By Emily Wong
How important is language to culture? Currently, the only language I know is English. Does that mean that nothing separates me from the average American? In order to feel like an Asian American, do I need to be able to speak the language of my parents? Yes. At least for me, absolutely yes.
Due to my mother and father being Japanese and Chinese, respectively, I’ve had the misfortune of not learning either language fluently. Instead, I am only capable of understanding snippets of each and can only respond in short, one word replies. I, unfortunately, did not prioritize learning an Asian language when I was younger. I didn’t care enough about my culture to put effort into the Japanese Language School that I attended. I acknowledge that it’s not too late for me to learn a new language, but to achieve fluency the battle is more uphill now.
I’ve always felt like an outsider looking into Asian culture. My inability to speak an Asian language has made me feel more distant from other Asian Americans. In fact, a good majority of my friends are bilingual and whenever there are multiple people that can speak the same language, they often revert to speaking their own languages.
The benefits of speaking the same language, bringing people together and promoting a sense of community for Asian Americans, is lost when the language is not effectively passed on. That same feeling of being a foreigner arises every time I watch an Asian television show and I don’t understand a thing. I don’t want to need to use subtitles every time I watch an Asian drama.
On a deeper level, not knowing a language also means not being able to fully understand the different facets of a culture.
In Japan, there is a whole system of language style called “keigo” that is completely devoted to honorifics and respectful language. There is no better way to understand the different nuances of the Japanese social system than using and understanding keigo. The language demonstrates a portion of Japanese culture that cannot be explained.
For instance, language is important to humor. I occasionally watch Japanese game shows and even though my mother explains why different speeches or segments are funny, I don’t truly understand the humor.
The one thing that sets me apart from any other American is my appearance. I don’t feel like a true Asian American because I know I could not possibly survive in Asia for long by myself.
I feel as if I am slowly losing my culture as my grandparents get older and I still cannot hold real conversations with them.
I believe that until I learn either Japanese or Chinese, I will not be capable of crossing the line to becoming a true Asian American. (end)
Editor’s note: This story was written by a Summer Youth Leadership Program student, not a Northwest Asian Weekly staff member.