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My Mandarin problem

In 2012, illustrator Jee-Shaun Wang wrote about his dwindling fluency in Mandarin and how as a result it  was a challenge to communicate with his parents. Has he gotten a grasp of the language since the article’s publication? “I did not improve my Mandarin speaking skills,” Wang wrote in an email. But he's found a different way to connect. “I have learned to communicate with my parents in a more honest fashion in the past few years, which seems to fill many of the voids,” said Wang. Professionally, Wang has since worked on newspaper illustrations and mural paintings, and is in the midst of “the biggest project that I have ever faced”—an illustrated set of tarot cards commissioned by Oliver Luckett of theAudience, a social media firm that has represented artists such as Shepard Fairey and Takashi Murakami.


Mandarin is the language of my parents and my grandparents and beyond that I am not so sure. But my Mandarin is horrible.

It wasn't always this way. As a young boy in Monterey Park, I learned to use Mandarin at home and English at school. If I spoke English to my parents or grandparents I was scolded. Scolded! But it worked. Mandarin became the language of my home life just like almost all the other kids I knew would go home and either speak Mandarin or Tagalog or Cantonese or Fukienese or Spanish.

But when I was 10 or 12, my Mandarin vocabulary sort of plateaued. I stopped watching Chinese dramas with my grandmother and started to play basketball and video games instead. I lost touch with the language as I clicked buttons on controllers and made beeping sounds on the television screen.
That's when I discovered Chinglish, a mix of Mandarin and English that most of my Chinese American peers share and speak at home with their parents. Each party learned to understand what the other wanted, but not how and why we wanted what we did. Speech became utilitarian and only later would I realize what was lost.
Speaking in Ribbons
My senior year I rejoiced when I was accepted to the Maryland Institute College of Art. But going to art school can be highly frowned upon in the Chinese community. My parents, their friends, and older relatives all would tell me “you should consider how you are going to make a living and how you expect to support your parents by being an artist.” I tell them, “it's okay”; they say, “but still.” Chinese parents want their children in popular big schools like UCLA and USC and Yale and Harvard. If you mention anything other than the best, they will scoff or shake their heads and mumble something along the lines of “I’ve never heard of that school…”
I had never lived in a city with buildings like Baltimore; I never experienced autumn or winter the way you saw it in movies with snow and cold weather. All that was foreign to me since I grew up in a place where winter meant 60 degrees Fahrenheit (or 80 right now). Baltimore reminded me of fairy tale books with all the brickwork and stone churches (okay, along with the not-so-fairy tale muggings and murders). But the biggest change was the fact that this place was not overflowing with Asians.
I didn’t feel welcome. I felt invisible and I was certainly shorter than the average white person. For the first time in my life, I felt Asian. When I entered an apartment in which a party was being held, somebody from the corner yelled out that I had brought the sake. Another time I was walking down the street and a bus full of young black children threw crayons and yelled “Go back to China, Jackie Chan!”
Crying Tofu
When I returned home for the first time in college during winter break I cried into my bowl of rice and tofu because I had missed it so much. I felt like I had left America for three months, and then I realized that maybe I had never really been in America in the first place. The people I met in Baltimore seemed to live something more like what the movies depicted. People’s mothers actually sent them cookies in the mail! We never bake at my home. The oven is only good for storing pots and pans.
This was around the same time that I realized that I actually had, for once, important life-changing things to tell my family. I wanted to share my progress as a man and as a student and I wanted them to know how I’d felt while I was away. But when I turned to speak to them, only a few words dribbled out of my mouth. I could grasp what I wanted to communicate to my parents, but lacked the words in Mandarin to do so. I can't tell them about the grey sky which I love for its color, or lack thereof, because I cannot explain how I felt just like a cloud — without sounding like a child in elementary school.
To this day they know me only as their son who draws comics well, nothing more. They know that I am a nice person, but they do not know that I enjoy the books of philosophers as much as I enjoy reading the Sunday comic. They know that I like to eat, but they do not know that I relate the flavors of food with the culture of my family. In short, I have never really spoken with my parents.

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2 thoughts on “My Mandarin problem”

  1. Mandarin, Cantonese, or what have you…

    It’s an interesting article, but time & experience has so many odd dependencies and what comes out at the other end can be so varied.

    I was latchkey child with two long-distance grandfathers, so no scoldings here. The Cantonese-based dialect was probably the dominant one till the 1980s and is now the minority one, and my graduating class at Alhambra High was almost evenly split between Asian, Latino & White.

    So to me that the most interesting aspect of the Monterey Park cultural and linguistic experience was in not having an ethnic minority or majority experience to compare against in the future.

    And the mixed result in our family is that my sister went to Beijing to study Mandarin (with which she speaks with an atrocious American accent that she doesn’t have in Cantonese) and a brother who doesn’t speak Chinese at all. But the most interesting result is that I’m the odd one in my family for respecting some of the old holidays like Ching Meng & Feast of Hungry Ghosts.

    Then again, what is the essence of any particular ethnicity that makes a person who and/or what they are?

  2. Nice to see this story again. One of my favorite stories that makes a good read once again. Thanks Shaun for all of your work both writing and drawing for the Alhambra Source.