Preschool was when it first happened. The mutism. I arrived on my first day, adorable (as reports indicate), possibly in pigtails, the half-Asian-half-Caucasian child of my parents, Dick and Mei-li, and I did not say a word. At home, I spoke Mandarin Chinese with my mother, who is from Taiwan, and English with my father, who is from Connecticut. I spoke English with my younger brother, Charlie, because we were better at it than we were at Chinese. After all, we lived in New Jersey, where English is the main language, albeit a sometimes bastardized version. But that first day at preschool, when I found myself face to face with two adult strangers and thirty something child strangers, I found myself suddenly mute.
It happened the second day too. In fact, it happened the whole year. I would talk a lot at home, get to school, and be silent the whole day. It wasn't that I didn't have anything to say. On the contrary—I remember having a constant monologue running through my head all the time. In fact, I couldn't have told you if I was saying things out loud or not. My parents told me they didn't know this was happening either, until one of my teachers, Mrs. Lee (who, according to my mother, was not Asian), pointed out to them. They all thought it was very cute, and not at all a Children of the Corn style red flag.
These days there is a name for this (of course there is), “Selective Mutism,” and it's characterized in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as a mental disorder (of course it is). It's exactly what it sounds like—kids who can talk but don't, in certain situations. But back in the 80s, mental disorders weren't so widely diagnosed. I'm not sure I would have even wanted to be diagnosed anyway. As it was, I didn't have to take any medications or talk to any therapists (though I would have just stared at them anyway).
As the story went, the only time I spoke the whole year was to Mrs. Lee. I had hurt my finger, and I held it up to her and said, “ouch...” a la E.T. It was all super cute and so '80s.
The next year, in kindergarten, I started speaking. I remember having a good friend in the class, which helped me to open up. I was even able to say the occasional word to the boy I had a crush on, Jesse, who had an awesome rattail haircut. For anyone who missed that craze, it is a short boy's haircut with one long strand of hair in the back, like a rat's tail. So sexy.
Over time, I started talking more in school, and even in front of groups of people. I had overcome my selective mutism! That is how my story went. The family legend of Charlotte consists mainly of the “ouch...” story and that time I picked up chopsticks and started eating with them at the age of 2. An eating prodigy!
My memory of my selective mutism is spotty, so I recently asked my parents for details on my preschool experience. My mother told me the parts of the story she and my dad have always told, the parts that have become Hamilton family lore. Then she said, “I remember going to pick you up on the last day of preschool and seeing you talking to a Chinese girl in your class.”
Wait, hold the phone, I was talking to someone? And not using the word, “ouch”? This was not part of the legend. I only spoke one word the whole year, right? My mom said she thought I actually did speak with the other kids, and that it was only my teachers who I was mute around. I guess that's still selective mutism, but frankly, that's a much less interesting story. Who was I if not a person who overcame selective mutism? Did I even know anymore?
After questioning my parents about my childhood up to that point, I came to the conclusion that there was a lot of confusion in my brain about language. When I learned to talk, my mother spoke exclusively Mandarin Chinese to me, and would not respond if I spoke to her in English. She did this because she wanted me to learn the language and not take the easy route of responding to her in English, as many of her friends' children did with their parents. They ended up understanding Chinese but having trouble speaking it. My father spoke to me only in English, and would not respond if I spoke to him in Chinese—although that was only because he didn't understand Chinese.
This created a dynamic in which, until the age of 5 or so, I associated Chinese with Asian-looking people and English with Caucasian-looking people. An Asian person would speak to me in English and I would stare at them blankly like they were an idiot until they spoke to me in Chinese. My father told me he once asked me what the Chinese word for “fork” was and I told him I didn't know. Then he told me to ask my Chinese grandmother, who was sitting next to me, whether she needed a fork, and I did, in perfect Chinese. I didn't know the differences between the types of words I was speaking, I only knew that some words were for some people and some were for other people. And, apparently, no words were for teachers.
I grew out of this language confusion, of course. By the first grade I spoke more freely to people at school, including teachers, though preferably not in front of a group of people. I even got in trouble in class for chasing my rattailed crush, Jesse, around the classroom. How quickly I had matured from mute child to full-on temptress! Jesse and I had to stay after school together as punishment. That was not a punishment that fit the crime.
Then, just as this fledgling romance was getting off the ground and I was figuring out how to put my verbal skills to use, my parents announced that we were moving to Tokyo, Japan. My dad's job was being transferred there for two years.
After a good-bye to Jesse that involved him punching me in the stomach (“that means he likes you!” is what grown ups said about that, because back then they didn't talk so much about the patriarchy, and also because it's usually true), we picked up and moved to Tokyo. Another new language.
In addition to their own written characters, the Japanese use Chinese characters. The characters have the same meaning in each language, but the words are spoken differently. That meant that my mother could communicate with Japanese people by writing, but not by speaking. I, however, was shit out of luck. I'd never paid enough attention at the Chinese school I went to every Saturday morning in New Jersey to retain any knowledge of how to write in Chinese. In Tokyo I had to learn a new language again. Luckily, when Japanese people saw me, they saw someone who looked a little Asian, but not Asian enough to speak to in Japanese. They usually saw it as an opportunity to practice their English, or to cry out, “kawaii!” which means “cute” in Japanese. As I mentioned, I was (according to reports) quite adorable.
My little brother, Charlie, became a pro at Japanese, because he went to a Japanese school while he was still at that young language acquisition age. At least that's what I tell myself, because my elderly 7 year old self could barely learn enough Japanese to pass my classes. And it being elementary school, it's unlikely the classes were as rigorous as I remember. I went to an English language international school, which saved me from being completely lost, and which was also probably why I couldn't learn Japanese.
My friends spoke English, and I joined English language extracurricular activities. I joined a Christian youth group even though I wasn't Christian. I did it for the social life. There I met another boy, Matthew, for whom I fell into a quietly focused unrequited beginner's lust. The only thing I remember clearly about him was that his family supported Dukakis, and they were upset when he lost the presidential election. And by instinct, I pretended that I knew all about it, even though I'm not sure I even knew there was an election going on in the U.S.
Perhaps the moment I knew I had moved past my mutism (let's call it a partial selective mutism now that the legend has been debunked) was when I was given the role of “Announcer” for the youth group's production of Joseph and the Technicolor Dream Coat. I was to give the short intro for the early morning production of the show (during the less popular church service, but whatever), and some other actual outgoing loudmouth would do the late production intro. I felt like I had fooled everyone into thinking I was confident and verbose. Success!
After what turned out to be three, rather than two, years of living in Tokyo, my family and I finally moved back to New Jersey. I had learned a lot in Japan. Not Japanese, sadly, but more important things, like how to use my words to feign political knowledge and seduce an unwitting love interest; how to enthusiastically introduce a musical about a religion I don't believe in; and how to adjust to life when you don't understand most of the people around you. This came in handy when I returned to New Jersey just in time for fifth grade, or, that fresh hell we call adolescence. Here everyone spoke a different kind of language, another one that I would never truly master.
About the author...
Charlotte Hamilton is a writer and performer in Chicago. Her writing has appeared in McSweeney's Online Tendency and Chicago Arts Journal. Recent storytelling performances include the Lady Laughs Comedy Festival in Madison, Wisconsin, and The Election Monologues.