I have been having issues as of late with the idea of ethnic and national identity. I have always considered myself Chinese American, or Asian American in broader contexts. I still think those labels define me adequately, and yet there is something very unnerving about the ways in which others react to my identity.
The most common question I get, right after “so, what ethnicity are you?”* is the dreaded, “You speak Chinese, right?”
I always smile a pained, forced smile and shake my head no.
That question is one of the most irritating, ostracizing questions I get. And I’ll tell you why.
That question constantly reminds me that I am out of place—that my fragmented identity is, in fact, a reality; that I am neither fully Chinese nor fully American; that no part of me belongs anywhere.
When a person asks me if I speak Chinese, they already assume they know the answer. They know how the conversation will go. They think I will say “yes”, that my parents or I immigrated to America fairly recently (within the past twenty years), and that I speak it at home. Maybe I’ll make a joke about a Chinese curse word or my parents’ inability to clearly enunciate the “l” sound. We’ll laugh and move on with our conversation.
But, the thing is, that is not how the conversation goes because that narrative is not my family’s or my own.
Assuming I speak Chinese automatically otherizes me in the eyes of the asker. If I speak Chinese, it makes sense to them. It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, so you speak Chinese. You’re not really American—you’re Chinese.” And, if I speak honestly and say that I do not speak Chinese, at home or anywhere else, the immediate follow-up by the asker is when my parents immigrated to the United States. My own history and life is not the topic of conversation. My being born in America suddenly has no bearing on if I’m considered American or not.
My issue with this is not isolated or a standalone situation. America, a cultural melting pot (though now I think people are using the metaphor of some kind of mixed salad), has produced a generation, my generation, of people that are excluded from specific cultural contexts. The problem with being Chinese, but not Chinese enough; American, but not American enough, is a universal in the immigrant and descendants of immigrant community. You would think that after twenty-two years of living, I’d have come to terms with this state of limbo—of navigating between cultures and contexts. But, no matter how old you get, I think cultural identity is something you will always struggle with.
Further, aside from this personal struggle with identity, the question of native languages connotes the issue of belonging, which has historical proportions. Chinese immigrants were by no means welcomed with open arms. The denigration of the Chinese through dehumanization and exploitation of labor should not be taken lightly. Surviving in such an unwelcoming environment meant working as hard and as fast at becoming “American”. It meant blending in. And blending in meant speaking English and being as close to your white counter parts in dress, language, and mannerisms as possible. It was the only way to escape the bullying and harassment that came with being a Chinese immigrant (or any immigrant, really).
It is why my father doesn’t speak Chinese fluently, and why my brother and I never learned. It is why growing up, I naively conveyed confusion and slight embarrassment that my mother’s mother never learned English after over forty years in the United States. It is why not one of her ten grandchildren can have legitimate conversations with her and why she still laughs at me when I struggle to convey affection in broken Cantonese. It is true irony when you uproot your family to find a better life, only to realize that that life includes ten grandchildren you can never communicate with.
In short, it matters a great deal to me that I cannot speak Chinese because it is a symbol and a symptom of the oppression of my ancestors, of the collateral damage we all have from being children of immigrants.
It is also a constant reminder that in my life, no matter how hard I try, I will never be Chinese enough or American enough to even the most well trained eye.
So, the next time you ask a question about speaking my mother tongue as some form of introduction by saying, “It’s curiosity. It’s just a simple question meant to spark conversation.” I will not smile and nod. I will be sure to tell you otherwise.
* I could dedicate an entire collection of blogs on this. The worst part about the “what ethnicity are you?” question is when people try to guess before you answer by running down the list of every single type of Asian ethnicity they can think of. And when you finally confirm one, they say, “I knew it!”
How on earth was it so glaringly obvious to you if you had to guess a number of different countries before you landed on the right one? It’s not that hard either—China is the biggest Eastern Asian country there is. You do not win a prize for boiling my ethnic and cultural identity down to a super fun guessing game.