Editor’s note: This story was written by a high school student in Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s Summer Youth Leadership Program. This story is part of a special back-to-school issue.
By Nina Dang
The ability to speak a foreign language at an early age is a custom that most Asian families choose to follow. This skill is exceptionally beneficial in expanding the opportunities that a child will have in the future, aiding them in global, personal, and social affairs. But there’s a lot more to it than just that.
Speaking a language is one of the most significant ways to show gratitude toward one’s ethnicity.
About 2.5 million Asians in the United States speak Chinese. I, however, am not one of them.
Cantonese is the main language my family speaks to communicate with each other. Almost everybody in my family is fluent.
I used to be fluent. I didn’t realize that losing my ability to fluently speak Chinese would completely change my character, how I felt in society, and the effect it would have on my family.
My relatives can give me a pretty hard time. Some come up to me in a lighthearted manner and say, “Do you understand me?” in Chinese.
They already know the answer, and that phrase gets a little old. It just hurts when I know they’re talking about me. I might not be able to understand what they’re saying, but I’m human. It’s amazing to see how well you can train yourself to notice the details that people think a language barrier can disguise.
At times, I feel like some people see and treat me differently when they discover that I’m not bilingual. It’s subtle, but I can feel it.
For instance, there are the encounters I have with strangers. It’s the worst when people assume I speak Chinese and I can’t respond. I just stand there not knowing what to say, making me look and feel uneducated. After that horrible silence comes the absolute worst thing about being non-bilingual — I see their face.
It’s that awful condescending look of pity that churns my stomach and makes me feel like I’m a cultural disappointment. I get that a lot.
Something that really saddens me is when people just give up all effort in talking to me when they discover that I can’t speak Chinese. They really do treat me differently. There may be a language barrier between us, but it doesn’t mean we can’t communicate with each other.
I understand that my situation is probably difficult for the majority of the Asian American population to relate to, but it really is a social issue that I wish people were more aware and understanding of.
Losing the ability to speak the language is something I’ll regret for the rest of my life. It’s more painful than one would think, and it really hits you in places where you’d least expect it. And please, never make assumptions about or tease people who can’t speak their own language — you don’t always know the reasons why they can’t speak it and what they’ve had to go through because of it.
My goal in discussing this issue is not to make people feel bad for non-bilinguals but to stress the importance of never taking language for granted. It is my hope that people will truly appreciate and cherish the ability to speak their own language, because it’s something you should never let go of. ♦
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An Old immigrant man says
Nina: I am a 75 year old man and had come through the same Americanization experience that you have. Pls let me offer the following: 1. You are an American and grew up an American; if you know only English, that is normal. Don’t let anybody mentally force you to speak your mother’s language. 2. You have lost your mother tongue partially because of the unseen and unseeable pressure around you to NOT appear like a foreigner, including speaking like a foreigner. 3. However, you will find as I do that to be bilingual is something beyond Americanization; you will be admired by friends as you know another language that they don’t, you have a capability that is hard to acquire. 4. To be able to communicate with your parents and family and relatives would promote harmony in your surroundings; familial love would require that. 5. If you were once bilingual, it would not be that difficult to regain that capability; I had lost 90% of my Cantonese after several years of military service, but it came back because I wanted it to. 6. You are of course perfectly okay to be monolingual, but being bilingual, if you have the mind and the attitude to become, will add much to life, believe me.
I completely agree with Zachary . . . I’m a Thai speaking Caucasian.
I’ve also dated for a year or two a Chinese girl born in the US, and she couldn’t speak Chinese. She felt guilty about it, but it was her choice to not learn Chinese. If you regret the decision, go and re-learn Chinese! You already have a huge advantage over us white folk in the class =P
That is a very touching story and it shows how you’ve gone through some major embarrassment and mistreatment because you aren’t bilingual. How about jumping in and relearning? Self study is a good way to go and there are some good methods out there. And don’t worry that you don’t speak as well as others at first. At least you are making the effort. What do you think? You may reawaken what is sleeping and not have that far to go.
Zachary – while this is probably due to ignorance rather than malice, your comment that her “English is beautiful” is racist . The implication is that just because she is Asian it is noteworthy that she is fluent and articulate in English.
The “cornfed” comment repeats the same theme, ie. it is somehow noteworthy that her grammar is better than some white people you know.
Zachary Overline says
That is tough. Mainland Chinese in particular are very unforgiving about things like that. I’m Caucasian, but I live in Beijing, and I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard taxi drivers, grocery store clerks, even passersby on the street actually SCOLD some of my Asian friends for their inability to speak Chinese. The worst part is, some of my friends that’ve been scolded and/or looked down upon aren’t even ethnically Chinese!!
There is one thing that you should be aware of, though, and it might help. In losing your Chinese language, it’s possible that you might have lost a bit of the culture, too. They’re more blunt here by default. Calling people fat, pointing out their zits, criticizing them for things that aren’t really their fault… that’s kind of par for the course here.
Your English is beautiful, at least, so cheer up — most corn-fed Amerikuns don’t have that going for them 🙂