Paloma O’Connor 2018 Summer Grant Essay

Feb 25, 2019


“只说中文”—or, translated, No English Allowed—was Rule #1 at the Harvard-Beijing Academy (or, as we called it, 哈北班), where I spent my summer. We took the language pledge together on our first day, all eighty-something of us clustered in an auditorium swearing with our hands on our hearts to only speak Mandarin for the next nine weeks.

For the advanced students, the pledge was a minor inconvenience; they had the vocabulary and grammar to say nearly anything they wanted. But for others, like myself and most of my friends, it felt like a wall we wanted desperately to climb over but never could. As second-year students, we had at best the vocabulary of a four-year-old. When I started HBA, I didn’t know the word for “beverage,” let alone “philosophy” or “to broaden one’s horizons.” I took the pledge with a sense of dread, anticipating two months of stilted and shallow conversations.

My fears weren’t unfounded. Our conversations would start with the basics (“The weather is good today!” “Yes, and what good air!”) and, after we had exhausted our limited cache of related vocabulary, lapse awkwardly into silence. Anytime I had a thought I wanted to express, I paused and asked myself—do I have the vocab to say this? When the answer wasn’t no, it was sort of—maybe I only knew half of the words needed; maybe I knew the words but not how to fit them into grammar structures. I would start a sentence, hit an impasse, and have to stop and think for a few seconds before proceeding. I stuttered through sentences and stumbled through conversations.

Underestimating how integral language is to everything we do before is easy before experiencing what it’s like to lose access to most of your vocabulary and grammar. We knew how to do the little things, like ordering food or asking for directions; it was the interpersonal that was hard. Making friends is much more difficult when you can only talk about the weather, the traffic, Chinese class, and where to go for lunch. When we had to convey something more complex, we used our limited vocab and body language to gesture at what we wanted to say, constantly pausing to clear up confusion. I remember trying to say “Braintree”—my friend’s hometown—using the words for “mind” and “tree” and, when that didn’t work, resorting to “the place at the end of the red train” (the Red Line of the T).

As the weeks went on, our vocabulary expanded. We could talk about what our favorite bubble tea place was, our hometowns, our college friends; we became more comfortable with the awkward pauses and silences. As a sort of tongue-in-cheek running joke, we tried to use our newly learned vocab and grammar whenever we could, even when it wasn’t exactly appropriate—every outing became an opportunity to comment on the 空气污染 (air quality) and every street crossing an opportunity to comment on the 堵车 (traffic jams). We learned to find joy in circling slowly around what we wanted to say, getting closer with each revolution. We learned to laugh at our collective communication struggles and to guess what each other was trying to say before they’d even finished their sentence. We showed each other Chinese music and memorized lyrics together, filling our long bus rides with song and laughter. And almost by accident, we became closer and closer friends.

The summer is over now and, with it, our language pledge. Yet when I see my friends from the summer now, we immediately lapse into a haphazard mix of English and Chinese. And while my Chinese is still basic, there are now phrases that I instinctually want to say in Chinese, or phrases I can approximate in English but can’t quite translate. “It’s fun, honestly,” one of my friends remarked at our last get-together. In China, we wanted nothing more than to speak English. Now, back home, we voluntarily return to our days of 只说中文.

This blog post was written by Paloma O’Connor, Harvard College Class of 2021, and recipient of a Harvard China Fund language study grant.