Jennifer Duann Fultz reconnects with her cradle language
When I was a kid and my white classmates learned that my first language was Mandarin, they typically had one of three reactions:
“Really? Was it hard to learn?”
“So how did you learn English?”
“What’s my name in Chinese?”
Whatever their initial reaction, it was usually followed with the command, “Hey, say something in Chinese!”
When I was very young, I would oblige by commenting on the weather or their outfit, but I eventually got tired of feeling like a zoo animal and learned to respond with, “Something in Chinese,” which usually made it clear that I was not interested in continuing the conversation. I have only recently begun unpacking some of the resentment and confusion I felt toward my cradle language.
My parents settled in the Midwest among a community of highly educated immigrant Chinese professionals. We attended a Chinese church and most of the kids I grew up with could speak a smattering of Mandarin, Cantonese or Taiwanese. But in those days there were no trendy Mandarin immersion schools or Mandarin-speaking kids shows, so our cradle language was quickly subsumed by English. I dutifully went to Chinese school two hours a week from first grade through middle school, but I resented the extra class time and homework. Despite my attitude, I clinched the speech competition year after year, which I sometimes suspect was due to my deeply entrenched study habits rather than any latent gift for gab. I outperformed my peers linguistically overall, to the delight of my parents and their Chinese friends. “Wah, hao bang, ah! Your Mandarin is so good!” they cooed, and I would do a few more verbal backflips in response to their applause.
Many Asian Americans I spoke to share similar memories of sitting sullenly through language school, or perhaps skipping it because Saturday morning cartoons took precedence. But others, like my older cousins, grew up in the 1970s when it was much less common to teach children Mandarin or Korean or whatever language their immigrant parents spoke. Some have parents who didn’t want their children to face the same prejudices they did, and thus wanted their children to speak flawless, unaccented English.
It seems like a lot of the Asian-Americans I asked have experienced some kind of cradle language renaissance during college, even though many people also reported a steep drop-off in their language ability after leaving home. Perhaps we got homesick. Some people, like me, took academic language classes to atone for quitting Chinese school several years earlier. Others immersed themselves in Asian pop music and television dramas, often picking up a large vocabulary about love or martial arts that I never found in my textbooks.
In college, separated from my family for the first time, my mother tongue became a way to seek, or perhaps form, my identity. During freshman year, I proudly tested out of entry-level Chinese in order to take the courses designed for semi-fluent speakers that emphasized reading and writing. I did well enough until the upper-level undergraduate course, when the materials were only written in simplified characters (jianti). I had read traditional characters (fanti) my entire life, and suddenly the words that had once been familiar seemed like strangers. I quit my Chinese studies after that course and focused on my chosen majors, one of which was, ironically, English.
“In college, my mother tongue became a way to seek, or perhaps form, my identity”
I never got to use my Mandarin much as an adult, despite sometimes claiming proficiency on resumes and job applications. (And squirming awkwardly when asked whether I could translate marketing materials into Mandarin, or would I consider teaching Mandarin classes in addition to my 150 biology students?) My spoken fluency has gotten progressively rustier and my writing skills, which never made it past a third grade level anyway, atrophied even more. But after becoming a parent, my cradle language has reemerged in unexpected ways.
After having a half-Chinese child and moving to an even smaller and more remote Midwestern college town, I now find myself speaking more Mandarin than I have since freshman year of college. The large research university brings in a plethora of Chinese faculty, postdocs and students, some of whom send their children to the same daycare my son attends. My interactions with those parents typically follow a set arc as well:
We look at each other, possibly making eye contact, possibly not.
The international families are speaking fluent Mandarin, while my child jabbers away in English. I am dressed in the typical white suburban mom uniform of leggings and a T-shirt. Very clearly Americanized.
We glance at each other again, and somehow … they can tell that I speak Mandarin!
They make their way over to me and start speaking excitedly and very, very rapidly, in Mandarin.
I respond haltingly, “I also … have this son … of two years. My husband is a … big after-graduation science man. And an American.” (This is my way of covertly begging them to speak more slowly and simply.)
No one ever seems to slow down or bat an eye. So either my Mandarin is not as bad as I feel it is, or they don’t want to embarrass me by talking to me like I’m seven. Either way, I’m left catching only half of what they say, frantically assembling context clues in my head, and either replying like a slightly slow child or smiling politely until the conversation is over.
I confess that I sometimes resent this pattern as much as I resent white people asking me to perform like a Mandarin-speaking sea lion. I know I should feel grateful for the chance to practice my mother tongue. I know no one means for me to feel stupid or excluded. But I try to speak slowly and clearly when someone acts like they’re having difficulty understanding what I’m saying. I go out of my way to speak their language. Would it kill them to try and speak mine, or at least slow down?
But then I remember that these parents either spend most of the day working with people who don’t speak their most comfortable language, or they’re at home not speaking to anyone over the age of three. That I can definitely understand and sympathize with, whatever the language! So fumbling over my sentences may be the least that I can do. (And one of these days, I may beg one of these Chinese parents to take pity and actually tutor me in Mandarin.)
Truth be told, I miss hearing and speaking my cradle language. I regret losing so much of it because I was hiding from that part of my identity, and I fear being unable to teach it to my child. I’ve experienced the great gulf between me and my own family members caused by linguistic, geographic and cultural distance. I recently lost my last remaining grandparent, a woman who was born a few short years after the Republic of China was founded, who survived World War II, the Chinese Civil War and the flight of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, from whom I like to think I get some of my entrepreneurial spirit (and almost certainly my temper). Because I lacked the fluency to communicate with her beyond “I’m hungry” and “no, I don’t have a boyfriend yet,” most of this history and heritage is lost to me, except for a few precious stories.
Many other Asian-Americans also find themselves newly galvanized to relearn their first language when they have children of their own or face the loss of older family members. And thus as the generations turn over, language becomes not just something we’ve lost but something we find again and make new meaning from. There’s a wide range of how we’re teaching our kids their heritage language, sometimes dependent on how much we ourselves know, sometimes not.
“as the generations turn over, language becomes not just something we’ve lost but something we find again and make new meaning from”
Many of us have parents who can provide our children with Chinese, Japanese or Korean language exposure or, in some cases, grandma’s Taiwanese bootcamp. Some are able to send their children to Mandarin immersion school, while a surprising number have placed their children in Spanish immersion programs while speaking a variety of languages at home. I don’t have any of these options, but I’ve taught my two-year-old to count to ten and sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Mandarin, which is good enough for now.
I’ve sometimes questioned whether my child will ever be “American enough” to survive in an era of xenophobia and immigration battles, but perhaps I need to make sure he is Asian enough to hold onto his heritage in a country where he is a minority. As I haltingly reclaim my and his Chinese-American identity, the Mandarin language becomes more than a performance or an academic subject to study. It becomes a profound means of connection and belonging, even when I stumble over discussions of potty-training with the Chinese parents in my son’s daycare. My friend Melinda Tan told me of a recent trip to Taiwan where she was able to translate Taiwanese for her children: “In a way it was a relief to know I could fall back into not only speaking Taiwanese, but ‘being’ Taiwanese, in a way that I cannot in [New Hampshire]. When I speak the language… I fall into another way of being, not just in words but [in the] connection that I feel with other people. My kids felt a sense of belonging when we visited.”
I suppose that connection is what I’m trying to maintain when I encourage my son, “Say something in Chinese!” ∎