I spoke Mandarin fluently until I was six—and then I lost it.
For a long time, I thought this was a unique problem that made me a uniquely bad Asian American. But this year, I started speaking with others and realized that the problem was not unique at all.
My mother grew up in Taipei. Her family is split between China and Taiwan. My father is a Polish-Irish American who was born and raised in a suburb of Detroit.
We only started speaking Chinese in our home because my aunt and grandfather came from China to live with us. They did not speak English. My mother and older half-sister spoke Mandarin already, and I learned quickly under the care of my aunt. When my aunt and grandfather returned to China, we defaulted back to the most inclusive language in our home—English.
Neither of my parents foresaw that my sister and I would forget Mandarin so quickly, or so completely. But it’s a loss that has haunted me as an adult.
There are little things, like not being able to order at an authentic Chinese restaurant— even though it is a place that feels as familiar to me as home. But bigger ones, too. I worry that only knowing my mother in her second language is an incomplete knowing. And that as a mixed-race Asian American who doesn’t look Asian, I lost the only proof of my identity I ever had.
Without looking Chinese, or speaking Chinese, or being immersed in Chinese culture as an adult, what right did I have to call myself a Chinese American?
But then the Atlanta spa shootings happened.
When I read about the victims and their families, their stories reminded me so much of my own family. My aunt cleaned houses while nannying me. She sent the money she made back to her own son and husband in China to support them. My mother waitressed at a Japanese restaurant. As a child, I memorized the phone number to say goodnight when she worked late dinner shifts.
I thought of these women who had raised me and the long hours they worked in jobs to make other people feel comfortable and happy in a country that was not home to support the people they loved. My grief, I realized, was the grief of a Chinese American.
As I immersed myself in the discourse that followed, I realized it wasn’t just myself or mixed race Asians who felt lost in their identity. So many of us had not learned our parents’ native language.
“My parents never spoke Thai to me,” tweeted Amy Chantasirivisal, “and I didn’t want to learn [because] of my own proximity to whiteness. It’s a constant source of regret for me.”
“I don’t feel a connection to my Korean name,” my friend Jackie told me. “I feel very guilty about being so disconnected from my heritage.”
Jackie’s admission reminded me of a dinner I attended several years ago. I was passing through Los Angeles alone and my mother arranged for me to visit her friend’s family. At the table, the father asked what my Chinese name was. I told him I wasn’t sure. I knew it was my middle name but not the correct intonation, meaning, or characters.
Horrified, he barked at his three children to recite their Chinese names one at a time around the table. They each did so, slightly embarrassed, but successful.
“See!?” he said, puffing with pride. They all spoke perfect Mandarin.
It is a humiliation I have never forgotten.
But statistics reveal his children are the exception. According to a Pew Research study only 35% of Asians born in the United States speak a second language at home. (By contrast, the same number is 60% for Latinos born in the US.) Apparently, it takes that kind of vigor and enthusiasm.
My whole life I thought not being able to speak my mother’s native language and feeling otherwise displaced from my heritage invalidated my identity as an Asian American. In reality, they are the very things that mark it.
This year, my Asian friends and I each questioned the ways we had disassociated from our heritage. Embedded in our guilt was not just the loss of language, but the betrayal of where we had come from in other ways: the times we’d rolled our eyes at our parents’ traditions or disparagingly joked about being Asian to white friends.
While we certainly owe it to ourselves, our family, and the AAPI community at large to examine the implications of these self-abasements, we also owe it to ourselves to remember where such instincts come from. If assimilation is a crime against ourselves, it is not one that we have committed arrogantly.
Disconnecting from our language or culture comes from a place of fear or shame or self-preservation. It happens when we are young and do not have the agency to know otherwise, or under the influence of adults who have been taught to associate their otherness with failure.
The angryasianfeminist account on Instagram reposted Amy Chantasirivsal’s tweet and added that she was told to deny speaking Chinese at home to avoid being put in English Language Development classes. Hundreds of comments flooded in with similar experiences, and their shared regret.
“That’s why my parents gave me and my sister American names and had us speak English at home,” my friend Jackie conferred.
While this wasn’t a concern in my home, I had other experiences that taught me to view speaking Mandarin as a burden. As a five-year-old, I went with my aunt everywhere and it fell on me to translate with bus drivers, neighbors, and clients.
I learned recently that the United States has no official language. But I’d argue that it just takes seeing one frustrated adult belittling your non-English speaking caretaker to internalize at an early age that there is indeed such a thing as a correct and incorrect language to speak in America.
Growing up, English meant access and opportunity. Mandarin, by contrast, was the language that we were given our chores and disciplined in. It complicated communications both in and outside of our home.
There are, of course, pressures to assimilate in every other way. Classmates telling you your lunch looks gross. Realizing at sleepovers that other families do not sleep on futon mattresses on the floor. The jokes about squinty eyes and eating dogs. The suspicious looks other parents give when they hear a language spoken they don’t understand. The persistent news stories about the threat of China overtaking the world. The fetishization of Asian women.
The reality is there is a long-standing history of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States. The antagonism and pressure to assimilate is very real. But I hope that it is something Asian Americans will spend less time feeling guilty about, and more time grieving for themselves.
That Asian Americans largely feel displaced from their language or heritage, I’d suggest, is not our personal failings as individuals, but symptomatic of our experience. We abandoned these parts of ourselves in an effort to be accepted. And that pursuit is just as much a marker of the Asian American identity as any way that we look, or lingual fluency. To feel displaced from our identity is, regrettably, proof of our identity.
In a 2016 NPR interview, Eddie Huang said of his upbringing that “I was made to feel like, not only was I not American, I was also not Chinese.”
And he’s right. Because being an Asian American is different than being just Asian or just American. Its’ sum is not lesser versions of the two, but is one wholly unto itself. Perhaps when we stop trying to measure ourselves against two identities that we are not, we can embrace the one that we are.
Maybe we don’t speak our parents’ native language. Maybe we only have one Asian parent—or none. Maybe we do not live in a town with other Asian people, or have access to authentic Asian food. In most cases, we have never set foot on the continent of Asia. But none of it takes away from being an Asian American.
Ultimately, the only people who have the right to define what being Asian American entails, are the people living it.
For myself, it means calling my mother and asking about her experiences and family recipes. It means accepting that I will never fold dumplings as neatly as she does, but trying my best. It means accepting that I cannot order at Chinese restaurants with the same native ease and finesse as she does, but doing it anyway. It is the accountability of knowing that I must proactively choose to immerse myself in Chinese culture, and the humbling and comforting joy of doing so.
This year, I finally signed up for Mandarin classes. Not because I felt like I had to but because, like my mother’s food, it was something I craved.
Re-learning is even harder than I thought it would be. My characters look crude and sloppy. After sixteen weeks I still can only introduce myself, describe my family, and talk about dates or the time. Even then, I get half of the tones wrong. But I don’t mind.
If anything, the difficulty is a reminder of what my family went through when they immigrated here. In the end, it is not my proficiency that matters. It is that it is my choice to be there.
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