I Learned Math Before I Could Speak English
a short story by Yi-Ann Li
I learned math before I could speak English.
Somehow, this condemned me to years of judgement based on the angle of my eyes and the flatness of my nose, rather than the numbers and mathematics my family sought for me to learn. I was a preschooler, drowning under the unfamiliar words and letters being thrown at me, like drinking water from a fire hydrant. I found solace in the numbers I saw on the walls and in the books. I was at home, playing with the number magnets on the refrigerator while my grandfather taught me how to add and subtract. I found solace in him: his wisdom and his baritone voice speaking in the language I do understand. In a world where everything around me suddenly felt foreign, I found comfort in the numbers and order of operations. My family greatly respected a strong education to instill love for learning and good character. Somehow, you think that is not okay.
I was in elementary school. I spoke English now, but something about me still felt wrong. I dreaded the books we read, I dreaded being called on by the teacher—I counted the people sitting ahead of me in class and rehearsed the paragraph in my head five times before it was my turn to speak. You claimed I was a “nerd” because I was better friends with numbers than letters and words. I think you called me a “nerd” not because of numbers and words, but the shape of my eyes and the color of my skin. I still sat at home on the phone with my grandfather, and I still found solace in the math problems he riddled me with. He promised me this was more than just math—but also how to think and question, and grow in this world. Somehow, you think that is not okay.
I was in middle school. I still dreaded English. I felt at home in my pre-algebra and geometry classes—and you silently judged me. Don’t think I couldn’t see your condescending glances, couldn’t hear your silent thoughts. If I buried myself under books and novels, I was an overachiever—too Asian for you. If I didn’t bury myself under books and novels, I was a nerd because of my strong background in math—still too Asian for you. So I could only bury myself under those books and novels, hoping that becoming more familiar with the words would somehow deem me less of an outsider one day. Somehow, you think that is not okay. And I started to think you’ll always think I’m not okay, because I’d learned the numbers and the words and the only thing I hadn’t changed was my race and my blood. That’s the only explanation for why after all I’d done, you still thought that something about me is not okay.
I am in high school. You still think I am an outsider, but now I don’t give a damn. The years spent riddling math with my grandfather and the secret hours buried under books have shaped me into a master of words and numbers. I realize my lifelong relationship with mathematics does not make me a nerd—it makes me an analytical problem solver, a logical thinker. A strong leader, a reliable mind in conflict resolution. Watch me as I take integrals faster than you can think. And after all my time spent with books and novels, I have fallen in love with words, too—and this newfound love for writing makes me a magician. Watch me as I hypnotize you with my words. And now I realize my grandfather sought to teach me more than math in those lessons, he taught me humility, perseverance, respect, and never-ending curiosity.
You still think I am an outsider? You should be afraid. Because one day I will use those numbers and those words, and become a doctor, lawyer, scientist, teacher—a problem solver, a magician. Humble. Persevering. Respectful. Curious.
I learned math before I could speak English. But your ignorance to the power of education blinds you. Watch me as I hold the world in my hands. And I think that is more than okay.