“What are you gonna get?” My family stood at the back of the store, behind the line of customers waiting to order.
The seemingly simple question forced hundreds of thoughts through my head as I redirected my attention to the menu before us. Images of refreshing smoothies decorated the pink walls and AC blasted from overhead vents — a welcomed relief after hours of tourism under the burning China sun. I was visiting relatives in Beijing for the first time in 3 years, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to reading Mandarin. My eyes subconsciously drifted to the English column I usually defaulted to, but I was met with familiar yet foreign characters. My sister, equally as confused, attempted to read out loud. “Apple… something… kiwi?”
In California, being unable to read or speak Chinese was okay. My sister and I would always respond to our parents’ Chinese with English. We’d skip over the bold calligraphy characters dancing across boba shop banners and rely on others to translate the complex jumble of strokes that formed unfamiliar phrases. Chinese had become fragments of memory; my first sentence was in Chinese and I used to speak fluently with my grandparents. Now, I could barely speak without tripping over words or read a picture book without Google Translate. I drifted further from my childhood roots and because I was in America, there wasn’t a need to relearn. Reconnecting with the language was like searching for words that were just out of grasp, trying to taste the sweet nostalgia that was fading away.
I turned to my mom. “What’s this drink called?”
My 5-year-old cousin’s eyes curiously peeked at me from below the menu. “Anna can’t read!” he exclaimed in disbelief, the language easily falling from his native lips. I stared back at him, caught off guard. After a moment of silence, laughter shook my mom’s body and we all joined in. My cheeks fought the hot blush rising from my neck as I stumbled to formulate a defense that he could understand. While my parents and grandparents had accepted my inability to read, he was shocked that I looked Chinese and understood him perfectly, yet couldn’t identify the words he had learned in kindergarten.
“Uh… yeah” I forced myself to remember the words in Chinese. “You can… read better… than a high schooler!” My cousin cracked a smile at my mumbled joke, still confused, blind to the vast differences in language and culture between his family and me. I shook off his words and stepped up to the counter, waiting for my mom to order for me.
On the drive home, my cousin rested his head on my shoulder and my mind filled the humming silence with his accusation. I had to admit he wasn’t wrong. At Chinese restaurants, I always asked my mom to read the menu for me. It was normal to not understand idioms and phrases, because I was a second generation American — only Chinese when celebrating the lunar new year and mid-autumn festival. My cousin’s innocent remarks shattered the bubble that hid me from my culture. He called me out on how far the distance between my language and me had grown, forcing me to confront the hard truth I had avoided for years; there was a barrier of language preventing me from truly connecting with my heritage and extended family.
So as we passed brightly-lit storefronts and towering skyscrapers hiding between grey clouds, I trained my eyes onto the Huawei billboard and slowly sounded out the first line of characters that weren’t so foreign after all.