Of Crossing Ponds and Oceans

Meet the third of our four new Storytellers, Kathy! In her spotlight post, she contemplates the literal and figurative distances she’s traveled over the years away from the language and culture of her grandparents, and how it forms part of her motivation to join SLE. 

I have never been able to understand my grandparents. When I was 12 years old and living in Saudi Arabia, my father would call home every Saturday morning and speak to my grandparents in their native Chinese dialect, a seemingly haphazard blend of shortened syllables and eccentric tones that I could not begin to comprehend. The perpetual distance that separated us (my immediate family and I moved out of China when I was three, and have not lived less than a couple thousand miles away since) made communication almost impossible.

My grandparents’ Chinese dialect is unique to the little village they were born in, raised in, and eventually will be buried in. To reach this quaint village, just barely self-sufficient, is quite the challenge: first, you must fly, from wherever your current home is, to the Southern cultural hothouse of Wuhan. From there, a seven-hour bus ride through the scenic countryside will bring you to the charming town of Qichun, the biggest town for hundreds of miles, with a population of 160,000 people – 70,000 of whom still make a living off of agriculture.

The streets are paved with a combination of cheap concrete and dirt. Too narrow for a bus to drive through, instead a streetcar will take you down a bumpy, unpaved road, through mini forests of trees and shrubs, through places where it doesn’t seem a car would fit. Finally, two hours later, the car makes a final turn across a large pond, but must stop halfway because the dirt bridge in the middle is too narrow to fit. Apparently, several years ago, a car actually fell into the pond – all the villagers made a joint effort to pull it out, but couldn’t save the engine.

Across the dirt bridge, you finally arrive at the home of my grandparents. Three concrete houses stand in a line behind the pond, with a pigsty shoddily erected to the side and a shabby, falling-apart outhouse welcoming you. The long, arduous trek to this little village should be the hardest part of bridging the gap and reaching out to my grandparents, but my inability to understand the Southwestern dialect of my ancestors poses a much greater challenge, and threat.

Whenever my grandmother tries to ask me a question, my brows furrow in confusion and I must call my father over to translate; although she can understand me when I speak mandarin back, my inability to reciprocate means having a proxy conversation that is simply not the same as being able to understand her immediately. Although I would love to learn the language, Chinese dialects only differ in sounds and not in written language, and I no longer have access to the resources to do so – I’ve lived away from all of my family since I was 14, and no one else I know outside of that little village speaks it. The hours of practice speaking cannot be obtained over Skype calls and there is no Rosetta Stone to learn a language that barely 0.1% of the world’s population speaks.

I have never been able to understand my grandparents, and I will never be able to. The nuances of their language, the cultural implications behind it, are lost on me. I can travel for days, thousands of miles, across back country roads and oceans, on airplanes and by car, but I can’t have a conversation about something so simple as how my day went. This fact brings me immense sadness, and it is also the root cause of my involvement with SLE.

These lesser-known languages preserve a part of our world that has long been deemed outdated, special places that thrive off of sunshine and sweat and labor rather than industry and machines, places with an eccentric view of life that is so different from the rush and bustle most of us experience today. If SLE can teach languages like this to just one person, the world becomes a more enlightened and open place. Language opens the door to the past, a door that so many people have haphazardly closed, myself included: SLE seeks to reopen this door and reconnect us.


Kathy is a sophomore at Georgetown University majoring in Economics. She is also actively involved in the Parliamentary Debate team among other organizations on campus.


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