RN: Ai, thank you so much for agreeing to have this conversation with me. I am excited to talk to you about “Give Me English”, and – having read it several times now -- I think the story will provide us with some excellent topics for conversation.
Before continuing, I want to warn the reader: there will certainly be spoilers, as Better Dreaming talks about whole stories, not about parts of them. Please do read the story first.
Ai, this is an excellent story. One of the things it does very well is to make an abstract concept (the relationship between language and economic success literal, by deftly constructing an allegorical world in which language itself can be bought and sold – individual words traded as a commodity for real-world objects or other words. Before we take a deeper dive and examine some of the finer edges of this allegory, can you tell me how the idea originated?
AJ: Being born in China, Mandarin is my mother tongue, but having spent my childhood from age four in Canada, my fluency in English grew exponentially while my Mandarin has become rusty from lack of use over the years—but my dad forces me to use it when I'm with him, responding to nothing else but Mandarin, and my grandmother can only speak Fujianese fluently and broken Mandarin, so we often sound like two skipping records when we speak to one another. And though I can still speak Mandarin conversationally, there are times where I will trip up in the middle of sentences or grow frustrated searching my mind for a word I should know but have forgotten.
When I began searching for employment, there were always application fields where I'd have to fill out stating the languages I know. I never had enough confidence to say that I am fluent in Mandarin because I can't read or write it. I could speak it conversationally, but I'd suffer from extreme anxiety if I had to use it in a professional setting—though if my life depended on it, I probably could. There were certain work places I looked into, like bubble tea shops, where it is often desirable for an applicant to know English, Mandarin, and Cantonese—ideally all three, but sometimes two may suffice. Postings for Canadian government jobs may often ask for fluency in two languages as well—English and French. Knowing more than one language, better yet several languages, often results in more expansive networking access and employment opportunities.
And this got me wondering what it would be like if society developed in a way that required individuals to know more languages rather than finetuning translation devices. What if language became currency, as it often aids us in obtaining monetary wealth in foreign countries? For immigrants, job opportunities seem limited because of language barriers. And in terms of education, not all degrees transfer between countries, and to go back to school might not always be an option. This was the case with my parents, who were teachers in China, but couldn't continue to be in Canada because their degrees were no longer valid. I had asked my mom previously if she'd consider going back to school to acquire a degree to teach in Ontario, but she'd only reply saying learning another language at her age would be too difficult.
RN: I can certainly relate to the connection between language and financial / employment success. In Turkmenistan I was an English teacher, and for years afterward, I worked in educational development before joining the Foreign Service, where I still am involved in running a number of exchange programs, the vast majority of which require a knowledge of English.
For my students in Turkmenistan, learning English meant so many things – access to a wider world of information, access to employment opportunities, the ability to use the internet (so much of which is in English) and access to educational opportunities in the West. In a world dominated by a single language, knowledge of English was the obstacle they had to overcome in order to access almost anything.
On top of that, it is knowledge of Russian which got me where I am today: learning it in the Peace Corps opened employment doors to me that would have otherwise been closed. But for an immigrant, English is not only a matter of success, but also of survival, and I love the way success and survival are so entangled here: it isn’t just about building a vocabulary to succeed: it is also about a fear of losing so much of that vocabulary that you literally cannot speak anymore. There is no “linguistic safety net” – and I saw this, in a way, as a reflection on the lack (or erosion) of a social safety net in many countries of the West. Was that the way you intended it?
AJ: Initially, I had intended the language loss and gain to also symbolize the loss of language to varying degrees by immigrants as they migrate to another country. Those who become immigrants at a young age, much like myself, will often struggle with holding onto our heritage languages with one reason being lacking practice and use, especially when those we spend most time with do not speak our heritage language (I'm referring to school specifically). In the story's society, citizens must shift with whichever language becomes the most dominant, which is often one that is most affordable, common. I intended to show both a disconnection and connection that is the result of language use and ownership—not only in terms of financial and social security but also in terms of the familial and its dynamics.
But in relation to the social safety net in many countries of the West, I wanted language in this society to also speak of institutional and job market issues, where many jobs require more than simply having a degree of some sort. In the story world, knowing simply one language is no longer enough. And in the real world, often only having a degree is no longer enough.
RN: You make a very good point about jobs and the degree requirements: as we are writing this my partner is finishing up a second master’s degree in order to remain even minimally competitive in her field, and I went back a few years ago for a master’s as well, although I am well along in my diplomatic career. It seems like everything in the world is increasingly inflationary: degrees, demands on students to get into the schools they want to study, the requirements of the marketplace for even entry-level positions – I feel like you really capture that competitive nature well. I want to return to that point, but first: one of the metaphors I really love in this story is the equation of homelessness with silence / the inability to speak. I think the usual metaphor applied to homelessness is “invisibility” – but in a way, this is even more powerful. And then the detail of people writing words on the homeless people that they cannot read – that was stunning. Tell me a bit about your thoughts behind this.
AJ: Brewing on this story got me thinking about the voicelessness of individuals who have less power and wealth in society—those who are often talked over and their words devalued because of their social class and status. These individuals shunned from the rest of society are also often stigmatized, labelled and placed in categories that they cannot control, words associated with their identities that they can't remove or change. Those with more power, more wealth, have more opportunities to voice their opinions, have it matter, create change, make a difference. Though there is power in the collective, the powerful and wealthy hold great influence at the individual level and have the ability to silence those without similar access. One of the focuses I wanted to emphasize in the piece is how language knowledge is also a metaphor for the hierarchy of power in society, and also in a more literal sense, where citizens are physically incapable of speaking if they don't have the wealth of language—or in the case of our world, wealth in general.
But more than that, I wanted homelessness to also hold both literal and metaphorical importance in the story, where for the silent, it is because they cannot afford homes. But in the case of our narrator 玉河, her homelessness takes the form of being away from her motherland and slowly losing touch with it as she loses the words of her mother tongue. The increasing gap that grows between her and her family creates a sense of homelessness, which I tried to drive home (no pun intended) with the scene where she sells the Chinese character for home: 家. Yet, even as 玉河 trades the Chinese character for home away, she keeps her Chinese name, a part of her identity that never truly leaves even as she becomes metaphorically homeless.
This idea of metaphorical homelessness – of 玉河 selling “home” in the midst of striving for success or advancement in the difficult world of the country she has immigrated to really hit close to 家 for me. We are a bilingual (English/Russian) family. I learned Russian while I was in Turkmenistan from 2003-2005, and my wife, who was born in Tomsk, Russia, learned English in school and then perfected it during an exchange year in the United States. Our daughter, who is almost three now, actually speaks three languages: English and Russian, which we both speak to her (her mother speaks Russian to her all the time, I am more 50/50) and Albanian, which she speaks because it is her childcare provider’s native language, and we encourage them to speak in both Albanian and English together. And it is strange to think her Albanian will drift away after we move from here, and that back in the United States we will have to fight hard for her to keep her Russian. But languages really are “home” in a sense, and there is something in the loss of them that feels like the loss of a home, and I would definitely feel that, if she turned her back on the Russian language, there would be an irrevocable loss. I suppose I might end up as that parent, like your dad, forcing her to speak Russian to me because I was afraid she might lose that essential tether to the past.
Another thing I loved in the story was this boutique, high-priced language people were learning, and which 玉河’s frenemy takes her to see a performance in. Where did that idea come from?
AJ: Something I've been meditating on for a while is the idea that the languages we think in, write in, dream in, speak in, and how culture, our values and beliefs, are so greatly influenced by language.
When I was growing up, there was a lacking acceptance of immigrants and those who spoke English as a second language. And sometimes, this display of superiority isn't only from those outside of one's culture, but this tension may also manifest from within: family, friends, acquaintances who share the same background. And I have seen many instances where individuals who are not fluent in a language—not only English—are taken advantage of, capitalized on, used to feed egos and diminish the insecurities of the abuser. Sometimes, being from the same country, but knowing more, having more, makes you more superior. There are many instances, ones I've also encountered myself, where the same individuals who flaunt their wealth will also flaunt their knowledge—anything that makes you seem more powerful, more worthy of attention, connections, and praise.
There is a bit of a brag culture in my background. Parents and relatives will often brag about their children and grandchildren, pit them against one another, using one's success to force another to work harder, become better. As much as my Fujianese family and their friends can be a helpful and loving community where family may extend their time, wealth, or what they may willingly, there may still be tensions. "I have found more success, therefore I am better than you," stems from the parents’ upbringing where children are constantly told, "Look at _____'s child. They have higher grades, got into a better university, can play multiple instruments, excel in sports, won awards. Therefore, they are better than you." My parents and grandmother still sometimes fall into the trap of this behaviour (more so my grandmother and father than my mother). And it's a mindset that influenced the creation of both Jorry's and 玉河's character.
RN: You brought up competitiveness in reference to the wider marketplace earlier, and now you bring up family competitiveness. These are both driving forces for your characters – marketplace and societal competitiveness, and family competitiveness. Can you talk a bit about how they have been driving forces for you? How have they affected your writing? Like it or not, we writers exist in a competitive marketplace, and while I certainly don’t view my fellow SF writers as “competition” exactly, that ugly idea that there are only so many slots in the magazines (and very few magazines at the professional level) hovers over everything. So – two questions: how do you deal with the “competitive” aspect of writing, first of all, and how has family “competitiveness” shaped you as a writer?
AJ: When I told my parents I wanted to become a writer, the first thing they said was "Well that's a nice hobby to have. You can think about what full time jobs to take on so you can support this side hobby of yours." As someone who is very stubborn (insanely stubborn according to both my parents and spouse), I viewed—and still view—writing as something I want to become my career rather than a hobby. When I was younger, I cared far more about the moments when my parents compared me to the children of our relatives: "Oh, _____'s son is going to law school," "I heard _____'s daughter is going to become a pharmacist," "______ is going to run their own business." I felt pressure to also pursue an "economically stable" job. But as I got older and made my way through various positions, I realized that wasn't what I wanted. It didn't make me happy trying to live my life with the sole goal of making money.
When I decided to try to make writing a full-time job, I still feel the pressure of being compared to relatives' children who are far more "successful" than I am, but I'm not aiming for "traditional" sense of success anymore but rather my own version of it—if that makes sense. I became you could say obsessed with the need to become successful with my writing—though to be sure, it brings me joy, even though it’s also now considered "work". Now, when my parents bring up the success of my family, I feel more at ease. I'm happy they're able to find success their own way, and it pushes me to work harder to find my own success as well. I don't think our successes are comparable. We each have our own journeys, and as long we're moving forward, I think we're all doing something right.
In terms of the competitiveness of the writing market, similar to you, I've never viewed my fellow writers as competition, but rather I see them as family. Though we are striving for the same markets, what I concern myself most with is improving my craft, refining my stories, and finding the right markets for them. Like the incomparable successes of my relatives' children, writing and market tastes are very subjective and greatly differ, much like the writing style and voice of writers. I see my writing journey as a war or competition of sorts against myself, where I become competitive with who I am in the past as I'm making goals for the week, the month, the year, the next five years. If I'd written one story a month the year prior, I'd want to challenge myself to do two. In terms of continued family competitiveness, it's reshaped itself into a need to prove that I can be successful as a writer, not so much that I can be more successful than anyone else, but that I can in fact find success—to prove wrong those who had little faith when I first began. I keep in mind the thought of striving for "exponential growth", and I try to stick with it. Discipline, on the other hand, I'm still working on.
Earlier you said: “Initially, I had intended the language loss and gain to also symbolize the loss of language to varying degrees by immigrants as they migrate to another country. Those who become immigrants at a young age, much like myself, will often struggle with holding onto our heritage languages with one reason being lacking practice and use, especially when those we spend most time with do not speak our heritage language (I'm referring to school specifically).” I was born in Quebec, and spoke French until my parents divorced and my mother (an English speaker from the U.S.) relocated us to the United States where, as you point out above, there was little opportunity for me to maintain my heritage language due to lack of practice. I wanted to come back to this statement of yours – it is of particular interest to me as a person who lost a heritage language, and as the parent of a bilingual child. How important is heritage language retention to you?
AJ: When I was a child, as terrible as it was, I desired nothing more than to lose my heritage language because it made me "other". To speak fluent English was a dream. To be seen as someone who could not possibly speak anything other than English as their mother tongue was a dream. But growing up, and especially now, I want nothing more than to take back those thoughts. My parents tried putting me in Chinese school. And at the time—it was in elementary school—I had no interest in putting effort in retaining my heritage language or to expand my fluency and abilities in it in terms of reading, writing, and speaking. I paid little attention in those classes and did little outside of the class for it to have any effect. But to be fair, the program was more of an afterschool babysitting service than anything. For the more rigorous "Sunday Chinese schools" that many of my friends went to, the costs were much, much higher than the $20 we paid for the year for the afterschool program.
But my father always insisted that my sister and I speak to him in Mandarin. He refused to answer to anything else. I was frustrated with him because of it, but I couldn't be more thankful for it now. My grandmother on the other hand can only understand Mandarin, and only to a certain degree. Her mother tongue is Fuzhou hua, and she grew up using only that. When we converse, we converse in broken Mandarin. My sister speaks far less to our family because of the language barrier, having been born in Canada. We spoke to each other most often because English became the most comfortable language to converse in. This is how I grew up, and I never thought too much about it until the recent years. There is an almost sense of shame when someone speaks to me in Chinese, and I struggle to reply because the language use has become rusty over the years. Or when someone expects me to know something that I have long since forgotten, or have to dig from the back of my mind and question whether or not I'm correct. To doubt something I was born into and essentially born with is a terrifying feeling. More than ever I want to retain my heritage language, but at the same time, I've never felt so foreign while using it. But enough rambling – in short, it's become something very important to me but also something I fear I cannot accomplish. Sometimes it's easier to quit than to fear failure, and though this isn't a feeling I have in writing, for some reason, I often feel this way in trying to relearn Chinese. I am still trying to overcome it.
RN: Who doesn’t wish they could go back to that elementary school self and speak to them about what will matter later? I can relate to that feeling you mention of desiring nothing more than to lose your heritage language: as a child, I wanted very much to be as “Californian” as I could be, and I don’t think I would have made any attempt to retain French even if I’d had the opportunity. This caused me to lose it – much of it – forever. But now I find myself as the parent of a bilingual Russian- and English-speaking child, and what I hope I can spark in her is a curiosity about and engagement with Russian that will somehow stave off that conformist desire to turn away from her heritage.
It's interesting that, in a sense, you articulate above something that is in your story also – the idea that in order to speak fluent English, you felt you needed to “sell” your heritage Chinese – to sort of “turn it in” as if it were currency through which you would attain a wholly English identity – and now that it was sold (like so many things), you find it far more expensive to buy back.
But I’d like to end this interview by turning back to your earlier statement about how you see your fellow writers as family. I think that is a powerful metaphor, and I have felt it as well – we are, on the one hand, all seeking to insert our work into the slots available in a small market. But on the other hand, so long as we can continue to embrace one another as family and compete only with ourselves, I feel we strike the correct note: love and respect for our fellow artists, balanced with love and respect for our own art and the expression of our own unique, differentiated voice.
Thank you, Ai, for taking the time to talk with me. This has been a great conversation, and I look forward to more of them further down the path.
AJ: I think what you've mentioned about fostering curiosity in children especially concerning their heritage—the willingness to be openminded and accepting of not only their present but how their past factors into their identity—is such an important thing.
In a sense, by immigrating, it does feel a bit like "selling myself" or perhaps "merging" or "being engulfed" might be a better way to express the experience of migration. But what I'd like most now is to step back and do the engulfing myself—picking and choosing what new things I intake and make part of my identity and reclaiming what I've lost.
On writing and family, you've put it so beautifully. I think art in all its forms continue to thrive because of this very respect that artists have for one another—both our similarities, differences, thoughts, and values—and the tight-knit community that has been created by our shared love for creation.
Thank you so much once again for having this conversation with me, Ray! It's definitely given me the much needed room to explore the greater influences in my life that has been translated into my fiction. I do hope we will speak again soon. This has been such an enriching experience!