chinese? Or estadounidense?” They wanted me to be Chinese. But Anglo American mass media and institutions were telling me I was estadounidense, a Stateside American.
When I was twelve, we moved back to the green hills and hot streets of Taiwan. My folks lacked the dime for the American School, so they threw my Chinese-illiterate ass into public school to sweat through thousands of kanji.
The results were miraculous. Within four or five months of leaving my Stateside suburb, I was reading thousands of kanji and keeping up with the Lims across all subjects. I would never — could never walk into a Chinatown or Little Tokyo again and not know what the signs said. I would never be able to recall that feeling again, that feeling of not understanding and taking not understanding for granted.
Some things, once they gone, they gone forever.
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