“The structure and lexicon of one’s language influences how one perceives and conceptualizes the world, and they do so in a systematic way.”– The Linguistic Relativity Hypothesis
When I was walking in mud with eleven other students a few days after arriving at our creepy cabin, Joey finally asked me: ”So Yue, why did you sign up for this service trip?” I should have said something authentic like, “I wanted to practice my English.” But I always went blank and slow when I struggled with English, especially when I’d been using it on a daily basis for only a couple of months. I must have sounded dull to Joey: “To see new things? I don’t know exactly.”
I don’t know exactly what I meant, but we all had a great time painting an old man’s house, patching the leaking roof, getting sweaty and dirty together, and having awesome BBQ burgers. We also played games in Walmart, hung out in downtown Kansas City, and did all the typical things American college students do on a service trip during spring break. It was totally an adventure to me.
It’s hard to discern your initial intention for doing something when you’ve gone so deep into it. Joey didn’t seem quite satisfied with my reply, and neither did I, but that didn’t interfere with our enjoyment of exploring the horrifying woods where our cabin was located. We were all out at midnight then, teaming up to check out this graveyard. While we entertained our minds with haunted houses and vampires, Kelsey suddenly tripped and sprained her ankle. “Hey! Come rescue your girlfriend,” everybody shouted to Andy, who was leading the way, so obsessed with the weird woods.
I was pissed. We were ceaselessly calling him, but this goofy boy didn’t hear us at all. He was disappearing in the woods with nothing but the nonexistent serial killer on his mind. Thousands of words – mostly in Chinese, however – went through my mind: “Such a 混蛋1! Is he for real? Can’t believe he just walked away like that! 真想给他一嘴巴2！” People stopped calling. Andy gave no reply as not ears but something else was positioned on both sides of his head. Seeing his stupid, luminous flashlight bouncing in the dark as he walked with it, I finally exploded: “Your girlfriend SPRAINED HER ANKLE! YOU DUMBASS!!!”
Everybody was struck dumb with astonishment, still and speechless. I was left dying in their silence, wondering if they would see me as a bad girl with an awful attitude. Then suddenly, they burst out laughing so hard that some could hardly catch their breath, even Kelsey herself. “Oh my God! Did you hear it? Yue just called Andy the ‘dumbass’!” “I know, I know!” “Yue, you are the cutest ever!” “Where did you get that from?” “I love how Yue said that.” “Would you say it again?”
Wait, what? Shouldn’t we do something with Kelsey’s ankle first?
A dirty word from me could never cause that kind of effect back in China. I know “dumbass” is a rude word, but how rude? It’s nothing more than a new word to me.
And this is why I like English. I’m discovering a whole new world when I speak or write in English, a world where not knowing what “geek” is could be cute to someone, a world where “chicken tornado” could bring much more laughter than “chicken tortilla,” a world where I can be another person and mess up without a care. I am discovering this new person I can be when I use English. It’s another Yue that was unknown to me. No longer am I afraid of making mistakes or shy and unsure what to do when I meet people. In China, where I’m always overly self-conscious, it’s the custom to have a third person, instead of you yourself, introduce you to those you first meet. Now, I’m bold, and I can easily walk up to people and say, ”I go by Yue. Nice to meet you!”
It’s more than just the language itself; it is something English opens up to me that is so inviting and keeps pulling me in: the people, the culture, the whole different perspective. You don’t know how fabulous this world is until you are actually in it.
“Yue, we’re gonna teach you more swear words,” said Joey on our way back.
Yes, please! I do want to learn more.
I mean, I want to learn more about this new world.
1, 混蛋 means douchebag.
2, 真想给他一嘴巴 means I wish I could slap him in the face.
Swoyer, Chris, “Relativism.” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Winter 2010 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Web. <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/win2010/entries/relativism/>.
Yue Zhang is a finance major at the University of Cincinnati. Born and raised in China, she came to the United States in 2011 and was fascinated by this country’s linguistic and cultural diversity. She wrote this piece based on her first service trip a few months after she came to the United States. She says, “To me, the only foreigner in the group, it offered me a great opportunity to be with Americans 24/7. I was totally soaked in the English-speaking environment where I got to know authentic American culture and myself as well.”