My Mandarin problem | 我的中文問題


Originally posted 1.05.2012: Last week Hyphen Magazine posted this story, getting hundreds of "likes." We thought it would be a good opportunity to revisit it here as well.

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

Speaking in ribbons | Illustration by Jee-Shaun WangIt 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.

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.

Crying Tofu | Illustration by Jee-Shaun WangI 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!”

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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Jee-Shaun Wang enjoys hot drinks and books with pictures. He is inspired by the cold and also by cave paintings. You can find him when you need someone to draw. If you like looking at things, look here!








我從來沒有生活在一個有著與Baltimore一樣的建築物的城市,我從來沒有經歷過你在電影裡看到的有著冰雪和寒冷天氣的秋天或冬天。因為我生長在一個冬天意味著只是華氏60度(或是現在的80度)的地方,這裡對我來如同外國。 Baltimore讓我想起童話故事裡所有的磚牆和石頭教堂(大概,還有不是那麼童話故事的搶劫和謀殺)。但事實上最大的變化是這個地方不是滿目所及皆亞洲人的地方。





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Jee-Shaun Wang喜歡熱飲,由圖片的書籍。他的靈感來自寒冷的洞窟壁畫。當你需要有人來繪製圖畫,你可以找他。如果你喜歡觀察事物,請看這個鏈接!


4 thoughts on “My Mandarin problem | 我的中文問題”

  1. Thank you Mr. Wang for putting your fingers on very important issue.

    Educators in the Alhambra School District attempted to address this some 40-45 years ago – certainly not an issue that is new to us in the last 25 years or so.

    As a matter of fact it was addressed through the district’s multicultural education programs – i.e., bilingual education. Students at places such as Brightwood Elementay, Highlands Elementary received instruction in two languages for a number of years. Unfortunate and even irrational politics, policy, and school practice have fractured that important history in our community. It might explain why some of us lament a fractured capacity to communicate deeply and profoundly with the people who raise us.

  2. At some point you end up being OK with not being totally one or the other, and laugh at the unfortunate souls who are monocultural-lingual. I had very liberal Chinese parents who were OK with me being an art major (though the job thing was harder to come by afterwards). Any journey to refresh or renew Chinese identity and culture was appreciated by my parents and created a bridge for me to discover how rich and complex their own pasts was–it helped me to empathize with how much they gave up coming here.

    Ditto on the East Coast experience, since I lived there until after college. Some of my learning about Chinese culture and language was because I knew I'd end up having to be the Chinese cultural and linguistic ambassador to all I met, even my friends and professors. A burden most West Coast Asians don't really have to carry I discovered.

  3. Mr. Wang,  your piece is so indicative of the struggles that second-generation Chinese Americans face. I can completely relate.

    While I agree that these are real struggles that pose difficult barriers to understanding one's identity and heritage, I believe that we also have the responsiblity to own up to this challenge. This is what makes us unique and different from our parents, and the next generation that follows.

    We are not simply American. We are Chinese American. To live up to expectations or stereotypes of either American or Chinese is futile; we must make our own path and define it. 

    Will you do this? You can.

    The piece is quite depressing; I will agree with SinoSoul. Yet, I hope you soon realize that you are not without a voice. Use it.


  4. Should’ve listened to your parents…

    I would’ve flipped a buncha racial epithets back towards the kids on the bus. Protect yourself, your brand, and your identity. It’s something the Chinese suck at, but the Koreans somehow excel.

    What a totally depressing piece. G’luck with your Mandarin, though you didn’t mention anything about relearning the language.

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