Anna Yang: I Can't Read

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When confronted with an uncomfortable truth, Anna Yang learned the importance of language in connecting to her culture and family.

“What’re you gonna get?”

My family stood at the back of the store, behind the line of customers waiting to order. The seemingly simple question forced hundreds of thoughts through my head as I redirected my attention to the smoothie menu before us.

I was visiting relatives in Beijing for the first time in three years, and I wasn’t yet accustomed to reading Mandarin. My eyes subconsciously drifted to the English column that I usually defaulted to, but I was met with familiar yet foreign characters. My sister, equally as confused, attempted to read out loud. “Apple… something… kiwi?”

In California, being unable to read or speak Chinese was okay. My sister and I would always respond to our parents’ Chinese with English. It was normal to not understand idioms and phrases, because I was a second generation American — only Chinese when celebrating the Lunar New Year and mid-autumn festival.


I turned to my mom. “What’s this drink called?” My five-year-old cousin’s eyes curiously peeked at me from below the menu. “Anna can’t read!” he exclaimed in disbelief, the Mandarin easily falling from his native lips. I stared back at him, caught off guard. After a moment of silence, laughter shook my mom’s body and we all joined in. My cheeks fought the hot blush rising from my neck as I stumbled to formulate a defense that he could understand.

On the drive back to my grandmother’s apartment, my cousin rested his head on my shoulder and my mind filled the humming silence. I had to admit he wasn’t wrong. My cousin’s remarks forced me to confront the hard truth I had avoided for years — there was a barrier of language preventing me from connecting with my heritage and extended family.

So as we passed brightly-lit storefronts and towering skyscrapers, I trained my eyes onto the Huawei billboard and slowly sounded out the first line of characters that weren’t so foreign after all.

With a Perspective, I’m Anna Yang.

Anna Yang is a student at Notre Dame High School in San Jose. Her piece was produced with free curriculum from KQED’s Perspectives Youth Media Challenge.