On Being Multilingual

Posted on August 31, 2011 by


by Ke Huang

Los Angeles, 2006

A Boeing 767 bellowed a roar above the airport. Beside the Howard Hughes Parkway sign, the shadow of a palm tree swayed its leaves, like linnets’ wings.

I squinted to see the van approaching the stop and repeated the name of the dorm building under my breath. At 19, while a coeval with most of my classmates, my language abilities had to be exceptional. Without cataloguing a language laundry list, I could communicate with 1.7 billion people in their first languages and, for those who carry a pen and paper, I could grasp for some sort of understanding for an extra 201 million, give or take.
If in that summer aliens abducted four random earthlings and me, it would be likely I would know the first language of the 1.119 of my fellow abductees.

But before I come off sounding like a bragger, or as in Mandarin it can be literally translated as a “blower of cows,” I confess that knowing eight languages didn’t preclude me from knowing any one in great depth. I preferred films to books because sentences like:

Sorrow in discovering that the pyramid was not a five-thousand-year wonder of the civilized world, mysteriously and permanently constructed by generation after generation of hardy men who had died in order to perfect it, but that it had been made in the back room at Sears, by a clever window dresser, of papier-mâché, guaranteed to last for a mere lifetime. (62)


Macon Dead was the farmer they wanted to be, the clever irrigator, the peachtree grower, the hog slaughterer, the wild-turkey roaster, the man who could plow forty in no time flat and sang like an angel while he did it. (195)

just made my eyes glaze over. I have to admit that in one Los Angeles winter I went so far as to tell a fellow film company intern that Shakespeare was boring.

2010. I returned to the airport one last time to fly back to the country where I grew up as the daughter of Chinese immigrants. I may have left regretting how ignorant I was of the breadth of the English language, but certainly proud that my proficiency in Romance ones helped me to befriend scores of Angeleno Mexican-Americans.

Lisbon, 2011

A handful of lanky young men and a middle-aged, portly security guard chatted while I sat on a lobby stair, reading Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers.

As I was waiting to volunteer as translator for a troop of singers and dancers coming from China to perform for the celebration of our New Year, it was only fitting I was engrossed in a chapter about how the Chinese culture cultivated industriousness.

Some literary critics surmised that their repatriation forced the “Lost Generation” to portray what it truly means being American. I saw an equivalent relationship with Gladwell’s insight into the Chinese culture. Not that he was Chinese. But that he, an outsider, could dissect my ancestry more objectively. His argument that Chinese agricultural practices spilt over our culture convinced me completely.

London, 2011

“Most of them don’t even speak English. And their cooking! What do they think? We’re in India?”
In response, the bus passenger sitting next to the first passenger laughed, I like to think, more in shock of the political incorrectness than because she really agreed.

I fought the urge to yank the headphones off from my ears and turn around to respond, but given that it was barely my second month in London and I didn’t know when hate speech was allowed in this country, I turned aside to look out of the window and turned up my iPod.

In the park that would welcome the Olympics contenders in 2012, I saw a green horizon dotted with a silver circle of a stadium under construction. The traffic light turned from red to green; the double-decker drove on.

Morrison, Toni. Song of Solomon. New York: Vintage International. 2004.

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