Here's What No One Told Me About Trying To Learn English As An Adult

"I am 49 years old. Three years ago, I didn’t know who Frank Sinatra was. ... I did not recently come out of a cave. I am a Chinese immigrant who came to this country at age 32."
The author with Cotton the cat in February 2022. The author recounts: “My niece named her Cotton. 'Cotton candy?' I asked her. 'No, cotton like on Q-tips,' she told me. What a beautiful world language can bring."
The author with Cotton the cat in February 2022. The author recounts: “My niece named her Cotton. 'Cotton candy?' I asked her. 'No, cotton like on Q-tips,' she told me. What a beautiful world language can bring."
Courtesy of Ching Ching Tan

I am 49 years old. Three years ago, I didn’t know who Frank Sinatra was. About a year ago, I finally realized I actually knew the character of Sherlock Holmes. In March, Foo Fighters drummer Taylor Hawkins died. I had no idea who he was.

I did not recently come out of a cave.

I am a Chinese immigrant who came to this country at age 32.

I teach public speaking and interpersonal communication at San Jose State University. Today, I consume 99% of the news in English. After years of being in America, I can express myself freely in my second language, even laughing at “SNL” jokes like Osh Kosh F’gosh on baby clothes. Still, when I first encountered the name Frank Sinatra, I was in an MFA workshop reading Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold.” Unlike everyone else in the room, I had no grasp of the singer’s cultural significance.

We can’t separate language from culture, but a chasm separates language and cultural knowledge. The very first thing many immigrants notice upon arriving in the U.S. is a sudden loss of a free tongue, the ease of expression, along with the loss of mainstream cultural references, which is ironic considering the U.S. has the largest immigrant population in the world.

U.K. publishing house Collins says that shared cultural references bond a language’s native speakers. The references can be to a country’s historic events or arise from the news of the day. Those of us who don’t speak English from birth (I call us multilingual speakers or English learners instead of nonnative speakers) are excluded, at least for a long stretch of time, from the conversation. The word “mainstream” implies exclusion, implies the division between a norm and an exotic.

The author in 1991 at age 19 at Foshan University in China. "I was an accounting major and did not understand English," she notes.
The author in 1991 at age 19 at Foshan University in China. "I was an accounting major and did not understand English," she notes.
Courtesy of Ching Ching Tan

I came to this country with limited English proficiency. Obviously, language was the first reason that I didn’t understand many cultural references, a steep contrast to my ability to swim freely back in my old pond as a radio host in China. Being in the media most of my life, I wanted a sense of normalcy, which was a simple desire to understand. My feeling has been one of constant catching up, an effort to reach some vague idea of mainstream. I soon realized it was mostly one-sided: The mainstream did not care if I joined or not. I started ESL in community colleges with many other immigrants from diverse linguistic backgrounds, trying to conquer English, while in fact, we were all trying to figure out America.

We immigrants work hard to get around. It’s our job to climb this mountain. The mountain is high and inflexible. The older we are to arrive to this country, the more likely we are to feel disoriented and disconnected from the popular TV shows, books and topics the mainstream talks about. We are like kids moving to a new school, suddenly isolated when everyone arounds us talks about things we don’t understand.

Some references are unknown to me only because of the translation barrier. I didn’t know Sherlock Holmes in Chinese is 福尔摩斯. I knew 福尔摩斯 all along but not Sherlock Holmes. Similar to historic figures and names, in geography, I sometimes cannot match the countries with my knowledge of them in Chinese. The first time I talked to a Bangladeshi student, I realized too late, that Bangladesh was 孟加拉国 in my language. I knew it, but, at the same time, I didn’t know it. I was ashamed.

The author (left) on a “random radio broadcasting day with my radio partner Fat Pang (who’s a household name today in Guangzhou)” in 1998. “I was mostly a sidekick in this talk show. I was good at laughing at anything and everything Fat Pang said and I got paid for it,” she says.
The author (left) on a “random radio broadcasting day with my radio partner Fat Pang (who’s a household name today in Guangzhou)” in 1998. “I was mostly a sidekick in this talk show. I was good at laughing at anything and everything Fat Pang said and I got paid for it,” she says.
Courtesy of Ching Ching Tan

I will never forget that one day in a public speaking class I was teaching when a student requested to sit down to give his speech. “I just had a ‘brownie,’ you know?” The entire class laughed except for me. He meant a marijuana brownie. How would I have known? I went to school counseling after the class because I thought I was being laughed at. I don’t think the reality was too far away from what I thought.

This brownie moment happened when I was a new instructor, freshly graduated with my master’s in communication studies, as well as a serious grader during a quick speech exercise. I could not find a way to be. This fish suddenly lost her ability to swim. After 17 years in the country, now I am at a point in my life where I’m no longer afraid of embarrassment. I can even make fun of myself. If the brownie moment presented itself to me today, I would have laughed along with my students, and asked, “What does it taste like?” But that laughter from years ago has been ingrained in my journey of English ― the loss in the sea.

The road is bumpy for older immigrants working to learn both English and mainstream references, but my eagerness to learn helps me make sense of many cultural ideas. Being a radio person, I naturally picked up the habit of listening to NPR, whether I understood it or not. At first, my days were filled with words I did not know. Being a pond fish at sea, I did the only thing I knew how to do: I swam.

When I didn’t understand something, I Googled it. I am still doing that today. Like right at this moment, I need to express this thing in my mind that I can only put it in a Chinese idiom, 积小成多, a cultural idea in my language. So, I looked it up in English. Now a new phrase, “many a little makes a mickle,” is part of my lexicon. It can be so odd when newfound words are introduced into my writing and used to tell my story. Those new words are like me ― always out of place.

The author on her wedding day, April 4, 2009. “I married the love of my life,” she says. “I first learned both the word and the idea of ‘self-conscious’ that day when our photographer complained about me to my new husband. I was 36.”
The author on her wedding day, April 4, 2009. “I married the love of my life,” she says. “I first learned both the word and the idea of ‘self-conscious’ that day when our photographer complained about me to my new husband. I was 36.”
Courtesy of Ching Ching Tan

My husband, an immigrant from Italy, came to the U.S. years before me and is a fan of many American classics. It was because of him that I watched the entire “Seinfeld” series (and on repeat) and “SNL” each week. He and I also share an affection for ’80s songs. I listened to these same songs back in China when I didn’t know much about the lyrics, but now newfound meanings add to some existing familiarity. An Italian man and a Chinese woman listening to American classics in America. Isn’t this household a microcosm of this country? We blend together in this unique place we call America.

As an immigrant, I explain myself very often in writing and everyday interactions, knowing the mainstream won’t get my cultural references if I don’t spend the extra two minutes or the extra two paragraphs to make myself clear. I do that so my “exotic” cultural experience somehow becomes acceptable. Mainstream media is a powerful current working its force over me, nudging me to become the same fish like everyone else. I realize I’ve been trying to swim against the stream but still want to be part of the American conversation.

The day of I first heard of Frank Sinatra, my MFA classmates did not give me a look of “What? You don’t know who Sinatra is?” They just simply continued to carry on the discussion. And during those conversations, I learned about the singer and his baritone voice and I found a new fascination.

The author with her husband and her son on Christmas in 2020.
The author with her husband and her son on Christmas in 2020.
Courtesy of Ching Ching Tan

I wonder if it was because my classmates did not react negatively to me on that day that perhaps I was saved. I wanted to keep learning instead of feeling left out or less than the others because of what I didn’t know.

Those writers became friends and will remain my friends for life. I try to understand what it means, but there’s no need to overthink it. This fish from different waters felt normal that day. It’s only when we are ridiculed do we see ourselves as small and incompetent. It’s only when the fish is reminded she is different that she becomes self-conscious and doesn’t know how to swim.

If you are the fish in the mainstream, please teach me, and if you can, teach me with a smile. If I know that learning from you is free of mockery but full of adventure, I will swim alongside you, and I may even tell you about all of the great things in my old pond. Maybe that way we can all be a part of redefining and shaping the mainstream. Maybe we can make something beautiful together.

Ching Ching Tan speaks, writes, and sometimes sings in both Chinese and English. She is a Public Voices Fellow at San Jose State University with The Op-Ed Project and is currently writing her memoir, “NATURALIZED.” You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.