Meet Rhiannon, Fellows Coordinator at our Tufts University SLE Campus.
It seems a bit weird, having two different legal names in two different languages. Depending on which of my grandmothers you ask, I’m either Rhiannon Chou Wiley or 韋凱靜.
But really, that’s just par for the course when you’re a biracial, bilingual, dual-passport-holding, life-long expatriate that grew up attending international school in a nation with four official languages.
I decided to join the Student Language Exchange for selfish reasons. College has taught me that I am most at home when I’m bridging cultures, and with SLE I can foster the same kind of internationally-minded community on campus that I grew up with. But despite my huge amount of cultural capital (and extreme modesty, as you can tell), I don’t think I truly understood the personal impact that SLE could have until I brought my boyfriend home to meet my parents.
During dinner, my mother had barely said a word to my boyfriend, opting to instead fix her fierce Chinese-mother gaze on his extremely white face for the entire meal. Afterwards, I took her to task for being so rude. In return, she yelled at me for half an hour about how she was trying her best, ending her rant with the seemingly out-of-the-blue words: “I wish you would date someone that knows Chinese!”
I will admit I was pretty bewildered by that last statement. My mom has no problem with English— she’s far better at it than anyone else in our family is at Mandarin. Besides, in Singapore, where we’ve lived for years, it’s the most commonly used language. So why does she care if my boyfriend of all people doesn’t speak Chinese?
When I told this story to a friend of mine (who just happens to also be an SLE language fellow), he reminded me of the Nelson Mandela quotation on the front page of the Tufts SLE website:
“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.”
— Nelson Mandela
After finally paying attention to the words on a website that I helped create, I realized something. My mom had been spending the last 25 years of her life frustrated that her family couldn’t pick up on all the nuance and emotion of her words. Yes, we understood Chinese, but her eloquence was lost on us.
I imagined how it must have felt for her. Perhaps she had hoped that one day her children would bring home partners that she could get to know with all the fluidity and ease of Mandarin, rather than having to stop and translate all her questions in her head. Did she fear that with the introduction of my boyfriend, Chinese language and culture would become completely obsolete in our family?
Not everyone grows up in a bilingual household. Not everybody understands how much one’s mother tongue is tied to their heart – heck, for me it took 19 years to realize that, and I actually did grow up bilingual. But once you have that epiphany, it almost feels like a crime not to learn languages of your friends and neighbors. And when you do, SLE will be there to help you do it.
Rhiannon is perhaps the most culturally confused sophomore at Tufts University. When not busy pondering the question of where home is, she enjoys long walks on the beach, reading novels by the fireplace, and forcing others to eat her cooking.
Photo Credit: R. Wiley 2012