I’m not sure if what I’m about to describe is a common experience for those who went from being monolingual to bilingual, but for me, there was a specific moment when I “discovered” that I had become bilingual. Here’s how it went: I was in the midst of a passionate argument with a native English speaker regarding something so trivial that I can no longer remember what it was. All of a sudden, I paused—and had this inner dialogue with myself: “Min, do you know that you are feeling, thinking and arguing in English?! With a native speaker as your counterpart! How cool is that?!”
Considering my chronically contentious relationship with the English language, it is no surprise that I came to realize my bilingualism in the midst of a fight.
I was born and raised in China. For the first 24 years of my life, I spoke primarily Mandarin Chinese and my hometown dialect, Kunmingese. I loved learning English. However, I had little exposure to native speakers until college.
Those early interactions were filled with misunderstanding and indignation. One of my English professors at Shanghai University was an American journalist who’d landed in Shanghai not long before taking a temporary job at our college teaching conversational English. With the stark Eurocentrism that often characterized the expats I interacted with in those days, he challenged our culture and politics in every way possible during class. I’d leave feeling enraged, misunderstood and powerless: he spoke no Chinese to understand our ways, and I had too little English to explain complex cultural phenomena in a way that could fit into his worldview. His very existence interrupted my cultural unconsciousness. I was furious with him. And I couldn’t wait to transcend my own cultural insulation.
Not long after graduation, I came to the United States, first to study English, then psychology. I’d often get well-intentioned compliments from the locals: “Wow, your English is really good.” Initially I felt flattered. Soon, I started to feel uncomfortable: virtually any American could make a judgment on my English proficiency, while the opposite would never happen. The position is one up and one down, and there is no room for reciprocity.
As I continued my graduate study, I noticed how often people equated eloquence with intelligence, and confidence with competence. To survive the competition in grad school, I learned to adapt to cultural norms that were alien to me: speak up (without raising your hand, before your professor even asks you); ask questions (even though they might sound “stupid”); think on your feet; think critically; take the lead. To make matters worse, in a field historically dominated by Eurocentrism, I was often one of the few international students in the entire program/externship/internship. I found my identities beneficial in the application and interview processes; however, once I got in, these identities and the associated experiences were rarely addressed.
What felt more urgent was the pressure to assimilate. Most of my time at grad school, I felt either invisible or inadequate (sometimes both) compared to my domestic classmates. For most of my graduate career, my bilingualism and biculturalism, with its by-products of a Chinese accent and Chinese ways of thinking and being, were either ignored or seen as a deficiency.
I often asked myself, “How am I ever going to provide therapy to American clients?” and “Why would someone hire me over a native speaker?” These doubts and insecurities led me into a doctoral program, unlike many of my fellow master’s students, who went straight into the job market. It took me another four or five years before I felt completely comfortable doing therapy in English. It took me even more time before I started to see my bilingualism and biculturalism as sources of strength and wisdom.
These days, it still feels surreal to work as a bilingual therapist at Amherst, serving a highly verbal and highly intelligent student population. I continue to observe how my biculturalism and bilingualism impact my work. Sometimes the very fact that I am from China is a painful reminder to a client who’s been traumatized by an immigrant parent. At times my foreigner status gives me more freedom to ask questions that would otherwise seem contrived or naive, and in turn I get more information. Sometimes the fact that I am a woman of color who speaks with a Chinese accent gives people reason to devalue or reject my work. With my bilingual clients, we often move in and out of the two languages and two cultures, depending on what feels most therapeutic at the moment. Being able to speak two languages, and to see this world from at least two perspectives, gives me some of the best gifts a therapist could ever ask for: cognitive agility, empathy, tolerance and a curiosity about others’ humanity.
I think I’ve finally made peace with the English language.
Min Cheng is a staff therapist in the College’s Counseling Center. This essay is adapted from Confluences: Lost & Found in Translation, a new magazine conceived by Aqiil Gopee ’20, Hapshiba Kwon ’20 and Emily Merriman, a Writing Center adviser. Written, edited and translated by students, faculty and staff, many of whom are bilingual or multilingual, Confluences is one of various campus-wide initiatives celebrating and promoting multilingualism.