LEARNING TO SPEAK: A MEMOIR

Looking out over the monk's quarters at Labarang Monastery in Xiahe, Gansu Province, 2002


In 1996, at the age of twenty-one, I left my home in Seattle to backpack for six months through China, the birthplace of my mother. As a half-Chinese, half-Caucasian American woman, I was eager to immerse myself in Chinese, a language I had spoken with my grandmother as a child, but grown distant from as an adult. Traveling into the remote countryside of western China and Tibet, I grew emboldened by the freedom of wandering on my own and by my growing desire to live authentically. Back in the States, I threw myself into learning more about China, Tibet, and Buddhism, befriending a Tibetan nun and attending teachings with the Dalai Lama along the way.

             
In 1999, I set off on my second solo journey, spending a month in Lhasa before teaching English at a college in Chengdu, a city of nine million in Sichuan province. Increasingly I began to feel trapped on campus and to mourn the legacy of silence that shadowed these two countries. Thankfully, I could escape into the city on weekends where I was initiated into a world of Chinese artists, smoky bars, and rebellious spirits. Alone, I also wrote, painted, danced, wept, and expressed my growing loneliness and longing. Late one night, realizing the depth of my unhappiness, I packed my bags and fled.

             
I’d come to China and Tibet wanting to give something to the people, but soon my journey began to teach me how much I still needed to learn about myself. Before long I met Dawei, a gentle-spirited Chinese painter with whom I immediately connected and eventually moved in with. But I still felt suffocated by the pollution, cultural taboos, and relentless stares from strangers on the streets—and more disconnected from my heart-center each day. My Chinese grew more fluent, yet outside of our home, I was treated as an outsider—as foreign as the first day I arrived.

            
LEARNING TO SPEAK (formerly Searching for the Heart Radical) is the story of one woman’s cultural and spiritual pilgrimage, as she seeks to reclaim her mother tongue and to find a home within. Whether witnessing a “sky burial” in rural Tibet, navigating the slick, crowded streets of Hong Kong, or living in a crack-infested, gentrified neighborhood in Seattle, this book explores the malleable sense of self that is born when one lives and travels “in-between”, and the struggle to embrace one’s own contradictions.

             
Ultimately, my restlessness would lead me to betray Dawei, to say goodbye to China after three years of struggling to belong, and to rediscover who I was once I lived in Seattle again—and in English. No longer willing to hide behind old patterns of silence and conformity, I sought to merge my different layers and claim myself whole—whether in China, in America, in a relationship, or alone. LEARNING TO SPEAK is one woman’s story, but it is also a story that belongs to anyone who has ever longed for wholeness, authenticity, and love.

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