Clumsy Birds Have to Start Flying Early

When the birds flock south before winter casts her shadow, the “clumsy bird” is the first one to start flying. The one who needs to compensate for its weaknesses by going first. The Chinese idiom, 笨鸟先飞 (bènniǎoxiānfēi), uses 笨, the same word for stupid, or dumb. I’ve always associated myself with this dumb bird that must fly early to compensate for his incompetency.

I decided this self-deprecating thought pattern long before I read the story.

In the actual idiom, the bird in question is named Xiao Liu. He is born small and weak, and his brothers and sisters bully him for it. He is defenseless to their antics due to his lack of physical strength; what he was born with. They take food out of his mouth when they are young and call him “笨鸟.” (Dumb bird.) Xiao Liu is tenacious. He gets up to exercise and eat very early every day, and finishes before his brothers and sisters awaken. He exercises to get stronger. He eats before they can take his food from him. He compensates for his natural born weaknesses through hard work. And he sets off to fly early to survive the harsh migration.

I’ve always associated this idiom with myself in the light that I am like a “dumb bird.” I have to work harder because I am not “smart enough.” I have to go faster because I am not “strong enough.” And all of these things add up to my not being good “enough.” And so I’ve always thought to look down on clumsy birds like myself.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized the value of mastering more than one language. I oftentimes lament my lack of literacy in my second tongue. This past year, I challenged myself to pick up the reading and writing that I didn’t find an opportunity to learn when I was younger. I had it easier than some because of my fluency in the spoken language. And I had it harder than most of my peers, because the majority of them hailed from Chinese-speaking countries. I had to work harder, and I had to do more. I was honest with my mentor about my capabilities and he took it upon himself to arrange extra work for me to better my chances of success. It is because of my early flight that I can read this idiom today.

In my readings, I realize that it is not a lack of competency that drove Xiao Liu forward. He was born physically weak, but strong willed. I’ve learned that hard work, more often than not, wins out over what you are born with, if you don’t make the most out of it. I can’t find a way to look down on Xiao Liu, clumsy bird or not. His survival is a triumph. And his accomplishments are greater, as they are established through his tenacity.


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