Beyond C and D by Judy Li' 24

Left Hand Is C – Primary School

“Left hand is C, right hand is D…left hand is C…” I murmured while gesturing with shaky hands on the morning of an alphabet test in the EFL class. The trick was, if you stretch out your left hand, the curve that traces the index finger to the thumb forms a C shape, while the right hand’s curve mimics D’s curvy side. My first memory of literacy began with the alphabet and being stuck on the third letter didn’t seem like a cheerful start. Mock me if you like, but to my six-year-old self, distinguishing the direction of the curves was both mentally challenging and emotionally exhausting. (And in that morning, vital to my survival).

English as a language did not make sense to me until later—to be exact, nine years later. During the intervening years, English existed as the background in movies, syllables in songs,  but most often, chalk powder on the blackboard, vocabulary notebooks, and letters to a foreigner from Li Hua on a test. (For unknown reasons, the writing section’s prompt is always a letter from “Li Hua”). Although I no longer tripped over distinguishing C and D, English remained confined to the classroom, tightly bound on the textbook pages.

Meanwhile, according to my mom, learning Chinese in the first and second grade didn’t go too well either. One time, I stayed at school until dinner time because we weren’t allowed to leave the classroom until we could write down all the pinyin from memory. Writing fifty times for every miswritten word was also normal. I wrote 周记 (zhouji), a school weekly writing assignment, which to me was just the weekend’s diary. My 周记 usually consisted of only three to four sentences, and always ended with “今天真高兴啊!” which translates as, (I’m) so happy today, exclamation mark. This last remark was not because I was always genuinely happy. Instead, it was a template-like sentence that seemed to capture an emotion, and more importantly, seemed applicable to everything.

In these years I also struggled to read Chinese. My mom was thus enslaved to the task of reading story books to me every night. She often drifted off to sleep from exhaustion after a  day’s work before finishing the story. While I, with eyes wide open, would anxiously nudge her with the question, “And then? And then what happens?” Until I entered the third grade, I, “suddenly, magically, knew how to read,” recalled my mom with the joy of “mother emancipation.” One day, I entered the living room and saw two large, heavy-looking boxes waiting on the floor. I stepped forward to look inside the boxes and gasped in disbelief filled  with joy. Books! Inside the boxes were dozens of brand new, colorful novels squeezed tightly together, rather uncomfortably, eagerly waiting to be read. So, I read them. I sat on the floor beside the boxes and let the Chinese characters take me into a different world. In the last three years of primary school, I read book after book. Meanwhile, I started using the computer to make picture books, drawing on a pad and typing out the dialogue and narrative. Among one of my favorites, was written in English (sentences were copied and slightly modified from the English textbook), called “Dog Sha Sha’s Week.” (see fig.1).

figure 1 of judy li

(Fig. 1.).

Ma Laoshi and Diaries – Middle School

Several years after writing the 周记 zhouji, weekly journal, I was asked to write 日记 riji (diaries) for homework by Ma laoshi (teacher Ma), my homeroom and Chinese teacher. These diaries started similar to zhouji: objective, descriptive, and template-like. But gradually, they felt closer to my heart, driven by the need for self-expression and by the realization of Ma laoshi’s openness to a child’s voice. Playful sentences moved in and resided comfortably on the page along with network buzzwords, smiley faces, and stick figures. Among the jokes also hided my feelings for Zirui, the boy I couldn’t manage to look away from. (Although at that time I would never admit how much I adored him). While Chinese classes increasingly emphasized a “well- written composition,” these diary entries provided a space for writing to be closer to life. I didn’t need to tightly grip onto the pen, staring at the blank page, squeezing my mind hoping a good word would drop out. I didn’t need to weave my sentences into a beautifully organized piece. I didn’t feel compelled to decorate my paragraphs with figurative languages that I knew teachers would appreciate. I simply jotted down feelings. My feelings. And Ma laoshi always listened to them.

Illiterate? Communication without Language

During the winter break of 8th grade, I went to Idaho, U.S., with my school choir as an exchange student. Before landing at the Los Angeles airport to later be welcomed by big hugs from my host family, I knew the globe existed, of course. But it was the first time I physically and emotionally connected with another part of the Earth. Looking back, my English was poor, and I probably answered most questions with either a bright or an awkward smile on my face. However, lacking English proficiency didn’t seem to affect how much I enjoyed the experience. Although I couldn’t find my voice in language, I communicated through music, dance, awkward translation apps, and smiles.

I remember my American host dad used a translation app to ask me the question, “what is your favorite movie?” He looked at me and smiled as the female voiceover translated the  message out loud in a mechanical voice. I smiled back brightly because I had studied this question at school and confidently answered, “Minions,” to which he gladly pointed out that his son loved it too. (I later realized that he meant his 4-year-old son instead of his teenage sons).

I remember the American music teacher instructing us to pronounce the “th” sound (as in “the”), a sound that doesn’t exist in Mandarin, and so most Chinese people mispronounce it as “ze” (as in “zero”). I remember the American dance teacher always had big smiles on his face and encouraged us whenever we made a mistake. He was the complete opposite of our choir teacher, who was warm-hearted but always looked as if she was dissatisfied with the whole world (like many Chinese teachers).

I remember thinking about America: “these are people I love; this is a place I want to know more about.” Somehow, without much language facilitation, the warmness of human souls reached each other. It reached me. When I came back to China, I told my parents I would seriously learn English. And I asked them if I could go to college in the U.S.

English as a Language – 9th grade

Remember how I said English didn’t make sense until nine years later? Here we are in 9th grade. Something more dramatic happened in this year; or rather, a series of dramatic things simultaneously happened. I transferred into an international school. I didn’t get along with new classmates. I was usually alienated and occasionally bullied. I lost connection with my first love from middle school, (yes, Zirui, the one in the diaries), which broke my little heart.

The silver lining was, I got a lot of free time to do other things. The school had a library, and the library had novels. What else would I do when I was alienated and right next to a library? As much as the loneliness hurt me, the books I threw myself into brought me equal amounts of joy. Walking into the library, I gasped with excitement just like the girl who gasped upon seeing the two boxes in the living room many years ago. I started reading dystopian novels in English, book after book, all the time: during class breaks, on my way to the dining hall, on the bus to and after school, while walking (that’s dangerous, I have to admit!). I read Divergent, then The Hunger Games, then Twilight, then The Giver, then Flipped…just to name a few. There I sat, simultaneously in a dull, cold and unwelcoming classroom, and a (sometimes dystopian) wonderland with exciting adventures and warm-hearted people.

Dwelling on my first love who no longer replied to my messages, I started writing about him in English. (Now a lot more explicit than the diaries in middle school). I tried to trace back and capture the details of memories with the vocabulary I memorized from novels. I sketched out his face with the clicking sounds of the keyboard. I painted out the beautiful views when his fingers touched mine with words. English came alive. English transformed from a subject to a language. A special language that listened to my sentimentality and accompanied me through the loneliest of times.

Voice – High School

There were many “firsts” in high school that helped me develop as a writer and as a person. I learned freewriting for the first time. I peer-reviewed for the first time. I read psychology and theater for the first time. I studied research methodology for the first time and wrote a lengthy case study on autism and art therapy. I learned that words mattered. (Consider autistic child vs. child with autism, or mental illness vs. psychological disability, or madness, abnormality, and insanity). For the first time, I engaged in meaningful dialogue on thought-provoking issues. And for the first time, I learned that writing has a voice. Beyond the template-like zhouji, the messy diaries, the romantic stories that copied the novels’ literary style, I now tried to develop my own voice in writing. As William Deresiewicz beautifully said in Excellent Sheep, “Everyone is born with a mind, but it is only through this act of introspection, of self-examination, of establishing communication between the mind and the heart, the mind and experience, that you become an individual, a unique being – a soul” (84). In those three years of high school, I introspected through reading, self-examined through writing, and established communication between the mind and the heart through dialogue. In those three years, I was learning, I still am, to find my voice as a unique being, a soul.

Still Growing – College

I first encountered the concept of “global citizenship” at SUA upon reading Daisaku Ikeda’s “Thoughts on Education for Global Citizenship.” In the speech he states: “‘Goodness can be defined as that which moves us in the direction of harmonious coexistence, empathy, and solidarity with others. The nature of evil, on the other hand, is to divide: people from people, humanity from the rest of nature” (446). I couldn’t agree with him more. Having the fortunate experiences of connecting with American friends during my visit to Idaho and building great relationships with my English, theater, and psychology teachers in high school, I naturally perceived that, although we come from different cultural and national backgrounds, we are all humans with similarities much greater than our differences. Yet, I still grew as I entered college. By having dialogues with friends from other countries, specifically on the topic of diversity, peace, identity, and discrimination, I came to consciously understand and appreciate diversity more than ever before.

Sometimes I don’t remember how much I’ve grown as a person. But, occasionally, when I browse online and come across nationalistic articles, propaganda-like photos, and disrespectful comments towards people of other genders, socioeconomic classes, nations or cultures, I frown and suddenly realize that without the literacy training I went through, I might not recognize how serious these issues are, and how hurtful they can be. I might scroll through without feeling anything. I might find the offensive remark amusing and click the “like” button. Worst of all— and this idea scares me while I am writing this—I might even be posting them.

Epilogue - ゼロ?

Thus, my literacy journey goes on, never ceasing, as I continue to learn and grow. Sometimes it feels as if I am returning to a beginning when I encounter something brand new. But I know that is not the case. My literacy fuels me with energy and knowledge as I move forward and beyond. But speak of returning to the beginning, as I started learning Japanese recently, I encountered his sweet pair of hiragana (the Japanese alphabet): さ (sa) and ち (chi). I am sure this new language will open up more doors for me, but before that, let’s take a closer look at さ and ち. Aren’t they similar? (And aren’t C and D similar? Now, repeat after me: left hand is さ, right hand is ち…)

Works Cited

Deresiewicz, William. Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life. Free Press, 2014.
Ikeda, Daisaku. “Education for Global Citizenship.” Daisaku Ikeda Website, lecture 1996,