This I Believe

Tse-Ying - Sugar Land, Texas
Entered on March 16, 2009

I believe that words possess more power, purpose, and presence than we are fully aware of or able to comprehend.

With words we praise and condemn, offend and compliment, build up and cut down. With words we may communicate truths or lies. With words we may comfort and encourage one another, or distress and depress instead. With words we establish social networks, virtual ((internet) and literal community connections. With words we bridge generation and language gaps.

I grew up in Singapore in a multi-lingual environment. My parents are both English speaking, but my paternal grandparents spoke only Hokien, a Chinese dialect. At school, the language of instruction was English. As early as first grade, every child was assigned to a second language class, which was normally the child’s native language. For instance, a Chinese child would learn the official dialect, Mandarin – which I did. Caucasian children (usually children of expatriates) enrolled in Singapore schools frequently had their choice of a second language or exemption from that requirement.

So, growing up I learned early at home and in school that language is vital.

At seven, when I came to the US while my parents were both at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, both pursuing their second Master’s degrees, I discovered that words could demean and insult. It was 1967, the Vietnam War was still ongoing, some of my schoolmates knew about Pearl Harbor, and many of them didn’t know the difference between a Chinese and a Japanese. Racial discrimination was still acute. Two boys in a higher grade took to taunting me, never realizing that I was hardly Japanese. Also, my parents had both lived through the Japanese Occupation in Singapore and the few stories I had heard were enough to make my young skin crawl. So, I understood their sentiments about Japan better than they realized.

In an attempt to help me, some of my closest friends in second grade taught me this rhyme, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” I tried to take those words to heart. But, quite obviously, I haven’t forgotten the rhyme nor the taunting, both made up of words.

I believe that words can control, command, and communicate. With words those in positions of leadership and authority persuade and provoke their subordinates. Words can accomplish what we design or more than we expect. These days, as a swimming and music instructor, I use words (and actions) to help my students develop their skills, and it amazes me every time at how essential words are to my profession and purpose.

I believe that words should be regarded with more respect, more reverence, and more appreciation than we are sometimes inclined to do. Words serve us or work against us in ways that we may or may not be prepared for. Words consist of more than the letters of the alphabet – words are the essence of life and spirit.

This I believe.