A Midd grad learns a new Chinese language, reconnects with family history

MIDDLEBURY — Graduation weekend at Middlebury College probably generated more than 100,000 photographs. Pegged at the standard rate (a picture is worth a thousand words), that comes to more than 100 million words.
A crude, tall-tale sort of math, to be sure, but it illustrates both the vast acreage of language available to us and the challenge of harvesting meaning from it.
Ricky Zhou undertook that challenge as a freshman at Middlebury, though he might not have known it at the time. On a whim, he signed up for Chinese 101.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he said.
Working with a language that was both his and not his, Zhou discovered, translated and created some of the stories behind his own graduation photographs long before they were ever taken. In fact, without that language, he may never have been able to communicate effectively enough to gather the family who appeared with him in those photographs.
Zhou grew up in Los Angeles. His family speaks Cantonese, a variety of Chinese that originates in the southeastern region of the vast nation, near Hong Kong. As with many first-generation Americans, Zhou’s public school education pulled him further and further away from his native language and culture, so that by the time he arrived at Middlebury four years ago he felt he had “unlearned” much of it.
However, signing up for Chinese at Middlebury College — or anywhere else in the English-speaking world, for that matter — means signing up for Mandarin, or “standard Chinese,” which sounds so different from Cantonese that the two have been called “mutually unintelligible.”
MIDDLEBURY COLLEGE CUM laude graduate Ricky Zhou poses for a photo after graduating from Middlebury College last weekend.
Independent photo/Steve James
It was only later that Zhou would realize the importance of his educational decision.
“To my knowledge, I was the only one in my generation who both lost their ability to speak Cantonese and attempted to reclaim a part of that missing identity by learning Mandarin,” he wrote in a lyric essay called “Dear Mommy.”
Elsewhere in that essay, which is written in English, Zhou recalls the breathless moment he first spoke Mandarin to his mother over the phone. He explores his efforts to balance family and cultural expectations with a desire to pursue his passions — environmental studies and creative writing. And he describes the process of discovering — through conversations with his mother, juggling English, Cantonese and Mandarin  — his family’s true immigration story.
Zhou grew up believing his family had left Southern China because of the war in nearby Vietnam, “sometime in the 1970s.” But because he learned Mandarin and re-engaged with his family’s history he learned that that they had moved to Vietnam to escape persecution in China, then moved to America in 1979 to escape Vietnamese persecution of Chinese residents.
“Dear Mommy” is more than just an essay of self-discovery, however. It’s also a letter whose recipient, tragically, never got the chance to read it.
The same year Zhou signed up to take Chinese 101, his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. As vivid as she appears in his letter, she did not live long enough to appear with him in the photographs that were taken on Sunday.
He ends his letter with a request:
“Give me all the hope you can muster. I know that no matter what happens, everything will be okay. Even if the Earth burns and nothing is left. At least our planet might be able to rest in heaven, too. I love you so much and think about you every day.”
Ricky Zhou graduated from Middlebury College on Sunday with a joint major in Environmental Studies and Biology — and a minor in Chinese.
On the basis of “Dear Mommy,” he was awarded a spot at the Bread Loaf Environmental Writers’ Conference, which begins May 31.
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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