The Spectrum: I’m still Chinese, even if I can’t speak the language

Andrea Bian, Op-Ed Contributor

I’m sure many American-born Chinese people (ABCs) will concur: You meet someone new, they ask if you’re Chinese, you say yes and they ask if you speak Chinese. You say yes, and they promptly ask you to “say something in Chinese” for them.

The only difference for me is that I don’t speak Chinese.

Then comes the confusion: a pause, maybe a furrowed brow. And finally, more questions: “Why? Don’t your parents speak it? Well if they do, why don’t you? What happened?”

I learned at a young age to diplomatically deflect these questions, to never go too much into it for fear of having to answer more invasive queries. I’d say, “I just never went to Chinese school. There weren’t really any in my neighborhood.” Both of these statements are true, but they never seem to be sufficient excuses. The other person leaves the conversation perplexed, and I leave embarrassed.

I grew up in an area where I didn’t have a hard time meeting and befriending other Asian-Americans, and I was definitely fortunate to have that. I view other Asian-Americans, especially Chinese-Americans, as my friends, support systems and allies. Occasionally, however, conversations regarding my identity become unexpectedly isolating.

Almost every ABC I’ve ever met speaks at least enough Chinese to get by. The majority attended Chinese school during childhood or had their parents teach it to them as they grew up. When other Chinese-Americans learn that I’m unable to speak my family language, the responses become more intense, more accusatory: “Why didn’t your parents teach you? My mom says kids like you are ‘Americanized.’ She says you’ve let down your family.”

“Aren’t you ashamed?”

Yes, at times I do feel ashamed for never learning Chinese. It’s true that I am the first in my entire family lineage to never have learned Chinese, the language that my ancestry was built on. One of my deepest regrets is not learning the language even when I had the opportunity.

But that doesn’t make me any less Chinese.

In an ideal world, if someone had to ask a question about my identity, it would be “Are you Chinese-American?” Because more than I am Chinese or American, I am both. The two identities do not compete with each other. At certain times in my life they did, but now they do not. No one identity elevates itself over the other.

In no way do I blame my parents for not teaching me Chinese. When they were my age, they arrived in the United States with next to nothing and have worked tirelessly and selflessly ever since. It is because of them that I attend Northwestern; it is because of them that I have the privileged life that I do. That, for me, is more than enough. And even though they never speak of it, I am aware of the judgmental glares and presumptuous questions they field from other Chinese parents who demand to know why they allowed me to betray generations of family members.

I hold myself entirely responsible for my inability to speak my family language. I had opportunities to learn. In high school, I could have taken Chinese, but I chose instead to take Spanish. And while I fully comprehend that it was me and only me who made that decision, I know that the basis of that decision was my haste to distance myself from my Chinese identity.

I don’t think I was comfortable with the Chinese part of my identity until a few years ago. To take Chinese would have provoked fewer questions, but I was more concerned with fitting in with the mostly white population at my Catholic high school.

That’s why it was so confusing when I would get a similar reaction from my mostly non-Chinese classmates when they asked me about speaking Chinese. “Why don’t you?” they would ask with the same confused tone. “Didn’t your parents teach you?”

No matter how many times this happened, I was appalled each time. Why did it matter if I spoke Chinese — how would that affect them? Did they, too, think that I was less Chinese, a traitor to my ethnicity?

Kids in grade school would tease me when I brought my mom’s leftover Chinese food to school. They would squint their eyes at me and pretend to speak Chinese with disordered gibberish. Yet, years later, they became the same kids who wondered why I attempted to isolate myself from that part of my identity, the same kids who insinuated that I wasn’t Chinese enough.

In a revelation that many people of color experience, I eventually arrived at my conclusion: I will never be adequately one thing or the other. I will never be as Chinese as I’m “supposed to,” or as American as I’m “supposed to.” I’ve been judged by both Chinese and non-Chinese people. It is something I will always grapple with and something I will have to grow to accept. It was one thing, first, to accept the Chinese part of myself. It was entirely another thing to realize that my inability to speak the language did not invalidate that.

I am American. I was born and educated in this country. I am immersed in American culture.

I am Chinese. I visit my grandparents and relatives in Beijing every few years. I try whenever I can to learn more about them. For the past 18 years, I’ve eaten Chinese food with my family every night.

Try to refrain from asking people if they can speak in what you assume is their “native” language. If you learn that they can, don’t ask them to speak in that language solely for your entertainment. Their personalities and experiences are so much more layered and complex than their ability to speak a language. Whether or not I speak Chinese shouldn’t determine if I am allowed to call myself Chinese.

I can’t speak Chinese, but I am Chinese-American. To be able to say so is the result of my lifelong journey towards accepting each of these identities and their ability to coexist.

Andrea Bian is a Medill freshman. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.