chinese character for 'I' vs. I


In a famous account of growing up in America, Maxine Hong Kingston (1975) tells of her sister's silence when, for the first time, the two of them had to act in a setting ruled by English and the School. She tells of her own inability to speak the character "I":

It was when I found out I had to talk that school became a misery, that the silence became a misery. I did not speak and felt bad each time I did not speak. I read aloud in first grade, though, and heard the barest whisper with little squeaks come out of my throat. "Louder," said the teacher, who scared the voice away again. The other Chinese girls did not talk either, so I knew the silence had to do with being a Chinese girl.

Reading out loud was easier than speaking because we did not have to make up what to say, but I stopped often, and the teacher would think I'd gone quiet again. I could not understand "I." The Chinese "I" has seven strokes, intricacies. How could the American "I," assuredly wearing a hat like the Chinese, have only three strokes, the middle so straight? Was it out of politeness that this writer left off strokes the way a Chinese has to write her own name small and crooked? No, it was not politeness: "I" is a capital and "you" is lower case. I stared at that middle line and waited so long for its black center to resolve into tight strokes and dots that I forgot to pronounce it (1975: 166-7).

Note how Kingston first problematizes "I" (as inscribed public symbol) by demonstrating how it is a cultural construct. This symbol is controlled by others (Chinese mothers, American teachers) and constructs particular possibilities.

Note how she does not put quote marks around her routine use of "I" (this, after all, is an autobiography written in English for an American audience) and then tells us that "small and crooked" is what "a" person who "is" Chinese does (contrast to the other possibility she also indexes that the seven stroke "i" is a property of writing conventions) and what creates problems for her.

Thereby she appears to work with George Herbert Mead, and then subverts him by collapsing the radical experiental I into the social ME.

I have argued in many places that we must stay with Mead, I would now translate him into my favorite passage from Merleau-Ponty (1973 [1969b]: 43). "I" is an attempt to index that which cannot be said, the silence between the many dimensions of all the "me's" others make of "i" to live by.

August 6, 2019 (1998)