I believe in speaking without words
Editor’s Note: This essay originally contained Mandarin Chinese characters not available for print. To view the full essay, including characters, please visit nprillinois.org.
“Hao bang! (Mandarin Chinese pinyin for good work). My grandmother’s smile lights up her face as she gives me a big thumbs up. “Hao bang! The Chinese phrase literally translates to very well and means good work, but in this case it means “I love you.” My grandmother doesn’t know English, in fact, she doesn’t even know Mandarin Chinese. She speaks a Chinese dialect that I don’t understand. She lives halfway around the world – 7,515 miles away. I only saw her in person for three days of my life and I don’t even know her name. Yet I can understand the pride and love she has for me that is not communicated through the words she says to me that I cannot understand, but through the look in her eyes, the happy expression on her face and the tone of her voice that tells me she cares for me. His message gave me a perspective that I had never seen before. One where I can see that communication transcends language and distance.
When I was younger, I always avoided talking to my grandmother on the phone. I felt uncomfortable waiting for the translations and didn’t know what to say to him. I couldn’t ask her how her day was or if she was healthy. I couldn’t share the joys of my life with her and felt discouraged by the language barrier. I thought there was no way I could really know her. The miscommunication conflicted with my desire for understanding. I learned Chinese so I could talk to my parents, and I learned the Bible so I could connect with people in my church. When I joined a program for aspiring doctors, I learned the jargon used by doctors. When I started getting into baking, I learned about different baking terms and techniques. I saw the impact of words on my life experiences, but when I called my grandmother, I lost the words I had worked so hard for.
What I didn’t realize at the time was the importance I placed on words. I focused too much on what I couldn’t do that I missed the opportunity to find ways to communicate with her. When I see her face light up as she answers my calls, it reminds me that conveying a message is not done through literal words, but rather through the emotions you pour out. “Nai Nai (Chinese Mandarin pinyin for grandma) it’s my birthday,” I tell him in his native language while my father corrects my pronunciation. “Hao bang! ” She answers. This time, I know exactly what she means.
Emily Ye attends Southeast High School.