Things We Mean to Say

The focus on finding just the right word can be a trap.

I am always trying to find the right word for things. It bothers me when I say annoyed instead of frustrated, or tired instead of exhausted. Perhaps this is a remnant of my childhood, growing up in hot Australia, the place my Chinese parents had settled on for its good education and weather.

English slipped from my tongue like water—but not for my parents. My mother signed up for weekly English classes, and in the evenings pulled her mouth around the o’s and the r’s, the quick brown foxes and the lazy dogs. The language never took hold. I translated at grocery stores, parks, parent-teacher meetings, and phone calls with the electricity company. When she gestured helplessly at my teachers, my cheeks would redden, and I would mutter quick apologies. Even so young, I understood that the language that slipped so easily from my lips held the key to a belonging she would never receive. That was how we lived then, with the hot desire to assimilate and the cold knowledge that it was impossible. I saw how people’s stony faces warmed when I opened my mouth following my mother’s attempts, and saw again how stories spun from the right words made my white classmates look at me with respect. I clung to English fiercely, and it yielded me everything I’d ever wanted: the friends, the belonging, the creamy acceptance letter from a university in the woods of North Carolina.

So it astonished me when I found myself on a date with a man who could not speak my language to perfection. He was a tall German student, new to the States, whose face had an angelic quality.

“So how do you get around Durham? What’s your…uh...vehicle?” he asked, over a glass of stale wine. “Do you drive a bicycle?”

I hesitated, thrown off. The mixed verbs and word choices sounded wrong to my ears. A cruel thought flashed into my head. We are too different. He will never understand me.

He must have seen something in my face. “Did I say something wrong? I’m sorry.… I know my English isn’t perfect.”

An image drifted up: my mother, practicing her verbs until late into the night. I was suddenly ashamed of myself. “No, I’m sorry, it’s not your fault.”

“It’s hard to move to a new country,” he said. “I wish I was better.”

“It’s not a problem,” I said. “I know what you mean.”

I saw suddenly, the trappings of communicating in a language you will never fully inhabit—the subtext, undertones, and unspoken rules you must know to have a chance at being embraced. I was measuring Fabian, just as people had measured my mother and found her wanting. I had searched constantly for the right words, but they were as much a lock as a key. It was the meanings that mattered, in the end. 

A year later, I know just enough rudimentary German to embarrass myself. Hallo, I say to Fabian, Ich bin Bella! He cringes, but I know he is secretly delighted to hear me try his native language. I will never know the glib part of him that speaks unconsciously, intuitively, freely. But there are openings to learn, like when Fabian revealed that my feelings of weariness for the world, which I could not explain, had a name in German after all: weltschmerz.

And there are those sweet, clear moments, like the warmth of the sun on your neck or the feel of a hand in yours, or the sadness when you miss a loved one, when we look at each other and say nothing, because there are no words that are enough, because only silence can live up to the things we mean to say. 

Kwai ’16 majored in English and public policy and is an aspiring creative writer and journalist. She will be working for The Atlantic as a foundation fellow and hopes to further explore the intersection of arts and policy. You can read more of her writing at

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