Writing Center, Mandarin Style

“You need to get rid of your Mandarin-style wording.”

As I walked out of my summer school writing center, the comment from the consultant was still ringing in my ears. What did she mean by “Mandarin style wording”? Raised speaking Mandarin, I knew that my English could hardly be as good as a native speaker’s, but the problems I had encountered before when learning English were all solvable in one way or another: I could study grammar rules to make my sentences grammatically correct and read articles to learn native expressions. Yet my “wording,” my speaking habit, was not something I could easily change.

“Gosh, the wording!” I slapped my laptop closed in despair. Two weeks after the summer school, I was again writing an essay for my English class, and the wording remained an obstacle. I could sense that there was something wrong with a few sentences, but I could not find a better expression. Grabbing my phone, I texted my friends for help. I nearly laughed aloud when a list of replies came in, all starting with frustrated “Ahhhhh”s, followed by explanations that they were having the same problem, and ending with pictures of the sentences in question. I scrolled through the responses until two replies caught my attention.

The first one from my best friend was a modified version of my sentence, a more natural-sounding version with excellent wording. The second reply was a sentence that my friend was struggling with, and I knew exactly how to make it better. Suddenly, the idea of creating a writing center dawned on me. When none of our teachers had time to look through our essays sentence by sentence, and when none of us could see the problems in our own essays, it was useful to have someone else take a look. Why couldn't that “someone” be a friend?

With a rush of excitement, I immediately called my friends for help, filled in an application for club registration, and started to brainstorm plans. Eleven of my friends joined as writing consultants. We made a public email account for online essay assistance and started to help our peers anonymously. More and more students sent their essays to our account, entrusting us to revise their writing. We would even sometimes send our own essays to the email account, hoping that some friends could help with our “wording issues.”

Two months after the initial establishment of our online Writing Center, two of my friends and I were sitting together in a classroom, ready to begin our daily routine of essay editing. I clicked open a Word document from a random email without thinking twice, expecting another This-I-Believe essay many ninth-graders were recently working on, and was caught by surprise by a poem — a short haiku.

“Are you guys looking at the poem?” I read through the small poem and was suddenly not sure what to do. For past English papers, all we had to do was to see if their logic flowed, give some detailed wording advice, and point out major grammatical mistakes. Yet this poem had about 15 words in total, meaning that modifying one word might influence the entire work.

“Just finished reading. By the way, poems do not have to follow all the grammatical rules, so I don’t know what we can do with this one,” Rose shrugged.

“Let’s just give some general advice instead of changing anything directly,” Lily suggested, showing us what she wrote on her computer. She gave a few small comments about word choice, changing “blue” to “azure” for instance, so that the poem’s description of sunny weather and the cloudless sky could be expressed more directly. More importantly, at the end of the document, she put the title “Possible Future Directions.” Underneath, suggestion number one complimented how great the poem sounded, and pointed out that all advice we gave was only for reference — we were not professional writers ourselves. Then, in suggestion number two, we had the space to express our comments freely; Rose suggested the author expand their poem since it might make a nice villanelle, I advised writing a few other haiku on the same theme so that they could go together, and Lily gave further suggestions centering on the poem itself. This creative writing piece gave us the chance to be innovative when editing, to ignore all the grammar and wording, and to focus only on the feeling someone was trying to express through poetry. Although I did not know what the author of this haiku decided to do with the edits they received, I did hope the advice was helpful, just as how this small poem was inspiring for me. I saw a new way of self-expression that was more powerful than using the right grammar for academic essays.

As the writing center continues to grow, I feel a surge of happiness for being able to help the people around me. But stronger than happiness is a sense of gratitude: I am thankful for the help of my friends, the support I have gained from my teachers and parents, and most importantly, my “Mandarin style wording.” This problem with language is still with me today, and I sometimes still write in imperfect English. Yet it encourages me to think, try, and make changes. This problem is not simply a problem: it is also a possibility. A possibility that inspires me to reflect upon my own writing and to learn from all the essays I receive in the past, today, and in the future.

Sia Gu is a 12th grader from Beijing, China who is interested in literature, travel, and drama.

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