I’m sure that many ABCs have gone through a similar situation as mine while growing up in the United States – at least, the general population of average Chinese Americans. The truth is, if you have been born and raised overseas outside of your mother country, there is an inevitability in terms of being accustomed to your host country’s way of life and culture and becoming removed from your own. It’s like this no matter what ethnicity you are.
This is a story told from my own personal account:
Both my parents immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. with my grandparents in the late 1960’s, and ever since stepping foot into a new environment where spoken English was predominantly prevalent throughout, they went through high school and college struggling to build proficiency in their second language and to peacefully adjust to their new atmosphere. Likewise, English was also my second language – my first and foremost spoken language was Chinese (Cantonese). However, my situation is different from theirs in that I was constantly surrounded from side to side by fluent English speakers as I was growing up, and I attended American English school where grammar and phonetics were greatly emphasized upon, especially at the elementary grade level.
When I was just a toddler, I started spewing forth words and phrases in Cantonese, the original Guangzhou and official Hong Kong dialect – my parents’ native tongue in which they were apparently fluent. As I started to age, my Chinese vocabulary began to expand at a gradual process until I was able to carry out decent conversations in Cantonese with my parents, their Chinese friends (my “Aunties” and “Uncles”), and my other relatives. Simultaneously, as I entered preschool and kindergarten, I picked up simple English words and phrases here and there from interactions with outsiders in bilingual settings. And in terms of cultural values, my parents raised me the “Confucian” way in accordance with the Chinese principles of filial piety and loyalty to promote social harmony within the family, and that ultimately shaped the way I viewed elders – with the utmost reverence and obedience.
However, albeit my simple grasp of basic English from my former schooling prior to first grade, English in elementary school then became more of a struggle for me as heavier emphasis was being placed on learning proper phonetics as well as how to read and write in the language. My English, at that point, had been inadequate. I recall my parents telling me later on as I was older that when I was in first grade, my teacher would communicate to me in English and I would just stare blankly at her without so much as a simple response on my part. Was I dumb? But she knew that I was intelligent because of the way I utilized drawing as my main tool for visual communication for art was one of my talents. Another possibility could have been that I was hearing impaired and she suggested to my parents that I should get tested for this. And apparently, that was not the case. I had almost been retained from entering second grade along with my same-age peers due to my poor verbal English skills, but fortunately, after a meeting with the vice principal and my parents, my first grade teacher finally allowed me to advance to second grade due to the potential she detected from me to improve.
Her decision to permit me to advance turned out to be a good one. In second grade, my father then began to communicate to me entirely in English while my mother continued to talk to me in Chinese so I could at least retain the language. However, I started responding to them both in English seventy-five percent of the time (with the constant use of “Chinglish”), and in later years to come, the percentage increased to ninety (and even later, ninety-five). I started interacting with my classmates and peers in English, and none of my close friends in school had a Chinese background except for myself. My parents, with the primary intention of having me focus on my regular schooling, did not enroll me in Chinese school when I was young. They initially planned to, but after the incident in first grade, they decided I should concentrate on English to avoid putting extra strain and burden on me to learn two languages simultaneously. Instead, they enrolled me in a tutoring program to help me improve my English reading and writing skills in second and third grade. My mother also purchased some self-help books complete with audio tapes to help me with my English phonetics, and everyday, I listened to the tapes for half and hour and followed along with the books. There were days she put aside some of her own time to sit with me and read children’s books. To this day, I thank my parents for their persistent devotion to help me improve my English skills, and I’ve undoubtedly advanced with time progression, continual exposure, and consistent practice.
Gradually, my English became fluent and I had assimilated entirely into the American culture. In third grade, I was among one of the top students with the highest scores in the subject of Phonics, and in middle school and junior high, I received high grades in my English classes which taught grammar, vocabulary, and spelling. My teachers at the high school and university levels complimented me on my superior writing skills, and when I was in high school, I was able to enroll in advanced placement (AP) English courses in literature and language composition. Also, ever since junior high up to this point in time, I discovered my talent and love for creative writing, and the written English language has become one of my most competent strengths up to this present day.
As a sacrifice, however, I had nearly lost my Chinese in both aspects of language and culture by the time middle school had rolled around the corner. I still continued to celebrate Chinese rituals and holidays such as Chinese New Year with my family, but CNY didn’t mean much to me except for saying Chinese greetings, eating and spending time with family, and receiving red envelopes with money. When I was young, I had many questions in my mind: “What’s the Lunar calendar? How’s that different from the regular time period? What do all those greetings even mean?” I was accustomed to Chinese traditions at home, but I never understood them or knew why we celebrated certain rituals.
Furthermore, my Chinese speaking skills slowly diminished and it was to the point that I communicated to my parents solely in English with various Cantonese words/phrases thrown about here and there. With an obvious English accent and a few grammatical errors, I would speak to my grandparents and relatives in simple Cantonese (sometimes mixed with English), and on several occasions, I would overhear my grandmother blaming my mother in Chinese for not talking to me enough in our native language when I was young. And of course, I certainly didn’t know how to read or write Chinese.
Had I lost my Chinese culture? Had I lost my ability to speak in my native tongue? Did I forget that I was even Chinese to begin with? At the start of university, circumstances slowly took a turn…
When I entered college, it was mandatory to take a foreign language as one of my general education (GE) requirements. I thought about continuing Spanish since I had already taken three years of it in high school as a requirement to graduate. On the other hand, I noticed that Chinese was also offered and decided that I might as well take it to learn Mandarin, the standard dialect of China. Since, after all, I am Chinese. My mother would always sit in front of the TV and watch Mandarin soap operas and I wouldn’t understand a word they were saying except for “Ni hao ma?” (How are you?). It would be nice to understand some of what they were actually saying. Okay, so what would I have to lose? I went ahead and enrolled in the beginner course hoping to pick up a little bit of both the written and spoken language. In the duration of the semester, I picked up some basics of Mandarin Chinese and learned to read and write a bit of the written language as well.
And while I was there, I met a new friend – not just any friend, but one who eventually helped change my perspective on my own cultural identity and what I really perceived myself as. Likewise, she was Chinese, but unlike me, she was not American-born, but rather, Guangzhou-born and having been raised in Hong Kong. And apparently, she knew perfectly well how to read and write Chinese, but she took this course as a way to review some basic Mandarin and to raise her GPA. And quite expectedly, she spoke fluent Cantonese while I spoke fluent English, but when we both spoke the latter, neither of us were quite proficient enough. And I, for lack of better words, “sucked” at Cantonese. However, talking to her raised my interests in learning more about my Chinese background and improving upon the native dialect.
It was then I realized – we do actually share a lot in common. We’re both Cantonese Chinese, our familial origins both rest in Canton and Hong Kong, and we both practice the same Chinese traditions and rituals. But one thing that sets apart overseas-born Chinese and Chinese immigrants in general is the place of birth and where one was raised. The place of birth then inevitably gives rise to many other evident differences as well such as language barrier, cultural differences, and interaction as well as behavior at times. Hoping to establish a firm ground between my American identity as well as my own cultural roots, I began to do more searching of my own cultural identity as an ABC. The following semester, I enrolled in an Asian American Studies course called “Chinese American Personality,” and I learned about the Chinese American experience here in the U.S. involving the struggles facing assimilation into mainstream society, the relationship of immigrant parents with their American-born children in relation to cultural values, personality attributes associated with the Chinese identity, and many more aspects of Chinese life here in an ethnically and culturally diverse America.
I look toward life now with a fresh new perspective. I took the Chinese course in college hoping to learn a new dialect and to read and write some Chinese, but having since completed both the language course and the Asian American Studies class, I’ve not only developed a further interest in the Chinese language itself, but I’ve also developed a newfound interest in studying about the overseas-born Chinese experience, particularly for Chinese Americans since I am one myself. Having lived my entire life in the U.S., I want to travel to the native homeland where my parents grew up and experience life there for myself through exposure to the Chinese culture – particularly Hong Kong culture.
And as far as language proficiency is concerned, I’ve taken the initiative to improve upon my Cantonese speaking skills through watching Hong Kong-based movies and communicating with family members mostly in the mother tongue. I’ve definitely shown some improvement over the past months. Though I’m also interested in pursuing Mandarin as well, I’ll concentrate on that as a second priority after first improving on my Cantonese. Additionally, over the past six months, I’ve taken up independent, self-initiated study during my leisure in which I’m learning to read and write Chinese on my own using a variety of books and online resources, continuing on from what I’ve already picked up from my previous Chinese language course.
I just hope that my blog will also inspire other ABCs and overseas Chinese as well. If that’s who you are, I encourage you to hold onto your own cultural roots. Even if you’re not Chinese – whether you’re European, Mexican, African, Middle-Eastern, or a different type of Asian – it applies to everyone all the same. It’s part of who you are, and you should never forget where your heritage lies.