Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Voices in the Dark


Last night Yan told me a story.

Over the phone.

Eight years ago -- when I was a grad student in Arkansas and Yan was still in Cleveland -- Yan would tell me stories in Chinese over the phone to help me sleep. Last night -- me in Cleveland and Yan in Colorado -- he told me a story in English. (Too tired for Chinese.)

These moments when life circles back on itself have always been moments of clarity for me. I lay there in the dark and listened to his beautiful voice. And even though his story was succeeding -- it was calming the rush of thoughts and emotions that had kept me from being able to sleep despite physical exhaustion -- it was wrapping me in new thoughts and emotions. With each new velvet-timbred morpheme of his voice, echoes of the past blanketed me.

I remembered how fascinated I was that Yan's voice is exactly the same in Chinese and English. I know that might seem like a strange remark. But Yan was the first truly bilingual person I ever listened to extensively speaking in both languages. The first time I noticed it was the first time I went on an extended visit to see Yan's parents. It was the first time I heard and saw Yan speak in Chinese for any extended period of time. I already knew a person changes in another language -- I had experienced this myself. (Once I even had a physical experience of the change: The year after I came home from Germany, a friend from my program there came to visit me. As we sat in my parents' dining room and decided to switch from English to German, I felt the switch. It was like the muscles in my tongue, mouth, face, and body settled back into a set of movements slightly to another side -- like my body shifted slightly to the right.) But it was strange to watch someone to whom I was so close go through this change -- and one I could only be an observer of and not a participant with (my Chinese was basically non-existent at the time).

So maybe that's why I focused on his voice: Watching that person I was so in love with but who suddenly seemed to be wrapped in a stranger, I grasped at something familiar I could cling to. And it turned out to be the timbres of his voice. And I was surprised that that was what was recognizable. I had struggled to learn the pronunciation in every language I spoke (yes, even English -- I had trouble with the "r" until I was 12). And in this struggle, I had somehow come to knot together the pronunciation and melody of a language with the tone of a voice.

So last night, as I lay in the dark and listened to Yan's voice telling me a story, and as all these memories of my experiences with spoken language washed over me, I finally untied that knot. And fell in love with that voice reaching out to me from a distance. Once again.



Kim and Joel said...

It has been a while since I checked your blog, but Starla, you have such a way with words-in any language. Thanks for sharing this with us!

Kim and Joel said...

Where have you guys been? We need an update on life!