Heritage Speaker Guilt
June 10, 2014 6:01 PM   Subscribe

How can I deal with this nagging sense of guilt that I should know more Chinese than I presently do? Or, how can I improve my Chinese as a busy twenty-something year-old?

As an American who grew up speaking Chinese at home, spent summers in China, and attended some Chinese school, I have a decent Chinese language foundation: I understand idiomatic phrases, my pronunciation isn't bad, I'm conversant in two dialects, and Chinese takes up a part of my brain that is very different from the parts occupied by German and French (languages I studied later in life): my vocabulary might be low, and I can't understand the evening news very well because it uses more formal language, but all of the words I do know actually mean something to me.

I don't exactly have a use for Chinese at the moment, since my schooling is in English, and my friends use English. I don't go back to China often, nor do I have plans to ever live in China, and I can speak with my family just fine. I considered taking Chinese in college, but after reviewing the material and consulting my parents, decided that learning Chinese in a classroom setting would be inefficient compared to going to China for a few months and picking things up that way. Indeed, whenever I go back to China, my fluency increases after a week or two.

I have thought about watching more Chinese television and films as a way to improve or at least maintain my Chinese. I have thought about taking Chinese classes, or living in China for for a year or so at some point in the future (if that's at all a possibility-- I have years of medical training in the US ahead of me, and who knows how life will turn out, but I've heard of doctors working internationally in, say, global health)... but upon further reflection, I'm not sure if the issue at hand is truly a matter of my fluency in Chinese or if it's more an issue of sense of belonging:

Growing up, my parents disparagingly referred to me and my sister as "those Americans," while in elementary school, I was the token Asian. Today, I certainly do not fully identify with white American culture, and frankly, I don't even feel fully welcome in that cultural realm (especially after having moved to a region of the country where I am complimented on my English, asked if I'm adopted, and asked, "no, where are you really from?" not all that infrequently). This recent move and general lack of connection to white American culture somehow, to me, implies that I "should" identify more strongly with Chinese culture and language, but the truth is, that sense of identity, too, is lacking: no Chinese person who grew up in China would ever mistake me for one of their own. I know that there's a large Chinese-American diaspora in places like New York and California, and that cohort of individuals would best share my life situation (children of immigrants or those who immigrated in early childhood), but I have not found that to allay my sense of confused guilt. I saw this AskMe about a week ago, and I am so sad that my hypothetical offspring likely won't be able to speak Chinese well.

Perhaps my question is not clear from what I've written, but, to summarize: I'm American when I'm around Chinese people, and Chinese when I'm around (non-Asian) American people. My instinct, which could be waaaay off, is that improving my Chinese abilities would be one way to nurse this guilt/confusion. (Plus, I do like learning languages, and it would be nice to improve my Chinese regardless.)

If you are also a child of immigrants, or spoke another language at home, I would welcome perspective, suggestions on how to improve my Chinese this late in my life (and as a full-time, busy medical student), and/or suggestions on how to deal with this general sense of confusion.

posted by gemutlichkeit to Society & Culture (9 answers total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
I understand your sense of guilt, and it's symptomatic of having one foot in each culture. I am highly identifiable as Americanized on the rare occasions when I go "home," and seen as vaguely European in the States. It's uncomfortable for the reasons you describe, but I feel that it gives me high-level insight into each culture I might otherwise lack.

Language-wise, you can do more, but unless you really need it (and it sounds like you do not), the language is still there, just dormant. Perhaps like you, I am a perfectionist and hated seeing my native language skills gradually atrophy after moving away from my native country as a hyper-literate child. As a speaker of a language shared by, like, five other people, I only wish I had even basic fluency in a language with as much media devoted to it as Chinese.

Practical things: Over the last few years, I have kept up and even increased my vocabulary by consciously increasing exposure to my native language which I speak, read, and write at a 6-8th grade level. Reading the news online is very helpful, as are random projects like using recipes in my native language. Learn some Chinese recipes online! I am sure there are cooking shows; even med students need to eat. This type of task-based learning is fun, motivating, and forces me to look up a word or two but is still largely comprehensible.

Having access to a large selection of native language books, podcasts, TV programs and similar would be a dream, but the pickings are slim for me. Luckily, you have an embarrassment of riches at your disposal. Use them!
posted by Atrahasis at 6:16 PM on June 10, 2014

I'm also an ABC and resented being sent to Sunday Chinese school as I kid. I now regret that I didn't pay more attention in school and practice while I was younger.

Watching Chinese television shows or articles is certainly helpful, but if you're like me, you're going to need to force yourself into speaking situations. My grasp of Chinese was gained through passive learning, i.e. having family members talk to me in Chinese with me answering back in English, or just staying silent but listening as Chinese people around me talked. But it's not enough.

I think you should try and make Chinese friends. You can even join renren (the Chinese version of Facebook) to add those people and expand your reach to meet more Chinese people. If you're too busy to make new friends, you can also go onto italki or Livemocha where there will be lots of Chinese people eager to partake in language exchange. (If you take the latter route, you'll likely get more hits if you upload a picture of a western-looking person and not your real ABC image).
posted by bluelight at 6:18 PM on June 10, 2014

So -- I came to the US at age 4 from Beijing / Shenyang / Xi'an, and, due to being cared for by grandparents, I was newspaper-literate when I left. In my first year in the USA, I read my parent's parenting books in Chinese.

This deteriorated very, very quickly when I started school. I started speaking English to my parents; by the time my last visiting grandparent left, I was noticeably translating English into Chinese to talk to him. By age 9, I was so un-used to the sounds of Mandarin coming out of my mouth that I would only fearfully make utterances in the master bedroom (it had carpet; I'd hear less reverb of myself), alone. Visits to China never helped because I didn't have anyone there to talk to; Chinese school was bad because I also didn't like anyone there.

But eventually, I got some of it back. Talking to my mother using a sock puppet voice, so that the horrible sounds weren't really coming from me, they were coming from the hand. I used a lot of college credits on Chinese. Was I a better speaker when visiting the homefolks? Noooot really.

What has helped? Being in the woods of Finland for a weekend with people who spoke mostly Finnish to one another. When I got home from that trip, newscaster Chinese all made sense because my ear muscles had developed so much, metsässä.

What has also helped? Listening to colleagues speak to each other in Chinese. I have little incentive to express myself in Chinese, but also, not really the tools: I would have no idea how to discuss tech or infrastructure or music in Chinese because all that was learned in English. They, on the other hand, have plenty to say about these things (well, tech) in Chinese.

This sort of touches on your feeling of being American among Chinese people and perpetually foreign among Americans: you feel different because you do have a different background, and there's nothing wrong with that. I feel most at home with people from the NYC / tri-state region. I'm sure I stick out when among Midwesterners; I definitely have attitudes (and probably muscles) different from those of young ladies in Shanghai. Just relate and find commonalities.

Also, remember what you'll eventually really /need/ Chinese for: caring for your parents when they're old and not so into English anymore. I'm now more sure that I'll be able to do this, and you definitely have this. High standards are great, but sometimes it helps to remember that we're meeting the critical baseline as well.

(addendum: if I ever have offspring, they're getting sent to mom / dad to pick up some high quality phonemes. They can forget all syntax but they'll still be at an advantage if they ever try to language-learn. That's the plan, anyway.)
posted by batter_my_heart at 6:36 PM on June 10, 2014 [2 favorites]

Yup, this issue of belonging and "switching" identities is common among many children of immigrants (across many ethnicities). There's a large literature on it if you ever get the chance: Native Speaker, Black Identities, work by Alejandro Portes, or Min Zhou, offhand etc.

Perhaps reading some of these stories from other children of immigrants will help. It gives you a sense that what you are feeling is legitimate and it lends a sort of "language" for you to understand how identities are constructed--and hopefully an agency to decide who you would like to be, and that "who" is fluid and changes. What "Chinese" and what "American" are changes often, across time, by context, etc. Because these identities are constantly being constructed, you really shouldn't feel guilty for not living up to someone's (or society's) ideals.

For the language issue, I re-learned conversant Tawainese by going to Tawainese cafes or restaurants, and attempting to order food and chatting with people there.
posted by inevitability at 7:19 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

If you live in an area of the country with a Chinese School for teaching children, they probably have an adult program as well, or have contacts for native speakers who will work with you one-on-one. I live in Peoria and we have a Chinese School and an adult program at the school! We're not a big city, nor one with a large Chinese diaspora.

A lot of the children I know of native Chinese or Hindi or Gujarati speakers work a lot on reading the classic literature of their parents' languages, which connects them to the culture, provides them with common touchstones, is accessible all over the world, is beautiful, and is considered by most American speakers of the language to be a very worthy path of study even if their speech is somewhat archaic.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:29 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

I know I recommended it in the other thread, but I can't speak highly enough of the Popup Chinese podcast. I think they have a bunch of offerings for more advanced speakers with discussions of culture and current events and things that you might enjoy. Great to listen while commuting or working out, cooking, or whatever.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 9:54 PM on June 10, 2014 [1 favorite]

A couple practical thoughts:

There is a great language learning community at How to Learn Any Languages. This would be a great place to meet other self-motivated language lovers.

From your description, I think that you would learn a lot more on your own than you would from any class.

For myself, I've found that daily reading, over the course of years, was much more effective than podcasts, movies, etc. in moving from "I know the basics and can get by" to "I'm comfortable with the language and am moving close to fluency."

With French I was surprised that my speaking ability kicked in naturally after spending two years reading French lit every day at lunch, but not having much speaking practice at all. I assume that a similar process would occur with other languages.
posted by kanewai at 10:52 PM on June 10, 2014

Best answer: You know what, I don't think getting better at Chinese is the way to go here. This language thing is a red herring. It’s just going to become another obligation in a long list of things you feel you should be or do. Also, it sounds like you’re fluent enough to talk to your family, and honestly, that’s plenty.

I am also the children of immigrants and had a lot of angst in high school and college about belonging, identity, cultural assimilation, not feeling white enough, not feeling Chinese/Asian enough, massive boatloads of guilt about who I was and why I was that way, being whitewashed/a banana, etc. I joined some cultural clubs in college and that sort of helped, but it didn’t go away. All of this was rooted in the idea that there was this mythical version of myself who could be fully American AND Chinese-American AND be American-culturally-literate AND provide this kind of insider perspective on ABC/immigrant issues AND have friends who were like, of all races. I am very much someone who grew up thinking that I ought to be a certain way – you know, living your life guided by shoulds.

To me, it sounds like your feelings of guilt and obligation, this perception that you should be more fluent, are negatively impacting your life more than your actual lack of fluency. Plus, moving to a region of the country that sounds pretty racist and annoying is highlighting your otherness, so you’re thinking about these identity issues all of the time!

What helped me the most, personally, was: 1) learning more about the history of race in America, and specifically, how my identity as an Asian-American fit into that narrative, 2) reading a lot of articles and blog posts about these kinds of topics and realizing there were a lot of other people who felt this way and had already written intelligent things about it, and just becoming more conscious about racism in general, and 3) CARING LESS. Seriously. About everything. Guilt is a waste of time! You don’t have to be anything for anyone! Your hypothetical offspring will never care or know the difference of having been raised in a Chinese-speaking household!

Or you can marry another ABC who’s fluent, that’s one easy way.

Jk! (as someone who already married a white guy, oops)

Also, I’ll try to scrounge up some links to articles/blogs that I have found particularly helpful in my time. Check your MeFi mail later!
posted by leedly at 7:56 AM on June 11, 2014 [7 favorites]

Best answer: Dear gemutlichkeit,

I could have written this question, especially after I finished high school and my family unit was no longer solely based in the States (my parents are from Taiwan) and I came into contact with a myriad of feelings, including the ones you've described relating to guilt. I think everybody has a different experience growing up, and for me, Chinese language was a must for us: while every other kid was playing on Saturday and Sunday, we were copying textbook exercises, memorizing vocabulary and watching television and movie programs (usually really bad ones from HK from the 1970s and 80s). My vocabulary was a strange amalgamation of 'parent-child' dialogue and the not inspired dialogue from the kungfu films. What helped me most in the language concept was learning the romanized pinyin system and combining it was a chat program...then if you have native speakers you chat with, writing doesn't slow you down (just the thinking) as much. I learned so much slang and everyday vocab this way, instead of talking like a newspaper as some people observed of my Chinese.

But getting back to the point of addressing the confusion, my guilt/curiosity complex related to some fragmented notion of 'Chinese identity' was triggered in undergrad when I realized that I knew so little about the politics and history behind the language that I believe I had mastered (not really). I was really surprised when my parents were not that enthusiastic about this "retrograde" action, this inward looking side, because they had assumed it was inherent and un-malleable for the most part. It was this disconnect between their narrative and mine about our life experiences of the same space but of different meaning that allowed me to negotiate and recreate new meanings.

I think leedly has a point about guilt being a waste of time...but sometimes it does take time to work out these difficult and extremely layered feelings until you've come up with how it all fits together for you. For me, I try to reconcile that by focussing on the notion of uprootedness and its different manifestations in my family history, but also among other people I've met along the way. Those shared experiences through talking and writing (sometimes in Chinese, but not limited to it) helped me most.

Wishing you lots of luck, and please feel free to MeMail me about this if you want!

(also recommending Chang Rae-lee's Native Speaker and Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities)
posted by wallawallasweet at 6:22 AM on June 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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