I slept on every ride to Chinese school, and every ride back.
It was part of a weekly routine, a well-remembered Saturday morning sequence. Tumbling into the car and watching the rolling hills pass the window, the burnt-black trees on the roadside after the wildfires. Drifting in and out, feeling the freeway pass beneath the wheels. I would sleep, my backpack propped against my legs, and wait to arrive in that school where the rooms were white and the snacks were good and the teachers were kind.
These are the things I remember.
I was in Chinese school since I was a child, a time period that stretches back so far it seems like it never had a beginning. In the process of going through it, it also never seemed to have an end. That was how we all were back then—children in the middle of an education we didn’t quite know if we wanted, waiting for it to finish. It felt like these classes would extend forever into our foreseeable future, a reassuring but somewhat grating constant.
I don’t think we appreciated where we were back then. Those Saturdays were thrown onto the back end of a week like a haphazard bookend, preventing the weekend from truly beginning. I remember spending late nights filling out sheets of homework on Fridays, watching the sun come up over the backyard. It seemed like just another thing to be done—another assignment to complete, another place to be. A class tacked onto my schedule alongside all the others, except in a language I didn’t know how to use.
These days, I’ve started to turn over the things we learned in those classrooms in my mind. I find myself forgetting more than I remember, scrambling to regain what I’ve lost. Even when I was in school, I would face a great deterioration of knowledge every summer, only to shore it back up in the first weeks of a new year. In the years since my last class, some fundamental concepts have crumbled away, leaving me wondering if I ever really knew Chinese that well at all.
There is a specific type of shame that accompanies the feeling of not knowing a language you feel you should be fluent in. We, the students in those classes, were bound by a common heritage—most of our parents were fluent in Mandarin, and some of us were not. I fell into the category of awkward half-familiarity. I was one of the kids who could understand, but couldn’t quite speak right—someone who would never be mistaken for being fluent.
This inadequacy became both a weakness and a point of commonality. I would make friends with others who struggled and we would struggle together, making eye contact after our awkward speeches in class, cheering each other on. During break, we would make fun of our own accents, stretching out our hands in front of us and wondering when we would finally be done with the classes. We went to the small snack shop with our crumpled dollar bills and class tokens, buying toys and candies to carry us through the next hour until we could go home.
Those are more aspects we didn’t appreciate enough—the snack shop and the class tokens. The kindness of our teachers. We sat there in those white-walled classrooms and kept glancing back at the clock, counting the moments until break. Our teachers pulled our attention back from the clock to the whiteboard, coaxing participation out of students scared of their own accents, incentivising us with coupons to a snack shop created by parents and volunteers. I never realized how much work went into buying the snacks and organizing it. I only knew the joy of holding those coupons in my hand, looking over the candies, deciding what to buy.
And so those Saturdays were spotted with little happinesses. The sleepy, scenic car rides, the sense of community and the excitement of the snack shop. Things I did not notice enough while living it, too occupied in the endless late-night homework and the clumsiness of my own tongue. I sometimes wish I could go back, just to see it again how it was. The good with the bad, the small joys with the small stressors, all contained within the space of a Saturday.
Now, five years after my last class, I am left with an eroded understanding of Chinese and this handful of memories of those weekend classes. The drowsiness of the car rides, the burnt bushes passing by. The awkwardly spoken sentences and badly written essays, exams with low scores and homework filled with red. But there was also the joy of collecting those coupons, buying a toy to remember, as well as the friends who were close and teachers who were kind.