Learning to Speak

I am a soprano. I have trained for years to use my voice with precision and with freedom; with agility and with richness; with my heart and my body; with articulation and with color; with diction and with meaning. I lend my singing voice to communicating words penned by mostly men (and once in a while, women), modulated through tones composed by mostly men (and once in a while, women). The meaning I convey is sometimes sculpted by a coach, sometimes mediated by a director, sometimes charted by myself.

Sometimes—these are the best times—my collaborators help me uncover compelling truths beneath the musty layers of repertoire consigned to the antique shops of Western art music, also known as “classical music”. And sometimes I have the added great privilege of communicating fresh truths, just written, to even smaller audiences willing to come out to experience something novel in the marginal world known as “New Music”.

I am more comfortable using my singing voice, mediated through all this technique and all these intermediaries, than I am in using my unvarnished speaking voice.

To me, my speaking voice sounds naked, colorless, flat, hesitant. Nobody ought to take this voice seriously.

I am also a writer. I have always had a facility with language. I began editing school newspapers at age 12. I was a newspaper journalist for over eight years, switching to academic writing after leaving my first career. My written voice has also not been my own: deployed at the service of the day’s news; telling others’ stories; or assuming the voice of a researcher putting a fresh spin on old facts.

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I was raised, like many in Asian families, not to use my voice, but to submit to the rules around me. I grew up in a Chinese-speaking home, in an English-medium school founded during colonial days, in an authoritarian post-colonial city. My identity was forged in the tension between the sophistication of “Western” liberalism, individualism, freedom, and logic; and the “Asian values” of conservatism, communal good, pragmatism, and paradox. (I have since come to question all of these assumptions.)

The “Asian values” part of my upbringing clashed with my internalized Western aspirations. They clashed at home, where personal success and family responsibility were stressed at the expense of following one’s dreams; and at my girls’ school, where correctness, modesty, and conformity were enforced even as the curriculum, filled with Western literature, cultivated an inner hunger for voices that were true to themselves and tried to change their world. I lapped up the stories of Jane Austen’s heroines, who asserted personal happiness in a world where women were little more than property; Charles Dickens’ orphans transcending the cogs of the Industrial Revolution; George Eliot’s nonconformists whose singular minds provided a way out of the strictures of Victorian society.

When, at 14, I turned to Jesus and the Christian faith that has defined my adult life, I was also converted into a post-colonial evangelicalism, which added to the tension with its emphasis on correct belief, right living, eternal membership, and institutional power. Never mind that the Bible tells a story of prophets calling out injustice, culminating in a power-subverting Messiah who submitted to ultimate humiliation to restore the cosmos to its original state of wholeness.

Because I yearned to be among the authentic, prophetic voices, I left home, during the Clinton years, for an America that appeared to welcome the stranger with open arms. Someone like myself, colonialized, apolitical, silent, elite; comfortable in the role of model minority; more facile in English than the average American; brandishing educational power; protected by religious identity; and completely blind to the country’s beleaguered cultural, historical, religious, and racial dynamics.

In America, I honed my stage voice to acclaim, moving audiences, chalking up successes, learning to live with failures as I grew in age, resilience and self-confidence.  But outside of my inner circle of trusted friends, my speaking voice stayed mostly silent, unwelcome in my family, my hometown, and, I subconsciously feared, in my adopted and hoped-for new home.

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It was in relationship that I began to find my voice. Through true love, a partnership with someone who has encouraged me to embrace who I am, and to pursue what I believe in. And through motherhood, shepherding two young ones into my dream for them: a life of wholeness, overflowing in love.

I have learned lessons in watching my children learn to speak. A child is born with a loud voice. She has the words, too, deep inside her. When a typical child’s articulators—the muscles and organs that govern speech—grow and become coordinated, the words tumble out. My job, as my children’s parent, is to help them continue to stay true to their voices, to help them chart a path to use their voices in ways that are healthy and kind.

The election of 2016, having belatedly exposed for me the yawning fault lines of American society, has provided the impetus for me to start using my voice.

On the one hand, my spoken voice is like a young child’s. My vocabulary, tumbling around unexpressed in a fearful mess just below the surface, needs work. I’m learning anew the rules of language, of conversation, of respectful communication. I’m learning to break those rules. My voice is tentative, it is lisping, it stumbles often. But here it is.

My speaking voice is also a mother’s voice. It is tender, it is ragged, it is loud and louder; it is wisdom, it is folly, it is music, it is noise; it is healing, it is hurtful, it can comfort, it can kill. It can sometimes roar. I am learning, sometimes painfully, to marshal this voice for truth anchored in love.

My voice is finding its expression: in person, on paper, scrolling across your screen. It wants to speak up for those with no voice, against those loud voices that keep others’ silent. For fellow immigrants, sisters and brothers of color, those in the LGBTQIA+ community who have suffered immeasurable hurt in the hands of the Church. Against systems of patriarchy and whiteness, unjust leadership, and a Church that has through the ages been drunk with power instead of leading with humility.

I am finding my voice, to show my children they too can use their voices, whether in song or in speech, in cursive or in print. My Asian-American children need to make themselves heard, to claim their space in a land which may not accept them as truly its own.

I can’t protect them with my voice for long, but I can show them what a strong and loving voice sounds like, so they, and their children, can speak for themselves and for the voiceless. They can speak, so that there is room for more people like them and unlike them, in America and in the world, where everyone can use the voices God has given them.

Sometimes, the voice inside of me, that creaky and unformed voice, tells me I am too old to go through, for the second time, this process of taming, of shaping, of unleashing with skill.

But another voice, the voice growing in confidence, tells me: It’s never too late to begin again.

 

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Jennifer Lien has worn several hats in her life in two continents: newspaper journalist, opera singer, music professor. She is also finding fresh meaning in doing justice and loving mercy in her roles as mother and community volunteer.