• Lijing Cobb

Speak, child

The American Society for the Positive Care of Children (SPCC) has an ACEs quiz (Adverse Childhood Experiences) that I took a while ago. This quiz can be used to assess a child’s likelihood to develop physical and emotional issues later in life.

Out of a total score of 10, I scored 6, but this is a test that you want as little points as possible. According to the SPCC website, “With an ACE score of 4 or more, things start getting serious. The likelihood of chronic pulmonary lung disease increase 390 percent; hepatitis, 240 percent; depression 460 percent; suicide, 1,220 percent.”

Once I asked my dear husband to take the test, and of course he got 0. I don’t like playing games with my husband because he always wins. This time, he won as well.

Then I took the test on behalf of my own children. I’m pretty sure that if they ever have an encounter with this heavy test later in their lives, they would score a 0 and win as well.

I’m doing pretty well as a parent, I think, but I wonder if I’m losing my mind. These days I’m struggling with finding words. When I speak to my children, it often goes something like this:

“Can you please go downstairs and get that thing, what do you call it…my phone! on the table?”

“Come on kids, we need to get going, put your… shoes on, get your…jacket. Let’s go!”

What’s wrong with me?

The good old webmd tells me reassuringly, “simply being tired or fatigued can make it hard to think of the right words.” Of course. I get up at 3:30 in the morning and use up all my brain juices for my blog! By 2pm I feel like a zombie and walk in the twilight zone. By 5pm I’m a driving hazard who talks to herself to stay awake so that the kids in the car can live to see another day. I’m lucky to remember any words at all!

But then webmd goes on to say, “when you’re worried about being judged by others or feel embarrassed, you may freeze up or struggle to talk.”

Ah, light bulb. This makes sense. I’ve always wondered why in front of some people I’m always so comfortable, relaxed, and eloquent as heck, while with others I stutter and fumble with words. With some people my speech can be published as is, because the logic is sound, the flow is wonderful, and the sparks of inspiration fly. With others, well, throw my disjointed attempts at coherence into the trash bin now please: that was worthless and painful.

Some people fuel me. Some people drain me.

Recently I’ve been paying close attention to who I hang out with. I’ve come to be pretty protective over my energy, so I want to make sure that I spend it wisely, with the right people. Intuitively, without the clear guidance of the trusty webmd, I’d already started an experiment to redefine the parameters of my linguistic endeavors. If I found my words easily in front of someone, I let it be and let the harmonious energy carry me. That is a person I want to have long lunches with and just talk. If I struggled to make a sentence meet my tongue, I stopped talking and observed what’s going on. Instead of being led blindfolded down a labyrinth of chaos, I choose to stay where I am, clear-eyed, and let the words come to me. Perhaps instead of always being influenced by energies that overwhelm mine, I could ground mine and root a little deeper instead?

When I was in graduate school attending lectures and seminars, I’d always been floored by all the things people had to say, half of which I didn’t understand. Of course, English is my second language, so naturally I had a bit of a disadvantage. But even today, 22 years later into the culture and language, when we go to movie theaters, I still sit in full anticipation of not understanding about half of what is said on screen. People talk too fast! There is too much information! Of course, at home, when I do have the help of closed captioning, I end up not paying attention to what’s going on aside from proofreading the words.

Let me tell you a secret. Some days, when we don’t have closed captioning, my husband would lean over and ask me, “what did he just say?” If by a stroke of luck I had just heard it, I’d tell him with supreme serenity, as if it was just the most natural thing that I understood and he, a native speaker, should ask me for help. If I didn’t hear it either, I’d simply pretend that I didn’t hear my husband’s question despite the fact that he leaned in. If I heard something but was unsure, I’d just make something up and feed it to my husband, who would sometimes be even more confused: “What?”

The more I ponder, the more I see. Words are an important tool we use to connect with the world. The more meaning we can infuse into our words, the better our connection. It is not about how much we can say in a given period of time, but about how much we can understand and be understood in that time. When people speak too fast to me, I simply stop trying to follow them after a while. You know, people like to use the expression, “that’s Chinese to me,” to say that they couldn’t understand something. Well, when someone speaks too fast to me or in a way that I can't comprehend, I put up a stop sign and request that they either slow down or repeat themselves, because, you know, they are speaking English to me, a Chinese lady.

Jokes aside, I really want to try to understand myself and the people around me as much as possible. When we struggle with words, it can be a very disorienting feeling, like we are losing ourselves, losing our minds. When my mom was still alive, she always had a lot of trouble finding the right words to say to me, and sometimes she found very little to say at all. When I called home, as long as my sister, who lived with my mom, was at home, she and I always ended up talking for the majority of the call, and my mom would make a guest appearance right at the end to say just a few words, and then goodbye. Before we hung up, she would suddenly find her tongue and say it ever so effortlessly, “Take care of yourself. We can't do much for you when you are so far away.”

Whatever energy I hold in my body in front of someone, I’m either giving them permission to speak freely, or I’m telling them that I’m not really into what they have to say. I know that I did not give my mom much permission to say all that she took with her when she left this world. One time we had a huge fight and the demon of my father got into me as I unleashed my frustration on my mother. Our ways of living and beliefs had collided in tragic ways that I thought were impacting my children negatively, and I wanted her to stop being the way she was and snap out of it. “My dad was right,” I said to her vindictively, “you just never want to learn and be better! Why can't you make an effort to change?”

Later on I wrote a letter of apology to her, but in that letter I nevertheless defended my behavior. Shortly after that, when the bitterness and depressive moods she shrouded herself in became too much for me to bear, I bought her a plane ticket to go back to China. Out of sight, out of mind, I moved on with my life. But my mom continued to live in her native country in much the same way as she did with me. Playing solitaire, watching TV, not wanting to do anything but traveling, being super defensive and sensitive to anything and everything my sister said… I did not figure myself out in time to be of any help to her, to pull her out of the eternal funk that was her life.

I wonder how I encourage or discourage people’s words now. I wonder if I can be a facilitator of all honest energies and allow words to flow when people are in front of me. I don’t want people to lose themselves or mask up when they see me and sense my energy, which needs no words to be felt and understood. I want my mom to know that if we had another chance at a conversation, that she’d be able to find her words and speak freely in front of me, knowing that she was not judged, and there was no need to be embarrassed.

My 10yo never stutters. She is beautifully confident. My 7yo is quite bossy, and she refuses to be silenced even at the risk of dire consequences. My 9yo son, on the other hand, speaks slowly and often stumbles over his words, much like me most of the time. Yet whenever I go to his parent teacher conferences, one of the things his teachers would comment on is always his vocabulary and speech, which is apparently much more mature than his grade level. There is no struggle at school for him to find the ease and confidence to let his words flow and his wonderful mind shine.

Which brings me back to the ACEs test. I wonder if children with happy and healthy childhood have a much better chance at communicating with the world through spoken words. My husband who scored a 0 on his ACE test doesn’t read books, uses his voice to text and has me draft or proofread his formal letter when he has the ill luck of having to compose one, but talks ALL THE TIME. I, on the other hand, can sit down in front of the computer with a blank, accepting screen and take the time to write what I want to say, but put me in front of people and I’m a bit tongue-tied. Is it true then that when a child is forced to burrow back into his/her own hole and denied a literal voice in the outside world, he/she grows up out of practice and knows not what to say or how to say it?

How many times were we told to be silent and hold our tongue in my childhood home? How many times did I refuse to listen to my son, who behaved contrary to what he was taught, and yet still had the audacity to stomp his feet and thrash his body in frustration? In silencing his words, was I also cutting off his main channel of communication with me, so that there was no hope for understanding and change? Wasn’t it only until recently, when we finally started talking in solitude and sharing our words with each other, that he finally started to show a different side to me, a side that makes sense, is lovable and endearing: a side that opens the door to kindness and happiness?

So yes, when I grow up I want to be a person who makes words possible. Speak, child, for I hear you.

My mom and my son: my regret, my redemption.

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