Many of my favorite quotes are from this wise man. And it certainly resonates with me as someone who believes in the power of language.
It started with a curiosity to learn more about my heritage when I took a Chinese class the summer before college. While I spoke Cantonese at home, I felt it was my responsibility to learn Mandarin as a Chinese American. It was a response to face a burning itch to learn more about my identity as a first generation.
And this puzzling identity crisis thing exacerbated itself during a taxi ride one summer abroad in Shanghai. I was there to study Chinese, and it was my first time abroad solo. The taxi driver was taking me from the Pudong airport to East China university, where I would be studying. He was kindly chatting about the weather and the developments in Shanghai (I could understand), but I was mute because I couldn't respond (or rather, I was too shy).
"Do you speak Chinese?"
A little bit, I responded. I explained to him I was a first-generation Chinese American, and I was in Shanghai for the summer to learn Chinese.
"I don't believe it. Your hair. Your eyes. The color of your skin. But you don't speak Chinese...therefore, you must be Korean or Japanese."
I felt embarrassed. I'm not sure I ever fit the stereotypical American persona, and I wasn't Chinese. From that point on, I made it an effort to master the Chinese language. In fact, I spent more time studying Chinese than my core Economics and Accounting classes. It was that important to me.
But it makes sense. If you speak someone's language, the wall comes tumbling down and you are One. And that's why even with the advancements in voice translation services, you're still speaking to someone's head with that Google Translator. It doesn't feel real (at least not yet). If you truly want to understand someone and get close, you must speak his or her own language.
And that's why I'm currently trying to learn Spanish. Why? Because I want to speak to the hearts of 400 million native Spanish speakers around the world.