LEARNING TO SPEAK
ANNE LIU KELLOR
When we break silence at the end of the meditation retreat, I am surprised by the sounds of others’ voices. How the pitch and inflections of the woman who sat next to me do not match the person I had imagined when all I knew was her presence, the way she entered the room, took off her shoes, and settled onto a cushion to sit. Her speech feels too human, somehow intrusive, and I wonder if mine will sound this way too.
Once words are allowed, we feel pressured to speak. Nervous laughter, bristled edges of defense, or notes one octave too cheerful creep slowly back into conversations as we recall the task to assert who we are, to announce our individual selves, to form unique narratives and opinions. We return to old patterns, imitations of self, because words are worth more, or so we’ve been taught. Because too many in this world have stayed silent.
The voice of my mother. The voice of my grandmother. As an infant, the first tones I heard were Chinese. The soft murmurs of the women who held me and rocked me and sang me to sleep. Soothed by their voices, I drifted in a world without language, and yet I was already learning the sounds of Chinese. The voices of my ancestors, passing again from mother to child, rising and falling, imprinted their memory in my cells.
English, the language of my father, was also familiar to me, but it was less prominent, somewhere on the periphery, somehow more connected to the world of people who lived outside the intimacy of my home. In preschool I understood the language that floated around me, but I had little experience asserting myself within its midst. This world was something else, something I was a part of and yet somehow removed from. At first, my teachers were worried because I was so quiet. Then slowly I learned how to play and talk in a world of English. My teachers happily reported to my parents that I had been caught with the other girls peeking into the boys’ bathroom. It was a sign of progress. But I never stopped being quiet.
In college, I wanted to be invisible. I longed to dissolve into the moss-laden trees of the forest, to slide into a room like smoke and dance through its crevices, then slip away before anyone could ask my name. Hiding behind thick glasses and under long ponchos, I wanted to discard my old ideas of self, built around image and beauty. I spent days alone, taking long silent walks, reading mystics like Rumi, and writing pages about loneliness and God. More than anything I longed to be seen, but I was still too raw to risk full exposure.
In China, my struggle to communicate became more elementary. First I needed to relearn the basics: how to introduce myself, make small talk, order food. Yet the longer I stayed the more I wanted to say. Language was my passport, my key to belonging. If I could master the words, then I could share my full self. So much vocabulary was new, yet the sounds of Chinese had never left me.
Every day people stared like I was an alien. I caught their whispers, trying to place me. They’d hear my fluent tones, yet see my sharp nose, my big breasts, and brown hair, a shade lighter than their own. Some might venture a guess: hun xue, mixed blood, or I might volunteer this myself. But as time passed, the less I cared to give a simple answer. Let them whisper, let them guess. I am tired of trying to prove that I belong.
Through silence I know how to listen. Through silence I gauge when to speak. Through silence I have learned how to sense when a channel to exchange meaning is open, or when I am caught in a volley of empty rounds. In silence, I remember how to give and receive, let go of the need to have something to say, the urge to cast myself in relation.
But silence can also suffocate, settling in my chest in layers like silt, a sign that I have waited too long. I want now to speak more than anything, yet it feels more comfortable to stay hidden. A web of gauze winds circles around my face, even as love song trembles through my body.
For years I went on, restraining, withholding. But the more I learned to reveal, the less I could bear to hide. Slowly, steadily, a line was drawn— a desire stretched taut across my throat, an old and tired seam splitting open.