In the past I’ve always spoken to my parents in both English and Chinese, often at the same time, and whenever they spoke to me in Chinese, I would reply likewise. I swore to myself with childish disdain that I would never become one of the people who only reply in English. I am now that person.
It makes me deeply ashamed. I feel like I’ve lost something, a part of myself, but as awful as this makes me feel, my Chinese language skills have deteriorated to the point where I cannot properly vocalize thoughts in the way that I’d like to in time for a normal conversation. I have the vocabulary; I simply cannot recall how to put these words together. I am trapped in the gelatin of a language I once knew.
My native language, perhaps? I acquired both at the same time, and, watching home videos circa 1999, I had a pretty heavily accented English back then. This may indicate that Chinese was actually my primary language before I started school. What’s funny is that my accent was completely different from the way my parents speak, so I have no idea where it came from.
With media and socialization, I quickly caught onto English, and its easy written form allowed me to devour books from a very young age. I read everything I could— history, novels, the arts and crafts section. I remember my favorites were books on occupations – Being A Doctor – and instructional texts – How To Swim – both categories I still love looking up on the internet today. Yes, I read a book on how to swim, carefully examined the accompanying figures, and slipped into my backyard pool with no arm floats on. My father fished my flailing, gasping self out of our shallow end. It was then I learned some things can’t be taught with mere words.
Tangent aside, it’s been a long while since I’ve had to use Chinese in a pure, functioning form. Even my grandparents are used to my 80-20 English/Chinese hybrid, but here in Singapore, I’ve been scolded on several occasions by aunties in the food court – of no familial relation, that is – for not replying in Chinese. Not only am I slow to switch between language modes, it’s almost as if I’ve forgotten how.
Listening to Chinese music is a struggle of its own. To do so, I must be fully engaged— deciphering lyrics with my eyes, though they only recognize about 1 in 3 characters, and listening intently with my ears, whose tonal advantage is lost to the melody. It’s an incredibly frustrating feeling, knowing but not knowing, listening but not hearing. I have learned to sing Chinese songs, yes, but it’s purely through memorizing paragraphs of pinyin, meaning that I can sing songs while not knowing what they mean in the least.
Many Chinese-speakers that I know are surprised that I have any comprehension at all, and it’s common for them to want to engage me in conversation once they learn I’m not a total banana-Twinkie-various white-filled yellow thing. The prospect of conversing in what is one of my native languages instantly makes me anxious. I’ll spit out a phrase or two and switch back to English as soon as I can, sometimes without even noticing. I used to get compliments on my accent, probably because it didn’t sound as white as people perceived me to be, but those compliments are getting fewer by the year.
In real terror of losing not only speech ability but tonal recognition, which is a valuable, bilingual-common skill for those in linguistics, I’ve resolved to fulfill my third language requirement with a language I’ve always sort of known. It’s my first step to rediscovering my role as Chinese, as American, as Asian, as Asian-American. These identities are all separate, but they exist in me concurrently. I’m tired of having to fit one character after another. I’m tired of not knowing what I’m singing and feeling stunted in interactions, being a fake Asian or not a real American or whitewashed. I refuse to accept that identity is some sort of spectrum, that I have to lie in one fixed spot between assimilation and ancestry.
The Chinese language is a part of who I am, a largely untapped part as of now, I admit. But I am determined to reembark on this journey towards literacy, fifteen years late though I may be. Learning to read is not just about understanding songs I sing. It’s about remembering where my grandparents came from, and understanding things more directly, and connecting with this information. And perhaps one day I’ll return to the point where I don’t even notice I’ve switched languages, and I start sleep-talking in Chinese like I used to.