“Oh my god, do you see her hair? It is like her roots got in a fight with her split ends and they both lost.”
A burst of laughter mixed with admiration erupted from my childhood best friend as we trod down the cobblestone alley in our favorite square in Wuhan–the Chinese city that I grew up in. “That is a good one,” she said before scanning the crowd for the next victim to our snarky comments.
My best friend and I were both bilingual. In a monolingual city, where the vast majority of the population spoke Mandarin and Mandarin only, the English language had become a door to a secret world to which only the two of us had the keys. It should not be hard to guess that this was not the first time where we blatantly made fun of another passerby, loudly, if I may admit, for no good reason other than boasting to each other about our proficiency in the English language. What gave us the guts to do so was the fact that what we said made no sense to others, anyway. For all they cared, we could have been making a joke about the weather.
Yet it was different this time. The victim to my insult turned around, the anger in her eyes fading into confusion as she glanced at me from top to bottom. “It can’t be this girl,” She must have been thinking, “She is still so young. She simply could not have learned to use words as harsh as this.”
The expression on my face likely mirrored her surprise; my mouth fell open as I took in her Caucasian features. She was a foreigner and highly likely an English speaker–I realized in shock and horror. She had understood every word that I had just said about her, and I wished in that instant that I could vanish into thin air.
My friend and I stood frozen on the sidewalk as she continued to stare at us without resentment or anger but disappointment. I waited for her to walk toward me, scold me for my use of language and lack of manners, but she never did. Instead, she sighed and walked away without turning back even once.
I do not know why she refrained from confronting me; I would sometimes wish that she did when I thought back about this incident in years to come. Perhaps she thought I was still young and decided that I would one day realize how immature, thoughtless, and carried away by my talent I was at the time. Perhaps she did not want to make this experience so shameful for a young girl that she would shiver in guilt every single time she opened her mouth to speak English again. Regardless of what her purpose was, I took it as a gateway to a fresh start. I told myself I could continue to waste my talent by taking advantage of other people’s incomprehension of the language, or I could make better use of it and achieve something far greater than feeling that I had successfully outshined my friend in using the most sarcastic of words available in the English language.
I went on to become an English tutor at my middle school, where I helped fellow Chinese students understand the language in which Dickens had woven the love between Pip and Estella and J K Rowling had constructed the fall of Lord Voldemort. I introduced English speakers to Empress Dowager Cixi’s climb from a concubine to the throne, Soong Chingling’s love for the book Anne of Green Gables, and how the Chinese poet Su Shi from the Song Dynasty had taught me perseverance in adversity. Every time I am questioned why I have become so driven to expedite cultural exchanges, I suppose I would say that it all began with an awakening stare from a stranger.