A while ago, I brought up, in several of my posts, my Asian-American identity: specifically, I discussed the language/cultural barriers arising from my upbringing in the United States, the problems that I had faced being a person of color in an otherwise predominantly white society, and the struggle to co-harmonize between my Taiwanese and American identities. Lots of food for thought, and today I would like to compile and expand on these topics into one, long post.
So brace yourself. It’s going to get messy.
As I’ve already said in the title of this post, I am Taiwanese-American. I was born in the United States, but my parents are Taiwanese. I grew up in the U.S. for all of my life, but have visited my relatives in Taiwan numerous times throughout my childhood.
My first language was Chinese; I spoke it fluently until the age of five, when I started attending elementary school (which back then I called “English school,” since subjects were taught in English). At first, I struggled in school, due to a combination of my extreme shyness and limited proficiency in English. I was put into the ESL (English as Second Language) program until around second grade, when I was considered “acceptable” in English. Since then, my English has been completely fine; I can speak it and express myself well via conversation and writing.
However, as a consequence, my Chinese started deteriorating rapidly, since I started using it less and less in my day-to-day interactions with classmates, teachers, friends, even my parents. My parents speak Chinese fluently, but they also know English; therefore, it was easier to communicate with them in English and get my point across that way.
To counteract the language slippage, my parents signed me (and later my sister) up for Chinese school, held every Saturday morning at one of the nearby high schools in town. I attended there for about nine years, then stopped. I didn’t really find it very effective, anyway: no one wanted to be there, even though the teachers and volunteer staff tried to make it so. I retain almost nothing from what I’d learned during those years.
…and I’m ashamed. About not caring enough to learn and re-learn my first language, my heritage, my culture. It was just too…hard. Indeed, the Chinese language (or any Asian language, for that matter) is very difficult to learn; it doesn’t follow the “ABC” alphabet of Western languages, like English, German, and the Romantic languages (Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese). Instead, it has over 2,000 characters, each having their own individual meaning. Combine those with other characters and you get even more meanings- it gets complex. I’ve lost a lot over the years and now can read and write only the very basic, most simple characters (like, “Happy birthday” or “I’m eating beef” or something). That being said, I would say that I’m better at speaking the language than reading and writing it, even though, again, I’ve lost a lot of vocabulary over the years. I can carry on basic conversations, but try to talk to me about politics and philosophy…can’t help you there.
What’s even more sad is that I’m currently studying French in college right now. Now I’m not saying that I regret taking the language- I don’t. I love it. But it has gotten to that point where my reading and writing of the French language has surpassed that of Chinese, which had been declining bit by bit over the years beforehand. You could say that my French, which is my third language, is better than my Chinese (my native tongue). *sigh
I know what you’re thinking: I’m wallowing in my misery and that I need to stop it. That if I really want to get back to my cultural roots so badly, then I should do something about it. Trust me, I’ve tried: speaking Chinese to my parents more, reading books in Chinese (like, comics and stuff like that), and immersing myself in Taiwanese television shows on the weekends when I come home from school. And while it has helped me rekindle my understanding of appreciation for my culture, it hasn’t done much to my improvement in the language.
But maybe that’s okay. That acknowledging and valuing my Taiwanese heritage is good- better than renouncing it completely (which I would never do). That is why I have a tattoo of a Chinese character on my right arm- a sign of the ties to my Taiwanese identity amid the American community in which I live.
I have also discussed in my past posts about instances of prejudice, even blatant racism, that I have personally experienced from others. Since I went into pretty extensive detail in those posts about my opinions on that subject, I won’t talk about it in this post. What I want to say though is that, despite the struggles and conflicts that I have faced based on my appearances. I am proud to be Taiwanese-American. And no one can take that away from me.
– The Finicky Cynic