Let me apologize for the boast implied in the title first. But please rest assured, I’m not writing this piece to boast. Mostly, I just can’t think of a better title for now.
Often I’m asked the question by strangers: “Why is your English so good?” It’d happen on many different occasions, and it’d come from people who speak little English, people who speak English as their second language as myself, and people who are native speakers.
I’ve got it mostly when I was travelling in a foreign country. When people see an Asian girl on her own travelling abroad, I guess they would have a certain level of presumption of her English level. That is understandable. So when they realize I can converse in English at a level more fluently than expected, the above question would sometimes follow.
I’ve also got it on first dates (when I was still dating). Sometimes some European men would be really impressed by my English. At times like this, I got a little annoyed. Because please, we are on a date, isn’t there anything else about me that you can be impressed with?
I also got it when people read my writing in English for the first time. I’m told many times that a lot of native speakers can’t write English as well as I do. I don’t know if that’s true, but I guess it has something to do with my personal interest in writing and my fundamental English learning experience in China which makes a sheer focus on grammar. (This I will touch on later).
A more unconventional occasion I’ve got this was in an interview once. I was being video-interviewed by an American guy sitting in Califonia in a fund company, and after a few minutes of normal conversation he out of blue said “I don’t understand why your English can be so good?” I didn’t get that job in the end after 10 rounds of interviews, but I’m certain it has nothing to do with this guy.
In the beginning, I took these questions as compliments, becoz they are. And I was flattered. I honestly never think my English is so good (on the contrary, it’s never good enough) and something worth this many compliments. But gradually, as it happens so much and so often, the joy of receiving compliments starts to wear off, and instead, it starts to bother me, becoz I never know how to respond to this kind of comment properly. For a start, I’m not sure if I should take it as a real question or it’s just something people say. And then, if it’s a real question and people do expect a truth-revealing direct explanation, I don’t think I have anything like that to satisfy them. It bothers me to disappoint people unnecessarily.
A typical conversation would go like this (*I’m not making this up):
Your English is really good, why is that? I can’t hear any accent.
Oh, thanks. But I do have an accent. I can hear it myself.
Not really. You might have some American accent. Did you study overseas for a long time?
Never, I always wish I had though. I just did a 4-month exchange in New York during my undergraduate study.
Oh, it must be that then!
Hmmm, not really. I didn’t speak a lot to anyone when I was in New York. I was a little depressed in that semester.
And then it gets unnecessarily awkward and the conversion kinda goes to a dead end. But all I’m trying to do is simply to tell the truth. I can’t recall how many times this kind of conversation has happened and I really wish there was a quick fix to this. A convenient explanation that can satisfy people’s curiosity and just get it over with. But here’s nothing like that. There wasn’t any miraculous switch. It didn’t happen in one day, nor one concentrated period of time. All the effort I’ve put into English since I was little, is a slow, cumulative, and ongoing process. On that, I’m sure many people who have devoted their lives to a foreign language and master it as their own would resonate. And my experience isn’t anything special nor my skillset impressive.
Thinking back, I don’t think anyone has really asked me any details about how I learned English. People usually see the outcome and assume there must be some trick behind the outcome and that seems to be all they’re interested to know, your trick, not your process. So I’m writing this now, my personal history of adopting English as a language I use every day to live, work and write, with no tricks involved. And why? Simply becoz no one ever asked.
I will start by laying out all the facts that are unique to me first. There’s really only one – my mother was a middle school English teacher all her life until she retired a few years ago. Now you must think, no wonder. Ok. Has my mother being an English teacher helped with my English? I guess yes. I must give her some credit, but not becoz she passed on some great tricks of learning English or amazing language talent. I never for once was impressed with my mother’s English level or the way she teaches. (Don’t get me wrong, she is a great teacher, and her English level is that of someone who learned English as her university major but rarely used English as a language in her real life. For her, English is a job, a means of livelihood. And she was great at that.) I must give her credit for the fact she made me think, at a very young age, that I must excel in English becoz otherwise, it’d disgrace her. I don’t mean it in a negative way. Everyone has to face some specific parenting style as they grow up. And my mother, when I just started in primary school, made sure I feel a certain pressure, generally, but also specifically with the subject of English. It was with the determination that “I must excel in English” did I start my English learning journey. Compared to talent, I think that “determination” mattered much more at an early stage.
As a result, I did excel in English, as a mandatory subject, all the way from primary school to the day I graduated from high school. I’d always get the top grades in English in the whole school and met little competition. In both the high school entrance exam and the national college entrance exam, the two most important exams in every Chinese student’s life, I received scholarships for my outstanding English grades. These are ancient history. But back then, English to me was more of a glory than a language I’d use. No one used English back in school. We had oral English lessons taught by foreigners but it was more like a joke. I started to listen to English pop like Avril Lavigne, Linkin Park, and I’d skim through the lyrics book and check any new words I came across. I even faintly remember some childish attempts at writing poems in English. But really, the one and only objective with English in my mind was to do good in exams, a skill I more or less mastered since I was 6.
Then I came to Hong Kong for university, and English was the language used in almost everything. That was when I realized my “good English” was merely an illusion masked by the good grades that no one would give a shit in the real world. I was amazed by how other students my age could already speak English so fluently and quickly realized the education system where I came from didn’t really prepare me for competition at that level. There was a big discrepancy that needed to be filled up. We had a lot of language classes in the first year and it was a nightmare in some way. Overnight, English turned from my source of glory to my source of self-abasement. It was a difficult time, the first two years of college. I was also suffering some other issues such as an undiagnosed depression and compulsive eating disorder. Being fat, unhappy, and losing my English is how I remembered that one to two years.
I spent the rest of college time chasing up, on English and everything else. In some way, in retrospect, I know that getting back my pride in English is part of the process of regaining a sense of normality. I needed that to feel ok again. And I did feel ok again. The gap wasn’t too impossible to fill up and soon I felt my English was at least back to an acceptable position among my school peers. I started to notice some good English writings by people from a similar background as me and I greedily studied them and wondered if I’d be able to write like that in English one day.
Then it was the year of master in Journalism. Inevitably, it requires a lot of writing. I started to write English more seriously from then and also started to do some personal writings in English. I’ve always loved writing and in some way, I know it’s one of the few things I can be pretty good at. So I diverted some of my Chinese writing time to English, just for practice’s purpose. In the master’s program, my grades were back to the top again and English helped a lot. Upon graduation, I dreamed of getting a job in a foreign press, any foreign press. As a fresh graduate with top grades from an ok journalism school, I didn’t think it was too out of my reach. And the reality was, I couldn’t convince any foreign press that my English was good enough to get an interview, mostly becoz (I guess) I’m not a native speaker on paper. The best I can get is English-related jobs in local media. I did that briefly (English reporter, translator) before joining a Chinese TV station and lost touch with English on a professional level for about 4 years.
It was a rather frustrating time. Not only was I facing some conflicting career choices which could be a lot to take on when one was young, but I also felt rejected for something fundamental that I could’t change despite all the effort I put in. But thinking back, it was probably at that time that a renewed determination started to root in me, that one day I will be able to use English as good as any native speaker does.
That of coz, never happened. And I don’t think, or expect it will happen anymore. Throughout these years, I’ve understood that there’s no point trying to conceal my Chinese accent or feel shy becoz of it, (what other accent could I possibly bear anyways?) nor do I fuss over the fact that my writing will never be “native” enough. If I may to jump to a major revelation here, it takes accepting one’s true origin to really excel in a foreign language.
Back to the timeline a bit. (Sorry if it’s boring, but I have to tell it this way) After I joined the Chinese TV and have more or less settled career-wise, I felt strongly that my real adulthood had begun. And it was from then I started to really adopt English as a life tool, instead of a tool to exchange for a life. I started to travel myself as much as I could. I read novels in English as long as an English version was available. I subscribed to The New Yorker even tho many articles in it were beyond my understanding. I wrote half-half in English and Chinese to dispel an overwhelming youngster’s angst/blue. I had my first English-speaking relationship and new “daily life” vocabularies started to flow in; I still remember the huge frustrating feeling when I had my first couple-fight in English and was seriously disadvantaged due to my lack of words. And so on and so forth. Life has its own way of pushing you to things you’re determined to excel in.
By the time I was more settled in my adulthood, I had also reconnected with English in the professional space. After four years with the Chinese TV station, I happened to be at a crossroad in my life in every aspect. I decided to come back to Finance for a change and quickly got a transition job thanks to my “good English” (a translator for an investment bank) before I gradually found my way in content marketing. Today, my job requires some writing in English – not just on a daily emailing level, but also on a ghost-writing thought leaderships for (native-speaking) fund manager’s level. Sometimes when I was writing those pieces, a strong sense of oddity came upon me, like who am I to be writing a thought leadership piece in English about something I’m no expert at? Why do they even trust me for that?
My English writing is not perfect of coz, and I would send in every piece I wrote to my UK colleagues for a quality check and it’d usually make my day when I got a brief recognition like “really like this piece”, “very interesting” or “your English writing is great.” In a similar way, it weighs as much as the highest grade I got when I was in primary school.
I also still do my personal writing in English. In fact, I almost only write in English now, for reasons briefly mentioned in my previous piece on Being Chinese. Writing in English takes much more time and I struggle all the time to find the right words to fit in a sentence and a right way to put a sentence, but I kinda enjoy this constant struggle, despite the time-consuming nature. Many writers, such as Murakami, Kundera, have shared the same feeling of using an adopted language to explore a different channel of expression, a more straightforward, freeing way. For me, I started to write in English more or less out of a need to practise, and that comes from my deep-rooted unexplainable determination to excel in English. In this process of practising, I slowly realized the charm of expressing oneself in a second language and developed a need for the distance it provides, the distance that can be so valuable when it comes to translating minds into texts, a distance I don’t have with Chinese.
And practice does make perfect. After the numerous attempts of writing unheeded personal essays in English, I do feel I’m getting slightly better at it. As I’m writing this piece now, I have just finished my second short story (or novelette, the word count guideline is kinda confusing). In hindsight, I guess it’s something the 6-yo little girl couldn’t possibly have predicted she’d do one day, not even with her determination to excel in English. As I said, life has its own way of pushing you towards things you’re really determined to excel in. But I guess there has to be something more than the determination, there needs to be some sincerity, some craziness, and a ridiculous amount of effort.
These days when I’m complimented for my English again I usually just laugh it off, same way when people tell me I don’t look my age at all. Am I supposed to still feel flattered after hearing it one third of my life? No. You just let it in from the left ear and let it out from the right one. I never forget how old I am just becoz people tell me I don’t age, as much as I don’t forget my English is not good enough. And it never will be. I don’t pass a day without learning something new in English, a new word, a new expression, a new way to tell a feeling. I gather them here and there, or I just create a new sentence myself. I constantly keep a monologue in my head (I do that in Chinese too), reorganize a same sentence in my mind a hundred times and write down the one that I like, which very likely I’d realize I don’t like anymore the day after. I don’t think I need to go on with my list of peculiar behaviors.
The point is, I know no shortcut of being “good” at English, but I try to share as much as I can. When I think about it, I admit I might have a little talent with language. The so-called language talent might have given me a headstart, but it was really the amount of time I put in it that brings me where I am now, which, to be honest, is nothing to brag about.
A friend told me her young cousin has been reading my essays to learn English, and she often encountered new words that she’d need a dictionary with. This makes me really, really happy. I wanna tell her, this is exactly how I learned English, and it’s still how I learn English.