Understanding a Friend

I first met Amy Jiang in Mrs. Portman’s seventh grade math class. Spring is hot in Reading, Massachusetts and sweat was dripping down Mrs. Portman’s wide face. I was 12, and easily distracted in math class. That whole year I think I learned more about Mrs. Portman’s husband’s ambulance business than I did about formulas.

The day I met Amy I was doodling butterflies in sparkly orange ink on the back of my notebook. Amy sat diagonally behind me, her long black hair tied back loosely from her face, and feeling just as bored as I was, leaned over and prodded me on the shoulder as Mrs. Portman scrawled an equation on the blackboard. I turned and she pointed to my doodles and whispered, “I like your butterflies,” a shy smile breaking out on her face.

I grinned back at her with a whispered “thanks.” Mrs. Portman, who had the ears of a bat, promptly shushed us, her beady eyes narrowed. We both settled back in our seats but it was only the first of many times she would have to tell us to be quiet.

We’ve been friends ever since. It took me several years to realize how lucky I was that Amy was as bored in math class as I was that day in the seventh grade. I made all my good friends this way- spontaneously discovering we had something in common. But for Amy, her shyness kept her from reaching out and making these connections. At the end of middle school, she moved from Reading to Acton, about a thirty minute drive away.  She made very few friends all throughout high school. To have begun a conversation with me, a stranger, was unusual for her.

I was always quiet too, but I never understood why Amy had such difficulty speaking up. I knew she was smart and funny and interesting, and a much more talented artist than I ever was with my sparkly pens. But she would look to me with momentary panic whenever someone she didn’t know would address her, even something as simple as asking for her order in a restaurant. After a year or two, I began to get frustrated when she seemed to want me to answer for her and would refuse to help out of sheer exasperation with her silence. I just didn’t get it.

She told me once that she had plenty to say but never got up the courage to speak because she was afraid she couldn’t say it right. I still didn’t understand what that meant. It wasn’t until years after we met, until I began to think about how difficult it must be to learn English that I understood that she meant she wasn’t sure she had the right words.

Amy emigrated from China at the age of six with no prior knowledge of English. She lived first in a town about twenty minutes from Reading, where she enrolled in an ESL class. The lady who taught the class was big and strange and wore too many rings. She drank too much coffee and the smell of it mixed with the smell of her creamy hand lotion. She was no Mrs. Portman, but Amy still says that she learned English from listening to the people around her in her elementary school classes.

I never thought of Amy as an immigrant because when I met her I didn’t have any concept of what being an immigrant was. She doesn’t think about herself that way either. When I did learn about immigration, it was in a stereotypical context in some class: nighttime border crossings and refugees fleeing war and famine. I didn’t see a whole lot of connection to my reserved friend. I suppose I asked her all the silly young questions that a monolingual kid asks a bilingual kid – What language do you think in? Do you miss China? What’s it like?- and never really thought about what it actually meant for Amy to have been a six year-old in a new country, away from her extended family, forced to learn a new language that her parents would never fully master. It took me years to comprehend that the crippling silence she carried throughout our youth was because of her insecurity with English itself. Once I finally understood why she looked to me to answer for her, it became easier to do so, even as it became less necessary. She’s changed a lot since going to college. She made some great friends and is coming out of her shell, and letting others see what I always knew, that she has much more to offer than silence.

Leave a reply