Other than “Where are you from?”, this is the question I’ve been asked most frequently in Taiwan. I’ve met dozens of people in both Taichung and Taipei this summer, and invariably within a few minutes of meeting me, they either say, “Oh, wow, you speak Chinese really well,” or “How come you speak Chinese so fluently?” Here is the long version.
I was born in Beijing, and grew up speaking and reading Mandarin Chinese as my first language. My parents, both academics, had many books around the house, and I was a voracious reader from the start. A very memorable photo shows me at age five poring over a dictionary of Greek mythology while holding a dripping chocolate ice cream cone. I went to kindergarten in Beijing, and afterwards, took the exam to go to elementary school. And yes, there was an exam for elementary school, and I remember clearly that one portion was to add together two-digit numbers mentally (for example, 18 and 35) and tell the proctor the answer.
We moved to the US when I was about seven. My parents had been looking for a way to move abroad like most other well-educated Chinese. My mother told me years later my dad had at one point considered taking a position in the Netherlands, which would’ve been pretty awesome. We ended up in Boston, though, where I started second grade (precocious me skipped first). Soon afterwards, my parents decided to teach me Chinese at home. We used textbooks from China to teach me how to write and read characters out loud. I struggled with those lessons and really resented it at the time; it was a constant source of conflict in the household. I felt like nothing I did was ever good enough, and as my English started to excel, I read more and more English books. It was important to my parents that we keep speaking Chinese at home though, and that I kept learning Chinese. Thanks to those years of arguing and crying, I did retain a lot of Chinese. I grew up knowing that many Chinese-American kids spoke and knew less Chinese than I did, mostly because their parents either try as hard to force them to learn. We were sometimes derisively known as ABCs – American Born Chinese, a label which I hated. Less polite people called us bananas – yellow on the outside, but white on the inside.
I grew up with the desire of being able to pass. I didn’t know it for a long time, but when I was in China, all I wanted was to be accepted by other people as being Chinese. With my style of dress and my accent, I stuck out. When I visited, my cousins made fun of my stuttering Chinese, and I had trouble fighting back and sticking up for myself. (It’s hard to curse and argue in a language that you don’t have perfect control over!) My parents too are sometimes disappointed in how I have trouble expressing myself in Chinese, and I’ve internalized that a lot. The single biggest reason I almost didn’t take this internship was because I was afraid of not speaking Chinese well enough. I constantly apologize to people for not being fluent, because I feel like I should be. I’m always apologizing for being different. No matter how much I think I’m Chinese (which is how I am primarily seen in the US), Chinese people don’t consider me really Chinese.
Only sometime in the last few years have I come around to defining myself squarely as an American, not just to people in the US but to people in Asia. I’m a naturalized citizen, English is my strongest language, and I identify more strongly with western values – for example, the individual takes precedence over the family. I find the eastern mindset of strict hierarchies based on age and seniority much more stifling. But I have a lot of Chinese values too, ones that I’m hoping to pass on to the next generation. The process of accepting myself for who I am (however trite that sounds!) started in college – I decided that Chinese was important enough for me to study on my own, and I took a year of Chinese for Heritage Language Speakers. Among students with similar backgrounds, I practiced writing and reading, honing the skills that were most rusty. I also felt I didn’t have to explain who I was for the first time. Since then, I’ve kept making that decision, to learn Chinese for myself and to not feel ashamed that I struggle with Chinese. I worked at a social service agency for Chinese immigrants after graduation, and kept using my language skills there. I took this internship because I knew I practically knew nothing about professional or academic Chinese. It’s been a great experience so far, and of course, my language skills have truly improved.
This is the story which I try to abbreviate for strangers. I tell them that I grew up speaking Chinese at home and studied it in college, but that I love languages (true), and it’s been easier for me that way. I mostly omit the rambling and conflicting feelings of inadequacy and pride that bubble up every time I use Chinese, or have to introduce myself as being Chinese-American. China and Taiwan are still largely homogenous, with relatively little mobility within or without the country, and 95 percent of the population all have the same black hair and brown eyes. When people ask where you’re from, your 老家 (old home), they mean where your father was born. In the US, the immigrant children experience feels so common – there are people just like me whose families have come from the Caribbean or Mexico or Africa or Southeast Asia, and they too have stories about sacrifice and identity and what it means to grow up different from your parents and their culture. In my senior year of college, I conducted twenty interviews and wrote my honors thesis in sociology on the Chinese-American immigrant experience, focusing on the Chinese school. Talking to other people like me was by turns awkward, inspiring, and humbling, and helped me to begin reconciling the different parts of myself. I wrote in conclusion that an identity that you forge for yourself is strengthened when you struggle to actively define what it is. Having to question yourself and your past can also be a source of strength.