Neither Here Nor There

5:59 PM

Picture from a visit to Xi'an, China. 2008.


"我不想我的肤色写我的--我的--uhhh--怎么说 'destiny'?" I said, frustrated, during one particularly angsty phone call with my mom. I was trying, clumsily, to say "I don't want my skin color to write my destiny." But there was one little problem--I didn't know how to say "destiny," and I wasn't even sure if my grammar was half-correct.

That clumsy declaration sums up my simultaneous attachment to, and flight from, the language that is my mother's mother tongue. Lots of children of immigrants can relate to the feeling of running away from the language their parents speak, seeing it as foreign, yet another thing to mark them as "other," or just inconvenient. I had a French neighbor who would speak French to her sons only to hear them respond in English: they were the blonde-haired mirror images of my sister and me in our rebellious childhood. We were Chinese school dropouts, tired of having to make the trip to Kirkland on Saturday mornings to struggle through memorizing characters we never dreamed we would need or want to use.

But it becomes a little more complicated when you're not really forced to use the language or learn it via osmosis. When your dad speaks English and all your aunts and uncles do too, it becomes pretty easy to get by on English alone. Sure, it gets a little awkward at family gatherings, when your grandparents fix beseeching eyes on you and deliver yet another lecture on the value of learning Chinese: don't you know that China is an ascending economic power, don't you know that China has 1 billion people--but you could get that from any Econ or History or Poli Sci class, so what you really hear is the subtext, don't you know that you're Chinese?

I thought of being a South Asian Studies major, once. First it started as a joke, the kind of thing I said in Facebook group chats to scare the kind of friends who think of any majors that end in the word "Studies" (whether of the ethnic, American, media, or regional variety) as hopeless wastes of money. After I'd taken my second class in the South and Southeast Asian Studies department and realized that these classes were the sources of my sole A+'s at Cal (and, more importantly, the classes I most enjoyed going to), I started thinking about it more seriously. I could happily envision taking endless classes about everything from pre-Mughal history to religious nationalism to the effects of globalization in the subcontinent.

My only hang-up was the language requirement: two years of one of the department's supported languages. I still remember telling my mom casually during a hike in Marin County that I was thinking of studying Hindi or maybe Sanskrit to do the major, instead of just the minor.

"I think the minor is enough," she said with an inscrutable expression. "What about Chinese?"

What about Chinese? 

This question has haunted me ever since I was a kid.

I don't want my skin color to write my destiny, I think now, and yet there is only one language other than English in which I can even begin to construct that sentence. When I try to use three years of high school French some mis-connected neurons in my brain send me every other word in Chinese, instead. There is only one language other than English in which I can improvise insults to say to my sister, describe my major, say the words "colonialism" and "government representation" and "politics"--

And most importantly, only one language other than English in which I can talk to my grandparents.

That was a good reason to study Chinese, said one Berkeley Language Exchange Program group facilitator. He was an exchange student from Hangzhou, a boy in a pink button-up who excitedly told us all about his upcoming performance of an Eminem song at the Chinese People's Union annual concert. He asked us all why we were studying Chinese, and he seemed singularly intrigued by my answer. He remembered it later, when I showed up to the group late one time -- "Hey! You're the one who studies Chinese to speak it with your grandparents."

Something about that web of filial piety immediately binds us together, creates recognition between the exchange student from Hangzhou and this half-Chinese girl from Seattle: no matter if we feel we are the spider spinning, or the unlucky insect fated to be devoured. Sometimes I feel more like the latter. Once, I vented to an Asian-American psychologist who I see sometimes about feeling guilty for not wanting to see my parents (who live locally) more often. She told me, with a ruefully knowing expression, "You sound so Chinese right now! You don't hear it?"

But then -- "You're such a banana, Adora." The voice of one of my friends. Banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. He said it after a Chinese class where we'd talked about traditional table manners, and I'd confessed I didn't know any. My family makes frozen fish filets from Costco and mixes tofu and bok choy with lemon pepper pappardelle pasta from Trader Joe's; you'll realize quickly we don't care too much about traditional Chinese cooking, much less table manners. I liked my childhood, I liked eating out at more Indian and Italian, Mexican and Thai joints than Chinese, but--

What about Chinese?

I dutifully picked Chinese to satisfy my Development Studies major language requirement. In my third semester of Chinese, "Advanced Chinese for Heritage Speakers," I sit next to classmates whose parents speak Mandarin to them regularly, a class that reminds me every day that really, I'm not Chinese enough to be there, not white enough to be somewhere else. Today when my teacher passed out test results -- I looked to my right and saw the boy next to me had gotten a 90.75, something he made a disappointed noise over -- and behind me, more 90s -- she didn't pass out my test. I went up to her and asked for my test, and she asked if I had time to stay after class. I went to her office hours, where she surprised me by printing out a blank test and asking me to redo the listening portion. "I know you don't have the same background as the others," she said softly and kindly in Chinese. It's not the only time she's alluded to this--once, she told me that she "worried" about me, because of how badly I was doing on quizzes, and reminded me to go to her office hours--you're not like the others, she'd said then too. I was a little blindsided by the generosity of being able to do the listening portion again but also too tired to do much better. I finished, and she-regraded my test. I went from 57.5 to 60.5. (Out of 100.)

Someday, I thought ruefully, maybe it's the kind of thing I can show my kids. Like the time I found one of my dad's old math quizzes from elementary school at my grandpa's house and he had a D, and it was so funny because my dad was so good at math. But that was only funny because of his PhD in Physics, and I wonder if my Chinese test D will ever be funny in contrast to some hoped-for eventual fluency, or just another reminder that I failed to be good at the one language that people expect me to speak. I'm serious: people (usually well-meaning 60-something white men in tweed suits) have approached me at conferences and started sentences with "Ni hao!" Just like that: a brutal reminder that I am at least slightly Other, and that no number of reminders that I was Made in the USA (e.g., first line of my Wikipedia page, "born 1997 Springfield, Oregon") or SAT vocabulary words in my speeches can erase the everyday fact of the color of my skin.

That same color of my skin that I don't want to write my destiny.

When I walked out of my teacher's office hours there was a balding white man who emerged from one of the offices in the same hallway; she saw him and they conversed briefly in fluent Chinese. Two other classmates and I exchanged a shocked glance, and one of my classmates said, "He speaks better than me!"

I will never get that kind of reaction for speaking Chinese. If I'm lucky, a "You've improved!" but otherwise a sort of palpable disappointment that it isn't better. When Gary Locke went to China as the American ambassador, a tremendous amount of awkwardness ensued when people expected him to speak Chinese and he couldn't. My teacher held him up as a cautionary tale.

It's a tremendously shallow desire, but deep inside I want to be that guy in that hallway, not Gary Locke. I want to be able to walk into a room and speak a language that no one expects me to know, instead of forever feeling duty-bound by heritage to study one language, but too un-fluent to claim it passionately.

Does this make me a traitor -- to my heritage, to my family, to myself?

I declared my Development Studies major in the office of an advisor who I can only describe as one of those jovial tall white guys who seems like an Adult Who Plays Sports (probably something cardio-intensive like Ultimate or soccer or running marathons, and probably with other tall, pretty people). He looked at my transcript, looked back at me, and said in the blunt way that funny people can get away with, "You know that studying a language that doesn't align with your regional concentration is pedagogically crap, right?"

He was so jovial that I responded only, dryly, "I'm aware."

What I didn't say: Mr. Major Advisor, I do this pedagogical crap because it doesn't get easier, walking into family reunions and being reminded of my shirked responsibility, answering people's questions as to why I'm studying South Asia and not East Asia, why I spent my summer in India and not China, constantly trying to outrun and disprove the tenacious notion that I want nothing to do with my heritage. I do this pedagogical crap because it is my penance, my haircloth shirt and my bread and water, for using my other classes to study history and culture and literature so foreign to my grandparents.

See, Mr. Major Advisor, I do this pedagogical crap because I'm not white.

When I was little, I wanted to look white (more on that here), and maybe my misguided obsession with physical appearance belied a desire for a sort of freedom: when people have forgotten who your ancestors are and where they came from (I mean, we say 'white people,' not 'Irish-German-Czech-French'), your ethnicity goes from being the determinant of the languages and cultures you study, to a mere suggestion, to irrelevance.

I suppose you can call it freedom; I suppose you can call it loss.

I'm undecided. And so I plod on, clumsy composition after composition and failed test after test, trying to catch up, trying to memorize the characters to--if only on the surface--rewrite myself.

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3 comments

  1. Anonymous10:32 AM

    This is so interesting to read, You seem to be putting massive amounts of pressure on yourself. You don't have to obligate to any other language because of your family.
    Here in the UK I grew up with a couple of brothers who's grand parents were from India, But they could not speak a word. Don't ever allow the pressure of your family dictate what should learn.
    Loved the article and love reading everything you write thanks for sharing.

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  2. As a white learner of Chinese, I think it's way unfair that you should be given less credit than us just because you're not white. But if it makes you feel any better, I should tell you 2 things:

    (1) the better I've got at the language, the LESS adulation I get. I don't know if that's because I've reached the level where they automatically think I've spent years in China so of course I'm fluent (although in actual fact my fluency is a result of 14 years of spare-time struggle in England and I've never been anywhere near China nor signed up for a class), or because nowadays there are far more people learning Chinese for the reasons you mention (economic power etc) so they become increasingly likely to assume I'm learning Chinese for some selfish commercial reason instead of my actual altruistic reasons.

    (2) if you and I are learning Chinese for "out of the box" reasons, then we must NOT confuse test score results with actual progress as measured by OUR objectives. The tests are presumably designed on the assumption that our reasons for learning Chinese are just the boring ones. I knew a lecturer in the Chinese department here who kindly lent me textbooks (and I asked Chinese friends to record the vocabulary lists for me); she once sent me an email asking if I'd like to take a Chinese test, because some government initiative in Taiwan wanted to sponsor her department and she needed to show there was more interest in this test. Well my personal objectives had been to get as good as possible at speaking and listening (in that order: I can just about do simultaneous interpretation from English into Chinese, although the reverse is harder and I can't promise a professional standard in either); I am not so good at written Chinese (I can read a few characters but I tend to rely on pinyin and computer software) and my skills with a pen are just about nil. Unfortunately this skillset was a very poor match for that exam, which was about 20% oral and 80% written. When I said OK I'll sit it and get 20%, she wasn't so keen. (I tried asking if allowance could be made for my partial blindness - after all they let me type my Computer Science exam instead of handwrite it like all the fully-able students had to do. But that one didn't go down well around here.) But hey, my self-taught skillset has enabled me to do what I myself wanted to achieve; who cares if some test I've never heard of measures things differently. I've written lots of computer software to help me in Chinese and some of it helps others too (e.g. I made an Android app to add pinyin to websites and it has 5,000+ users). You are intelligent enough to set your own learning objectives without being hemmed in by courses and exams.

    Adora, is there any way I can help you? as I know what it's like to want to learn Chinese but not in a way that really fits the system. And I've brought some computer science skills to the problem. Maybe we should talk sometime?

    Oh and I always try to speak Mandarin to people who look Chinese because I'm fishing for opportunities to use what I've learned. But this behaviour seems to alienate me from the British-born Chinese and I'm still trying to figure out what to do about that.

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  3. Anonymous8:50 AM

    I am a high school sophomore taking Chinese, and personally, I love it. Despite being "whiter than sour cream," I ending up changing from Spanish, which I disliked with every cell of my being, to Chinese out of necessity. My parents divorced when I was younger, and so my father remarried a Chinese woman. Recently, they had their first child together, and to help raise her, they had her parents come to live with us. They speak approximately 3 1/2 words of English, the 1/2 being our names. I have had only two-ish conversations with them, despite them being here for a few months now, and even then, I am amazed they understood my broken Chinglish. Despite not having the clear advantage of being raised with another language in the house besides English at all, much less Chinese, I felt determined to be able to converse fluently with them, and my stepmother and baby sister, for that matter. I simply don't understand why you would want to fight your heritage. I don't even know mine, though it is probably something along the lines of being Welsh, and I would do almost anything to know what culture I was derived from, or to have the chances that my baby sister will have, and that you had.
    I hope the best of you, and you will find resolution in your struggles with your family. 很高兴认识你. 再见!

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