A Moment in My Life – Throwback Thursday, June 10, 2021
Jeannie Yee Davis
Recently, out of nowhere, I ended up having two separate similar conversations triggering a memory that I’ll share for nostalgia’s sake. When I first arrived in San Francisco in elementary school, I was so shy. Audience: “how shy were you?” Okay, all joking aside. I was topnotch shy, and the funny thing about that is that you understand everything that is going on around you, but the people you encounter treat you like you don’t speak their language. Do you know how in sitcoms, the character raises his voice at a foreign person who doesn’t speak English as if they were hard of hearing? The same principle applies here. People tend to treat you stereotypically.
In my case, the school staff and the teachers thought that I didn’t speak English. It’s hilarious they presumed that when my transcripts should indicate I transferred from Canada. Why wouldn’t a Canadian speak English? Oh, right. Come to think of it, parts of Canada spoke French, but that wasn’t my case. They felt I spoke Chinese and asked my soon-to-be desk mate, Rita, to ask me a question in Chinese. I heard them talking to each other, and I understood every word, but did I speak up? No. Why would I? I was shy, remember? Up until this point, I hadn’t uttered a sound. I waited for Rita to ask me her question.
When she spoke to me, she got a “Huh?” and grotesque look out of me. Our teacher asked Rita to speak Chinese to me. Was that Chinese? What did she say? Afterward, she told our teacher that she didn’t think I was Chinese. What? That was Chinese? Many moons later when I got to know my classmates, who were predominately Chinese, I learned that most of them spoke Cantonese, whereas my family spoke Taishanese. Aside from being shy, I went through culture shock here from a predominately Italian community in Canada, which didn’t help matters whatsoever. I always think of Steve Martin in The Jerk, where he said, “You mean I’m going to stay this color?”
If only that introduction broke me of my shyness, but it didn’t. Everybody continued to believe that I didn’t speak English, and I let them, ending me up in their ESL (English as Second Language) program through my junior high years. It was meant to be. I loved everything in ESL. I learned so much more about the English language and grammar that apparently, the English classes all the other students took didn’t teach. I fell in love with the written word from these classes, and my dream of being a writer was born.
Life in ESL was more straightforward and slower, which turned out to be what a shy little girl needed precisely—just a little hand-holding, and from there, I learned from my “real” little English-speaking classmates how to speak Cantonese. After you got the gist of it, it wasn’t that different from Taishanese. It’s rather pretty a dialect and a higher pitch more fitting my preferred speaking tone.
Sometimes I wish I attended regular classes as my older sister did, but I believe everything happens for a reason. She’s 100% outgoing, and I was pretty much the complete opposite. I may not have thrived in regular classes. For that reason, I’ll always be grateful how things turned out, but none of that might have happened had they known I spoke English just fine—if they only knew.