I have a shyness about speaking Chinese that comes from a feeling that I ought to be better at it than I am. When I was very young, elementary school age, I was naturally bilingual. My brother and I used to memorize and recite Chinese shī, of which today I remember exactly one, about homesickness by Lǐbái, which is so well known among second generation Chinese Americans that there are memes about it.
By around middle school my Chinese had been worn down through disuse. I attended Chinese school but did poorly despite doing quite well in normal school. I remember getting my report card one year and refusing to show it to anyone until we got home, at which point I went straight to the bathroom to try and change the letter grades (I did not get away with it). I had a habit of skipping the homework and mostly just cramming for tests, and I coped with it by compartmentalizing away how much of a failure it made me feel. In 9th grade my high school offered IB Chinese, so I convinced my parents to let me take that instead, which allowed me to both avoid learning French or Spanish to fulfill the requirement, and also freed my Saturday from Chinese school.
I have one traumatic memory from this time that has stuck with me. I was at an airport in China with my mom. Mark and Dad had gone off to do something, maybe we were waiting for a plane. We would go to China in the summer to visit family and for those few weeks Mark and I would lose most of our autonomy, going out only when our parents would go out, depending on them for meals, and of course at this age we didn’t have smartphones so there was never anything to do except read books we brought with us and if we were lucky play GameBoy.
We were sitting in the terminal when my mom asked me to go over to the store and buy a bottle of water while she watched the luggage. I was immediately nervous about the idea, and I started running through the list of ways I knew to ask for water – bīngshuǐ, iced water, but that’s more of in a glass at a restaurant, or maybe just shuǐ, but I don’t want to sound like an idiot, how do I say bottled water? Is it kuàngpíngshuĭ, am I even pronouncing that right – while also trying to mentally prepare for other possible interactions with the sales clerk. My mom gave me some money and encouraged me to go, probably hoping that I was just nervous but when put to the task I would be able to succeed and gain confidence. I walked over to the store. Made a few circles around it before stopping at the fridge where the cold drinks were. It was locked so the clerk asked me what I wanted, and I mumbled “kuàngpíngshuĭ.” She looked confused and asked me what I said, and I repeated myself, so she asked if I meant “kuàngquánshuĭ” and I nodded in agreement like I had known the word the whole time with my insides shaking, and she rung me up, and I paid, got my change, and went back to my mom, who made a face when I brought her the change and asked me why the water was so expensive, and I didn’t know, because I guess my Chinese was so bad that I didn’t know how to buy a bottle of water, and I started crying because in that moment I knew that she knew it too: this unstated assumption that if I just stayed shy in Chinese and only spoke when I was 100% sure I knew what I was saying then people would assume I was fluent, this cover I hid under which both made me feel safe and stopped me from actually trying to exercise my Chinese, which is the one thing you need to do to gain fluency, was now and had probably always been a thin lie and if you tried you could see right through it to the crying high schooler who was at that age too old to be crying because he failed to buy bottled water, but old enough to cry from the shame of having failed to learn Chinese.
The expectation I place on myself about my ability to speak Chinese brings out an inner conflict similar to the feeling I get when I am taught about Chinese history by non-Chinese historians – there is a wrongness, or needlessness, like I should already know the things I’m being taught because it’s my heritage, yet of course a historian knows more about it than me, seeing as I have never studied ancient Chinese history except briefly for grade school projects. Of course my Chinese shouldn’t be very good, I hardly ever speak it. But of course my Chinese should be better, my parents are from China and they speak it around the house all the time. I grew up speaking it, or more precisely maybe I spoke it and then I grew up. But still I sometimes find myself wondering if it’s the kind of thing I should be passing on to my future children. What would it take on my part for them to not end up pronouncing the few Chinese phrases they’ll learn in a thick American accent? I’d have to speak it around them all the time. My partner would probably have to speak it. Suppose I speak it as much as my parents did – my early childhood at least gave me much less of an accent than most people who try to learn Chinese as a foreign language. Yet doesn’t the fact that I didn’t end up with that much Chinese mean that I’d have to speak it even more than they did?
Language is a big part of culture. But the truth is that my culture isn’t that of Lǐbái’s poetry, but that of its memes. Not Chinese, but Chinese American. There are parts of my culture that were passed to me from my parents: an appreciation of debate, the value of education, a love of music, these are much more a part of my life than the Chinese language. There are also certain parts of my culture which emerged unavoidably from their immigration to the US: the feeling of being an outsider, learning to “pass” as white, and as I grow older, the perception of my parents as politically old fashioned, an adaptation to the 70′s in China more so than the 21st century in the US. Culture is something that we cannot help but change, and we cannot help but pass on. What makes language different is that its preservation requires specific effort. My parents learned English so they could study and start a life in the US. I have friends in my position who have taken larger steps towards preserving their languages in their 20s. Sijia and Florence, whose Chinese skills are much better than mine, read Chinese novels and watch Chinese TV shows. Max Yu in his play Nightwatch delves deeply into the history of the Cultural Revolution as a way of exploring his family’s past through narrative. It’s not an impossible task.
Language itself was an adaptation. A necessity. You learn a foreign language by immersing yourself in it, by making it the way in which you interact with your world, and the more you force yourself to rely on the language, the stronger your grasp of it becomes. In high school I didn’t have the tools to deal with the shame that I felt. Since then I have learned how to deal with shame, largely out of necessity. I use the word trauma not to mean terrible or dramatic, but to refer to experiences which I wasn’t equipped to deal with at the time. I have learned other ideas like “forgiving yourself,” and “admitting when you’re angry.” I’ve learned how to recognize when I’m being an asshole to someone, and that it feels remarkably similar to the feeling that someone else is being an asshole to me. I don’t know that I would call these things a language, but I do know that I’d just as much like to pass them on, and I believe that with the right intention I’ll be able to.