In my head, I speak perfectly, but what comes out of my mouth is a surprise to both you and me. I consider myself an awkward turtle: awkward when I speak and shelled up silently when I don’t. Whenever I open my mouth, words emerge in reverse, initiating a rebellion against their owner. When talking to a person for the first time, especially on a job interview or a date, I cannot keep up a conversation without awkward pauses, clammy hands, or a parched throat. My whole body tenses up, which further prevents me from speaking as clearly I can. Every time I open my mouth, I am very conscious of how my tongue is positioned, what formation my lips are in, and what sounds need pressure from the back of my mouth, like a hard “g,” or from my lips, like an “f.” It is a ballet act: every position is significant, every movement determines the next, and every breath of air is crucial. But it only takes one small, wrong move to delay the whole performance, and ultimately ruin it. I feel uncomfortable struggling, and the listener feels uncomfortable seeing me struggle. I sweat. I shake. I forfeit.
For most of my childhood, I constantly hid underneath my shell, feeling ashamed of what my voice produced. So I kept tacit. I got so many comments like, Did the cat eat your tongue? and Is your tongue too big for your mouth? All of this was very confusing for my five-year-old self. While girls were realizing they’re girls and boys were realizing they’re boys, I did not understand why I was so different from my peers. That must have been my first existential crisis. As a five year old, I couldn’t understand this, because I had always believed that I was like every other kid. But it was the first day of kindergarten when I realized I wasn’t:
A boy started to laugh at me,
With his finger pointing at me
Saying, “Look! We have a baby in our class.”
The other kids started laughing at me, too.
I started to cry,
But as I cried more,
Their laughter got louder.
I wanted to say something to them,
But as soon as I opened my mouth,
The kids laughed even harder,
Because what came out of my mouth
Was like gibberish to them.
Well, all I can say is that I’ve developed very good listening skills from a young age, since that was all I could do. It took me until my middle school years to finally convince myself that I, too, had a voice, and it was time to put it into use. I soon realized that my art of conversation entails brushstrokes of patience, confidence, and relaxation. Just like other parts of my life, my speech patterns do not match the “norms” of society, but that does not mean I can’t partake in the norm of a conversation. I taught myself the virtue of patience. The person who is conversing with me for the first time probably is more nervous than I am. Oh god, I don’t understand what she’s saying. What do I do? | I don’t want to offend her by asking her to repeat. | Should I just pretend I understood her? Although I know people mean the best when they just nod their heads with puzzled faces, it makes me feel as if my words are not important enough to be heard. And after years of experience, I can tell if they understand me or not, especially when I’ve said, “Fuck you” and their expressions haven’t changed. Walls can do better than that. If people give me even an ounce of patience, I will give then a hundred times more in return.
Confidence and relaxation go hand in hand. I must feel confident that I can be understood and that what I say matters, and then the rest will come with ease. And if I am confident, my nerves will calm down, and I will feel relaxed. The words will flow right out of me, without me worrying much about the mechanics of their sound and structure. Partaking in a conversation by using my instrument of voice is now one of my favorite things to do, especially with good company and good vibes. I speak with conviction to say what I believe, what is on my mind, in a manner that bespeaks the determination with which I believe it. I am no longer an awkward turtle, but rather an unique creature who uses her colorfully exotic shell to express herself and demand to be heard.