By: Sharon Dang
When you walked home from Kate Sessions Elementary School at the age of eight, kindergarteners half your size would spit at you and call you “Chink!” You would chase them around the bush, but your physically awkward self wasn’t fast enough to catch them. And even if you did, then what?
In middle school, you were called “rice eyes” and to that you defended, “hamburger eyes.” And although rewarding yourself for being clever, the response failed to deliver much of a defensive punch.
Our culture, our very identity, is slowly being erased, silenced and lost with every generation that “assimilates.”
In high school, you were enjoying a hot summer day relaxing in the backyard pool of your parents’ house when the neighborhood kid that lived in the house across the empty field, exposed from the lack of landscaping, would yell “Gook, go home!” Go home to where? Your dad immigrated to America via Canada via Taishan, China, with $50 to his name, worked hard supporting his family, juggled five jobs and designed and constructed this American dream house. At the time, he had already built three custom houses in this neighborhood. Home was here, so you thought?
In your adult life, college and beyond, you were often asked, “Where did you come from?” California. You were born and raised in San Diego, California to be exact. But somehow this answer never satisfied them, to which they would ask, “Where did you really come from?” You resisted replying with the answer they were seeking, but at the same time struggled with your identity as an Asian person living in America.
Identity is complex. Identity politics even more complex. You see, you were born in San Diego to the parents of two Chinese immigrants from Taishan, China, yet you could hardly speak the dialect. The quest for identity as a Chinese person living in America begins with a connection to language. Language is not only a means of communication, but the vital pathway to connecting people and finding common ground. It’s the secret weapon to disrupt the patterns of racism. It cultivates and nurtures cultural literacy.
Your parents had honest and valid intentions for their children to try to assimilate to America easier by speaking primarily English at home, but in hindsight this was such a missed opportunity and so shortsighted. The very rich fabric of our cultural history and sense of belonging lies in being able to speak our native tongue. Taishanese, a dialect of Cantonese, is already in flux of extinction as it is supplanted by mainstream Cantonese and increasingly by Mandarin in larger communities worldwide. Our culture, our very identity, is slowly being erased, silenced and lost with every generation that “assimilates.”
A sense of identity and empowerment. A sense of belonging. A means to be seen, heard and connected to history. Cultural literacy. For these reasons, I chose to enroll my daughter Ava into Barnard Mandarin Magnet Elementary School in San Diego, California, where she is taught Mandarin Chinese. For the past three years, she has also been exposed to the Six Ancient Arts of Confucianism, by means of a partnership with the Confucius Institute (CI), a non-profit educational organization in affiliation with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. The mission of the institute is to actively cultivate and facilitate the teaching of Chinese language and culture.
I am grateful for CI because my daughter has the chance to learn Mandarin Chinese at an early age. Her written and oral Chinese comprehension has already surpassed mine. Learning Chinese is no easy feat. I enrolled in Mandarin language classes when I attended UC Irvine as an undergraduate, pulling all-nighters and trying to cram for tests, only to receive grades that lowered my GPA. I enrolled in a Cantonese language class at a community college in San Francisco only to be belittled for my Taishanese accent. I spent the summer of 1995 in Beijing in an immersion language program, only to converse in English with the other participants as we were too distracted by all the tourist attractions and late-night drinking spots of bustling Beijing. Most recently, I was a student of CI at Barnard Elementary with other parents where I was overwhelmed by the difficult task of ever mastering such a hard language even on the most basic conversational level.
Four years ago, I took a trip to Beijing to visit my brother, his wife and their newborn baby. Gisa, my sister-in-law is German, but studied Chinese in college and lived and worked in China for many years. Her Chinese is as proficient as the locals in China. If it weren’t for Gisa, traveling with my daughter would have been limited and challenging. Signs were indiscernible to guide us to our destinations. Menus lacked pictures to give us clues as to what we could order. When we dined at local restaurants, the waitstaff looked at me to order, only to be taken by surprise when Gisa answered and spoke perfect Mandarin Chinese. Here, I was silenced by my English-only upbringing. As my daughter’s Chinese homework gets progressively more advanced, Gisa is often the one she calls for tutoring help. I tell this to my friend, and he laughs at the irony of it all. Ashamed, I make it a personal goal to try to learn Chinese once again.
On the flip side of that neighborhood kid who yelled “Gook, go home!” is my other neighbor Maurice Sasson, who is Baghdadi Jewish. He was born and grew up in Shanghai in the 1930s. Growing up in this neighborhood, trying to overcome feelings of defeat and subhuman self-worth from taking one too many verbal blows from the neighborhood kids, Maurice is one of the few people I connected with. He told me stories of how his father spoke 18 languages – four of which were different dialects of Chinese – and seamlessly traveled the world managing an import/export textile company. The stories were rich with detail, and I was inspired and jealous of his knowledge of languages, as it was his passport to transverse and connect with people from so many countries. Language is commerce. The opportunities are endless.
As Jeff Chang writes in his book “We Gon’ Be Alright”, that on matters of race, we live in a binary world. We are taught to think in binaries – zero or one, this or that. Black or White. There is no in-between. If you look Chinese, you surely must speak Chinese. So, walking down the street, surely you will respond to “Ni Hao?” Or you might be mistaken for Japanese and be greeted with “Konnichi Wa!” I can only hope to experience a future when the world of in-betweens gains more real estate, spanning continents and vast oceans of space where conversations happen because no one can assume what language you speak by the color of your skin or the shape of your eyes.
I recently heard NPR’s Invisiabilia podcast “A Very Offensive Rom-Com” and pondered upon my own shortcomings of stereotyping and unconsciously buying into our systemic binary world. In this episode, the journalist explores the complexity of racial preference hierarchies and their impact on the history and politics of Asian American sexuality. I am aware of my preference for Asian men partly because I made the assumption that there was commonality in our identity politics and shared upbringing with all the challenges of growing up Asian American. After far too many failed relationships – trying to cast and pigeon-hole them as comrades on the basis of their race – I have become part of the ruination. Today, I’m making a conscious effort to look beyond and open my mind to more authentic connections.
Language is not only a means of communication, but the vital pathway to connecting people and finding common ground.
Cultural illiteracy and monolingual education lead to racist actions. A case in point was a recent disconcerting incident that happened to Ava at the YMCA camp in San Diego. Another kid demanded that she “Go back to Japan!” Never mind the fact that she is actually half Chinese and half Korean. That was neither the point nor a means of defense and protest. I wished this girl had attended a school that exposed her to language and diversity like Barnard Elementary. Shortly after this exchange, Ava befriended two other Barnard Elementary students at this camp who quickly supported her during this incident. That day I was so grateful to be a part of the wonderful community of parents, staff and teachers at Barnard where families feel accepted and welcomed.
Language assumes no skin tone. Or at least it shouldn’t. Barnard Elementary has a diverse student population, comprising of different ethnicities and races. It’s a beautiful narrative to write that someday we will see all races and ethnicities speak perfect Chinese, spanning more real estate. We need more institutions like the Confucius Institute to help promote the learning of language – not just Chinese language – but languages in general. Language is connection and connections create a sense of belonging. Isn’t that what we all should be striving for?