Jade bracelet. Mead notebook. Green tea ice cream.
I love ice cream. In fact, I am consuming mouthfuls out of a Haagen-Dasz pint right now. The green tea flavor of the ice cream is nothing like the warm, fragrant tea my father steeps every morning; it is a sweetened, American take on an ancient Asian beverage. Not that I’m complaining. It is my favorite flavor of ice cream. Sometimes I see myself in green tea ice cream—we’re both the combination of an odd juxtaposition between the East and West—half-and-half, caught in the middle, culturally-confused.
Living in America, I think being multicultural or at least being exposed to many cultures, is the norm. I can drive to downtown Seattle and hear people speaking French, Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese in the International District. However, somehow or another, we all wound up here, finding a common geographic home in the Pacific Northwest. Even so, I don’t feel entirely American when I speak Chinese with my parents. Being caught in the middle of two cultures can make one feel out of place in both.
Flash. It is English class at school and I feel very American as perfect consonants and vowels slip effortlessly off my tongue in a way my immigrant parents will never be able to achieve.
Flip. My mom picks me up. I am now 周雪 talking about how my day was, in English, sprinkled with Chinese for the words my mom doesn’t understand in English.
My two “Englishes” are the marker of my dual identity, proof of my multicultural upbringing. However, that doesn’t change the fact that I was born and raised in the Western world. When I visited China for the first time at age eleven, the difference between me and everyone else there was utterly palpable. It wasn’t until then that I found out how American I really was. As I was speaking with the locals, the words we exchanged felt familiar—many of them I used with my mom on a near daily basis. However, a spoken language is much more than just the words themselves. Every conversation I was involved in or overheard had at least two idiom phrases that made sense to me word by word but not as a whole.
In a similar situation, I remember this one time, I came home, excited to read my mom and dad this TS Elliot poem that had been turning in my mind for hours, only to be disappointed when I realized that they didn’t understand it at all. But I’m sure they feel the same way when I dismiss their ancient Chinese proverbs. Though I understand the words, Chinese literature as a whole does not resonate with me the way it does with my native speaker parents. In this way, language is synonymous with culture. I don’t truly understand the Chinese language because my Western upbringing makes Chinese culture seem somewhat foreign and distant. I hear the words but I’m not truly listening to them.
When I went to China, I heard countless different regional dialects that had survived for so many years that many locals, especially those of the older generation, cling to their dialect as part of their identity and for the survival of their distinct subculture. Each Shaanxi folk song I heard being sung by the Xi’an locals carried a story that is important to their culture and history. For many Chinese-Americans like myself, “Chinglish,” as we would call it today, is a marker of our culture and history; without it, my first-generation parents and I who grew up conversing with it, would just be Americans with a Chinese face. “Chinglish” has a distinct set of words and phrases that no one but a Chinese-American would understand. For example, a FOB is Fresh off Boat, meaning someone who just immigrated from China to America, and ABC, meaning American Born Chinese, people like myself. I argue that “Chinglish” is just as legitimate of a language as American English. As the British say, “America has not spoken English for over 200 years.” American English was originally a dialect that reflected the diverging culture of the colonies from that of the English motherland but it has become so distinctly different from the English spoken in England that even the English believe American English is a different language from their own.
After nearly seventeen years, I cannot imagine speaking to my parents in any other language but “Chinglish.”
What makes the question of language and literacy resonate so well with so many people is that it concerns identity. And the whole question of who a person is is a very complex question. How should I be? How should a person be? This construction of self identity feels so abstract when you try to put it in words. Spanish. American. Female. Is that it? The experiences I’ve been exposed to, specifically as a Chinese-American, have allowed me to dip my toes in both cultures. Though sometimes I feel like a nomad, constantly traveling back and forth between the two, but not feeling at home in either, but that has actually freed me from any cultural restraints on my identity. I’ve learned that identity is about being presented with circumstances in life and making choices that will then change those circumstances. My identity is changing all the time; it is not a given. Language is the same way—it is a living, breathing thing that is constantly being molded to reflect the culture of the people speaking it. There is no one way to speak a language.