What happens when you're old enough to accept that if you really want something, it'll take time and effort:
I recently shared with my mom that I had always wanted to be spoken to in Mandarin as an adult, to overcome the fact that I could only speak and understand things from the context of child-to-parent. This is actually a pretty common problem among first generation children and their immigrant parents. The problem is, when someone actually does speak to me fluently, I get a little deer-in-headlights and clam up, and they eventually give up trying to communicate. (...except for an aunt, who thankfully continues to chatter on about all kinds of interesting things – despite my reluctance to speak, I pick up the most when I spend time with her). The most hurtful is when you can only resort to simple pleasantries with relatives and can't get beyond that to deepen those important relationships, because the language barrier is just too great to overcome.
As a kid, I used to be frustrated whenever I had to repeat things in English to my parents because it seemed like they didn't catch everything I'd said the first time. As an adult having traveled through Asia, I now understand how difficult it is to catch everything the first time when it's just not your primary language – even if you do have a leg up because you grew up hearing it. I used to envy classmates who could navigate both worlds seamlessly. In college, I had once been told that I seemed to have the ability to do the same, from friends who felt far more alienated from their heritage than me. I tried to hang onto that identity for a while, but after a decade of living in an area where I've had near zero opportunities to practice speaking and listening, I've pretty much resigned to the fact that this is more true of my ability to read cultural cues than my ability to understand the language.
My old boss, who has since moved to Germany – the land of his cultural heritage – is now facing the frustrating challenge of learning German from having learned no second language at all. His struggles remind me of my husband, who's been trying to learn Mandarin since we got married. The boss laughed at my recollections of long conversations with my family (my father's family shares a lot of laughs about everything at every reunion) where my husband would sit and wait expectantly for an interpretation, after which I would say simply, "we decided to go to the market."
"That's what you guys were laughing about?!"
"We were laughing? Oh... yeah, sorry, it's too much to explain," I'd say sheepishly, as my entire extended family (who actually do understand English even if they don't speak it) look on to verify my understanding of the past ten minutes of conversation.
Sometimes jokes also don't really translate very well. A surprisingly large number of them, in fact. Maybe that's just how my family jokes.
So I guess, like, I understand some things. And there's a lot of things I don't understand, and it's hard to find a way to learn the things I need to learn without having to resort back to the "Hello world" of all language programs: "Hello, my name is [some Western name]. How do you do?" (Why is that always the first lesson? Why not something more culturally appropriate, such as, "Sorry, what did you say?" or "Have you eaten yet?")
So I basically need to go to those places with the cultural contexts I most want to conquer, and then just grind. I'm listening to audiobooks to chase my uncles' literary references. I'm listening to pop music and reading online forums to catch my peers' slang. I'm reading the history of my heritage so that I could perhaps understand the hidden ocean of cultural meaning that people aren't always conscious they live in. And I'm super thankful when my relatives, overcoming their reluctance to communicate on a 60%-reliable transmission line, decide to chat with me. And I'm looking things up and taking notes.
In the context of other developments happening in my life, perhaps the theme of my new year is going to be 'clinch.'