For as long as I can remember, I talked. Words would fall from my mouth like mahjong tiles clanging against the old wooden coffee table at my 奶奶 and 爺爺’s house after my brother and I fashioned them into tall towers—we didn’t actually know how to play mahjong the right way.
I don’t know what my first word was.
Probably “meat”, which is highly ironic considering my fifth year of pescatarianism.
I just remember yapping for hours on end, telling stories, asking questions, making up games. My mom and 婆婆 would tell me not to talk so much during dinner because the food would get cold. Of course, I never listened. There was just too much to express before bedtime, and my brother was always a keen listener.
Maybe that’s why we got on so well.
As I grew up, I quickly learned that my voice had meaning, power. Being outspoken meant being listened to. It made me feel valuable. I’m lucky in that there had never been a time in my life where I felt like I couldn’t use my voice or like the thoughts I formed into coherent sentences didn’t matter.
I moved across the country. I left behind my family of keen listeners. I traded my words for safety, as if the silence could protect me from feeling so alone.
I have never felt as voiceless or as powerless as I have while in my first year of my Ph.D. program. I went from being a person who chats non-stop, who always has an opinion, who knows what she believes and ardently expresses those beliefs, to being silent and doubtful. I felt like a stranger in my own head. Every time I wanted to say something in class or in a conversation with peers, I stopped myself. I thought about what others would think of me.
I’ll be honest. I don’t think my voicelessness was initially conscious. At first, I thought being quiet and observant would be helpful to understand my new surroundings. But, over time, I felt there was an aura of overall unwelcomeness that I couldn’t put into words, much less give a response to. Silence seemed easier than questioning. And then, the silence became so loud to me, that I just resigned to giving up. Participating in class felt more scary than folks assuming I was unprepared or unintelligent.
Being a “minority” in a doctoral program is hard. It fucking sucks. It feels like nothing you do will mean anything, and if it does, people will assume you got to where you are because you’re filling a quota. It seems easier to keep your cards hidden.
I didn’t realize how much I missed talking until I lived in New York for the first half of the summer and visited home in California for the last. The feeling that Genie has when being released from his lamp–that’s what it felt like. I could breathe and speak words into existence, and I just felt so goddamn free, it was overwhelming. I didn’t have to pretend to be someone else, or think twice about what implications my words would have on how seriously I was taken as a graduate student. I didn’t have to whisper, “I’m good enough” to myself at night or think it constantly in my head during the day.
When I got back to Pennsylvania, I was beside myself. I thought about how it felt to be voiceless just several short months prior, and I couldn’t handle it. I called my mother crying and in a panic. I told her I couldn’t do it anymore. I said that no one here understands, that the feeling of being alone is so consuming, that I missed home and having people speak to me and me speak to them. I believed it before, but even more so now, that human beings need communication, to be understood and validated.
I do have the most wonderful of parents. They encourage me and tell me it’s okay, and they say the words I need to hear in the very few moments I have none. They told me that it’s okay to come home, that they wouldn’t be disappointed in me.
But, this is a new year. I’m telling myself that the only person I need to impress is me (cue the indie coming-of-age film soundtrack). I’m starting fresh and trying to relearn my way back to the girl who stacked up mahjong tiles, who made up stories, who happily told her kindergarten teacher that her favorite place to go in the world was Macy’s with her mom. I have a lot to say, and maybe this year, I’ll finally feel comfortable/confident/capable enough to speak.