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This I Believe: I Believe in Speaking Without Words

Emily Ye - Southeast High School
Beatrice Bonner
NPR Illinois 91.9 UIS
Emily Ye - Southeast High School

好棒! My grandmother’s smile lights up her face as she gives me a big thumbs up. 好棒! The Chinese phrase literally translates into very good and means good job, but in this instance it means ‘I love you’. My grandmother does not know English, in fact, she doesn’t even know Mandarin Chinese. She speaks a Chinese dialect that I do not understand. She lives on the other side of the world — 7,515 miles away. I have only seen her in person for three days of my life and I don’t even know her name. Yet, I can understand the pride and love she has for me which is not communicated through the words she says to me which I cannot understand, but through the look in her eye, the happy expression on her face, and the tone of her voice that tells me she cares for me. Her message revealed to me a perspective that I had never seen through before. One where I can see that communication transcends language and distance.

When I was younger I always avoided talking to my grandmother on the phone. I felt awkward waiting for translations and didn’t know what to say to her. I couldn’t ask her how her day was, or if she was healthy. I couldn’t share with her the joys in my life, and I felt discouraged by the language barrier. I thought that there was no way I could truly get to know her. The miscommunication conflicted with my desire for understanding. I learned Chinese so that I could speak to my parents and I learned about the Bible so that I could relate to the people in my church. When I joined a program for aspiring doctors, I learned the lingo that doctors use. When I started to get into baking, I learned about different baking terms and techniques. I saw the impact words had on influencing my experiences in life, but when I called my grandmother I lost the words I had worked so hard to gain.

What I didn’t realize at that time was how much importance I placed on words. I focused too much on what I couldn’t do that I missed the opportunity to find ways that I could communicate with her through. When I see her face light up as she answers my calls it reminds me that conveying a message is not done through literal words but rather it is through the emotions you pour out. “奶奶 it’s my birthday,” I tell her in her native language as my dad corrects my pronunciation. 好棒! 好棒! She replies. This time I know exactly what she means.

This I Believe Illinois is NPR Illinois' annual essay program for Illinois high school seniors. An expression of where their minds are as they prepare to enter the adult world. This I Believe was started by radio journalist Edward R. Murrow in 1951 to allow anyone able to distil the guiding principles by which they lived. Special thank you to our sponsors: The Rotary Club of Springfield Sunrise, State Journal-Register, BLH Computers, KEB, Marine Bank, and Roni Mohan of RE/MAX Professionals Springfield.

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