Alone With My English

Since my grandfather died, I’ve wanted to connect with my extended family, despite our language barrier.

by Ava Wong

iStock, Philipp Harms

​​​As I walked into the kitchen, I sensed the chaos of my family—the clattering of pans, the screaming of aunt over aunt, the toddler running between rooms. I sat patiently, languages flying. 

“It’s time for dinner! Hurry up and eat!” 

I craved nothing more than fading away at family events. It was too much sometimes. My grandmother and her siblings lived in Stockholm, Sweden, and for the first time since my grandfather passed away, my entire family had flown in to visit. 

Kids, stop playing your game now! Focus on the food!”  

That was another problem—​​I ​​spoke ​only ​English, while my grandparents, aunts, and uncles, primarily spoke various dialects of Chinese: Mandarin, Cantonese, or Wenzhounese. Every time I tried to speak to them, I could only stumble through fragmented conversations of broken English and Mandarin. 

Being back in Stockholm, struggling to communicate with my relatives, reminded me of my grandfather’s absence, and of how a language barrier prevented us from ever being able to talk.  

As my family sat down to eat, crowding around the small dining table, I awkwardly joined them, unsure of what to grab first. 

“Do you want some noodles?” asked my aunt in Mandarin, gesturing to the plate in front of her. I looked up at her and nodded. 

Thanks,” I murmured back in Mandarin as steam rose from the food on my plate. My pronunciation was off—​ ​my mouth failed to replicate the warmer tones and sounds, the word rolling off with a sharp vowel and an awkward English-like delivery, lacking the finesse of a native speaker. 

“Smile at the camera!” another one of my aunts exclaimed. Everyone scattered around the table stopped to smile. At any other dinner, my grandfather would have been the one taking photos with his old, clunky camera. He would snap a couple of pictures while holding everyone’s attention, and later some of them would appear in the pile of photo albums stacked high in his bedroom. 

I thought back to the few tangible things I had left of him: a deck of cards of places in China, a set of Chinese checkers, and the children’s song he taught me when I was younger. 

A Stilted Goodbye 

My last memory of my grandfather was in his hospital room. Two weeks after he was hospitalized due to cancer, I was pulled out of fifth grade gym class, rushed to Sweden, and suddenly found myself in a sterile, gray hall, lost in a group of people there to say their goodbyes.  

When my brother and I entered his room, I approached his bedside, trying my best to ignore the strings of tubes and machines surrounding him. 

As I looked at him, I wondered how to say goodbye. My Chinese was too limited to express what I could have said in English, so I settled for the one, familiar phrase that my mother had made me and my brother repeat, over and over again, to our relatives as kids.  

I love you. I miss you.” Having been repeated in so many contexts, these six, familiar words felt inadequate. 

It was a stilted goodbye. My mind searched its meager word bank for anything else I could say. But there was nothing. 

My grandfather passed away later that night. The whole extended family packed the room as everyone said their final goodbyes. 

A couple days later my brother and I headed back to New York. The funeral would take too long to schedule, so we wouldn’t be able to stay for it. I took my seat on the plane, and I was filled with regret. 

If only I had been able to, or pushed myself, to speak to him more, to know him better. But a wall had formed, and I had no way to cross English with Mandarin. I was stuck, away from my family. 

How could I even begin to bridge that gap with my grandmother, aunts, uncles, and cousins? 

Linguistic Indigestion 

​​​Half a year later, back in Stockholm, my aunt snapped the photo. The click set my family back into motion, everyone moving around the table. It was strange being back after my grandfather’s death. My grandmother had moved homes, and her new apartment’s modern styling felt empty and unfamiliar, devoid of my grandfather’s black armchair, the plastic covered furniture, and the messy collection of newspapers that he had always kept. 

In this new place, I felt even further from my family. I was reminded that our time together was limited. If I wanted to connect with them, I couldn’t keep putting it off. 

My grandmother’s voice soon filled my ears, the familiar yet foreign tones of Wenzhounese filtering in. The dialect was from my grandparents’ home city, Wenzhou, and it was nothing like Mandarin, with different tones, words, and pronunciations. Her words escaped me, and I looked around the table, trying to use context to identify what she might be trying to say.  

To someone who cannot speak a language, who does not know the words, languages sound faster. When people talk, they do not pause. ​​They do not stop between words like a space bar. Thus, I found myself unable to separate my grandmother’s words, translations getting lost between syllables that seemed to meld together into one string of tones. 

I cursed myself. Why hadn’t I learned earlier? There were so many books, videos, and websites I could have used—it seemed ridiculous that I had not at least taught myself a couple more words. 

Losing Language 

The regrets bound up like a tangled knot, as the rough, interconnected web only reminded me of a simple truth: I had no way to connect with my family.

When I was young, I never felt much pressure to learn Chinese. My grandparents understood that I was a child, still trying to learn the strange, thick tones.  

On visits, whenever we went out on walks, and during dinners, they would teach me words, pointing to things and sounding out the strange syllables. When I would say something, they attempted to fix my pronunciation, helping me repeat the words I had mispronounced.   

Yet I never improved, struggling to respond back every time.  

When I was 8, as preparation for my second time visiting my grandparents, my mother gave me three workbooks for learning Chinese. From apple to one hundred, these books promised to teach it all. I wanted to learn, but the books were boring, filled with children’s drawings and yellowed pages, and exercises that required more effort than I was willing to put in. So I only pretended to do them, rifling through their pages, but never telling my mother the truth: that they were untouched. 

At home in New York, I always spoke English. By the time I wanted to try to properly learn Mandarin, it felt too late. Too difficult to ask for help, and too difficult to piece the words back together in my now clumsy mouth. Chinese felt so far out of my grasp and, with it, my family. 

As much as I wanted to get to know my grandmother, to build the memories with her that I hadn’t with my grandfather, to have a connection that went beyond indirect stories and gifts, and to make her more than a faraway presence in my life, it seemed impossible. Especially with the physical distance—thousands of miles apart and a six hour time difference—it felt like, every time I came to Stockholm, I was running out of opportunities. 

At a crowded dining table designed for six but feeding 15, I sat, silent and alone with my English. I felt like I had lost yet another opportunity to get closer to my grandmother. It was as if, through childish decisions, I had made myself an outsider in my family. To them, I was just my silence. 

I had limited myself, and it felt like, by accident, I had minimized my family. There were so many things I could have done. Should have done. ​​The regrets bound up like a tangled knot, as the rough, interconnected web only reminded me of a simple truth: I had no way to connect with my family. 

An Indirect Approach 

Three years passed before I saw my grandmother again, during the summer after my freshman year of high school, after not being able to visit her due to the pandemic. 

When she opened her door, I stumbled over the simplest word. “Hello!” I was horrified to find that my tongue had forgotten the tones. The greeting sounded awkward and foreign, like I was tripping on every single syllable as I spoke. 

So as the day went on, I avoided my grandmother. I did not want to have another awkward moment where she saw how far below nothing my Chinese had disappeared to. Through the big family dinner, with another barrage of aunts, uncles, cousins, and my grandmother, I avoided speaking. I kept quiet, playing up the tired card. 

After dinner, when most of my extended family had left, my grandmother and aunt sat on the pale beige sofa, watching a Chinese drama. Immediately, my eyes lit up with recognition. My friend was a fan of the show, so I was familiar with it, even having watched the first episode.  

Oh! I know that,” I said in shaky Mandarin, pointing to the television screen.  

My grandmother’s eyes widened in surprise. “You know this one? You should join us, Ava!”  

My aunt picked up the remote. “Let me see if there are subtitles I can put on for you.”  

Hesitantly, I sat on the corner of the sofa. Over the next week, I came back and continued watching C-dramas with English subtitles with my grandmother and aunt. Each time, I inched slowly closer to my family until I was finally able to sit on the sofa, relaxed. 

It felt nice to inch out of my silence, and C-dramas became part of our days together—a new tradition, but one cheapened by the fact that I still couldn’t talk to my grandmother. It felt like a bittersweet compromise, like I was settling for a lesser method of communication over learning to speak Mandarin, and one that wouldn’t build the connections that I wished for. 

Still, even if a gap remained between us, I had created a small set of memories with my grandmother, something more tangible than the items and little pieces I had of my grandfather. 

It was a start. 

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