Debbie: To Live Elsewhere

Born in the USA, Debbie moved to Nigeria with missionary parents before her first birthday. Beginning at age six, she lived in a boarding school eight months per year. Now she’s writing her childhood stories, seeking ‘Above all Else’ to find where God was in all of it.

I’m an adult MK/TCK who grew up in Nigeria. Mostly.

Born in California on my parents’ first furlough, I flew to Nigeria at nine months old. Our cosy village station lay nestled in a semi-circle of hills studded with rocky outcroppings and savannah brush. But beginning in first grade, I was sent to boarding school 300 miles away, only returning home for Christmas and summer vacations.

During those lengthy separations from family, I suffered from intense homesickness. Many nights I cried alone in bed, feeling abandoned by God and my parents. By fourth grade I toughened up and accepted that way of life as normal, but the wounds remained.

Every few years my family and I left Nigeria and flew to my parents’ home state of California. Those long furlough journeys included visits to New York to debrief at mission headquarters and side trips to various states to connect with relatives and supporters. So many were strangers to me. I quickly grew close to my cousins, then was torn away as we traveled across the States.

Quite often I hear TCKs say, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” But each time I hear that phrase, I swallow a lump in my throat, and it sinks like a stone to the pit of my stomach. I feel like I’m failing at being a happy Christian. Why can’t I say those words? I wonder. Am I ungrateful? Do I have blinders on? Am I wallowing in the negative?

Yes, there were happy times on my station of Egbe, in the Nigerian bush. But they were overshadowed by the knowledge I’d have to leave my home with the big climbing trees, grassy yard, and the dusty paths leading to friends’ homes, and head back to boarding school.

Boarding school. The very words bring up hard feelings: cloistered, imprisoned, squelched, claustrophobic, closed in. How does one recover from that?

I always wanted to live in a two-story house on a square block in a neatly manicured neighbourhood in America. The idyllic homes we visited on furlough every Sunday after church, when a family invited the missionaries to dinner, were beautifully decorated and the kids’ rooms were full with dolls and books and toys.

However, my adult American friends now tell me stories of trauma in the perfect-looking homes of their childhood I once envied. Dads who focused too much on their work and not on their kids. Moms who spun from crazy-happy to crazy-crazy in a split second. Grandmothers, cold and angry, who crossed their arms instead of hugging. Grandfathers who did unthinkable things to their little girls. I now realize my life wouldn’t have been perfect in America anyway.

I still can’t say that I’m grateful for all my painful childhood experiences. Or, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.” But I’m at least longing a little bit less to have lived elsewhere.

To hear more of Debbie’s stories, encouragements, and reflections, check out her blog ‘Above All Else‘. You can also find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Eloise: Finding my Feet

Eloise is from England, and is studying her final year of a bachelor’s degree in French and History. She has just completed a year’s internship with a church in France.

As I sit down to write this, it’s actually a year since I got on a plane and went to live in the South of France for ten months. Probably the biggest thing I’ve ever done in my life.

I’d known it was coming and had been mentally preparing for a while – I’m a languages student and so knew from the start of my degree that I’d have to spend third year abroad – but felt completely unprepared when the plane took off and it hit me that I didn’t have a return flight booked in a fortnight (or at all, actually, as I didn’t know what dates I’d be coming home for Christmas).

Obviously, I was there to improve my French, a language I’d supposedly been learning since the age of eleven. And yet, for my first month or so, I felt like a complete fraud; here I was, claiming to be a university student studying French and yet it felt like I could barely string a sentence together. It didn’t help that the region I was in, Languedoc-Roussillon, had a regional accent, and so even the basics of communicating in French were made even harder!

Culture Shock

I was interning in a church, which threw me straight into the deep end of having to interact with French people from many different walks of life on a daily basis, as well as living with a host family from the church. For the first few months, this meant that it felt like my brain was constantly switched on, and I had to work twice as hard as everyone else all the time. Even social situations that were laid-back and relaxing for everyone else were exhausting and stressful for me. One of my overwhelming memories from my first few weeks abroad is how tired I was, all the time!

Having grown up going to France for summer holidays, I thought I’d be able to cope with the culture shock – how different could it be really? Turns out, culture shock was a massive issue for me, and I never really got over it, though I did get used to it. I learned to laugh things off as a ‘cultural thing’. I felt like I didn’t fit in – from the sense of humour, to the food, to the fact that I’m stereo-typically English and drink a lot of tea, and the French don’t.

It took me ages to feel like I’d made friends, in part because I was so shy and scared no-one would like me. Now I’m back in England I regret not being more outgoing to begin with; when I did make friends, we did some really fun things together and I wish we’d had time to do more and develop our friendship further. At the end of the year, whilst part of me couldn’t wait to go back to England and embrace home comforts and not having to speak French for a while, there was a part of me that wished I was staying longer, as I felt like I’d finally found my feet and could actually ‘do’ this whole living abroad thing.

Living the Language

I think a misconception of a year abroad is that you’ll learn the language with no effort; you’re living there, how could you not? Whilst this was true to some extent, I actually found that I really had to make myself go out and find opportunities to practice my language skills, from trying to make friends instead of staying in and watching Netflix, to going to museums and taking the French leaflets instead of the English ones.

My language acquisition seemed to come in stages; I didn’t notice any difference for ages, and then when I went back to France after spending Christmas in England, I suddenly noticed a huge improvement. I also felt like I started to rapidly improve again in the last few months of my stay, and if you’d shown me at the beginning of my year abroad how confident and comfortable I’d be using French day-to-day, I wouldn’t have believed you.

A year abroad,  in my experience, is definitely not the idealised study break everyone assumes, in which language students spend their year posing for Instagram and getting a tan, all in the name of ‘immersing ourselves in the  culture’ (although I did do both of those things). It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, and there were so many moments when I wanted to run away to the airport and get on the first flight home. But it was also one of the most worthwhile and rewarding things I’ve ever done. Living in a new culture and pushing myself out of my comfort zone meant I learned so much about myself and grew in confidence.

Don’t be afraid to be different

To anyone about to head off to live abroad, or thinking about it, can I give you a piece of advice? Embrace the new culture, but also don’t be afraid of being a little different- one of my fondest memories is hosting an English meal for a group from church and introducing them to English food, from fish and chips, to Lancashire hotpot, to a Devon cream tea, merging where I grew up with where I go to uni. Introducing them to a part of my culture strangely helped me feel more at home in theirs. Although I never managed to convert any of them to tea drinkers!

I started my year abroad crying on the airplane, convinced I would completely fail and never be able to speak French. Ten months, a lot of tears, some incredible highs (eating ice cream on a beach, surrounded by mountains, staring at the bluest sea I’ve ever seen and realising I  actually got degree credit just for being there, wine tasting in Paris living the year abroad dream for 48 glorious hours, the moments when I realised I’d been speaking fluent French without trying…) and some awful lows later, and I ended my year abroad crying on the airplane, because I’d somehow found my place in this strange little corner of France, just as I was leaving it all behind.

If you would like to hear more about Eloise’s adventures in France, you can read her blog ‘Eloise in Roussillon’ here.

Claire: Living with Borders

Claire was born in the Philippines and raised in Chicago, Illinois. A diplomat’s daughter, she’s lived in Seattle, Washington; Melbourne, Australia; and in Singapore. She is developing an independent documentary series called Dreamland: The Filipino American Story.

My biggest guilty pleasure is browsing Zillow or AirBnb. I imagine myself living in a vintage apartment back in my childhood neighborhood, walking around like a local. Or building a tiny house on wheels so I can constantly be on my way somewhere else. But even if I wanted to, I could never just take off on a whim. Visas are required for every country I’ve called home, except for Singapore.

As a TCK raised to believe the world can be roamed freely, my choices today are shaped by borders. The struggle has moved away from questions of identity into uncharted territory for the TCK: staying put. Since returning to Manila five years ago, I wake up everyday wanting to just fly. Where can I go, what can I do to find joy right here? It’s the challenge faced by any creative person: make it new.

And so I address God and ask, “What new thing will You show me today?”

While navigating the twisty, narrow streets of the most densely populated city in the world, I try to look past the chaos that is Manila.

The sari-sari store keepers fanning themselves in the thick heat and the fearless entrepreneurs opening cafes and co-working spaces all share a kind of grace in their striving. I see the work they put into building community, and the spirit of the city begins to grow on me. The idea of rootedness turns into a peaceful stability.

Then there are days I’m frantic for change (hence the virtual apartment hunting). Or I drive three hours south of the city, out to the small volcano poking out from the middle of a lake, if only to cope with the sameness of my surroundings.

As a young mom, I made the choice to raise my Philippine-born daughters as third culture kids. This was not an easy decision to make, even though being a cultural misfit was the only way I knew how to be. At 10 and 11, my girls were thriving at school, had best friends and pets they adored, and a roomy house they ruled noisily, all while making their own childhood memories in one place. I thought about the turbulence and trauma I experienced at 13, moving from the US to the Philippines; the bumpy transition to Melbourne at age 17.

But when I asked my father for advice, he said: “We moved all the time. You kids turned out OK.” And so my husband chased a career in Singapore, where my kids grew up, graduating high school at an American school. My daughters are adults now, and I celebrate the empathy, open-mindedness, and adaptability they share with other TCKs. But I worry about their restlessness (which mirrors mine), and their own journeys to belonging.

I can’t help but see my passport country in the context of the places I’ve lived. Not only have I seen more, but I’ve been steeped for years in a multitude of experiences, and maintain rich friendships across countries. I’m painfully aware of the privilege that’s allowed me to live so many kinds of lives. There are places that feel more like home to me than others, but I could never choose just one cultural identity.

Instead I claim and nurture a global identity, with all its moving, malleable parts. Then the question becomes not “who am I”, but finding where I stand in a much bigger story.

Follow Claire on Twitter @cam_writes, and keep up with her ‘Dreamland’ documentary about Filipino American history on Twitter @dreamlanddoc and Instagram @StoriesfromDreamland

Maurizzio: Studying Abroad

Maurizzio, originally from Peru, has studied at universities in the US and the UK. He shares how those experiences are shaping his career, and offers some advice for anyone planning to study abroad.

Looking Back

I walk into the Starbucks and order a cup of coffee.

The man waiting for me gives me a quizzical look. ‘You take your coffee black?’ he asks. I nod.

We sit down and start to chat. It looks simple enough, but this man is here to evaluate me for a job. The atmosphere might look relaxed, but here I am, at 31 years old, seeking employment as a professor in one of Peru’s most prestigious universities.

His eyes scan my CV. ‘Maurizzio Zamudio, Peruvian. MA in History.’ He recites my information as if I he were teaching it to me for the first time. ‘I see you studied abroad. Where exactly?’

‘University of Exeter,’ I reply.

Fast forward one year and here I am, at 32, a full-fledged university professor lecturing in 2 different departments on topics related to Art History. Apart from that, I also give conferences on crisis management because, as my mentor says, ‘History is the history of crises’. In my spare time I’m polishing my two novels for their future publication.

That’s a lot.

Sometimes I wonder how it got to this point. I’m not complaining – I just really want to know how I came from being unemployed to having too much on my plate. Part of me knows the answer.

Let’s roll back the clock to 2005 when, at 17, I left home to do my Bachelor’s Degree in the US. Then to 2015 when I went to the UK for my Masters. The years spent abroad studying are definitely one of the many reasons employers jump at my CV.

Feels good, but I must give credit where credit is due. Without those experiences abroad, I probably wouldn’t be in the position I’m now.

‘Are you going abroad by yourself?’

I got asked this question multiple times. It makes sense, because leaving home for a foreign country on your own is a daunting task. It isn’t easy to adjust to a new language and new culture. You will make mistakes and mess up. But the important thing is to remember those are natural things. The whole ‘fish out of
the water’ feeling is what you are supposed to be going through.

Is it really that bad?

It doesn’t have to be. Granted, you will feel alone at first, but that’s natural; in my case, I knew no one on campus when I arrived. To me, what made my experience abroad were the friendships I made. You will make them too. You will meet people like you, newcomers who are just as lost as you are. Don’t feel embarrassed; everyone is just as scared as you are.

However, let me stress something; do go out, do meet people. I’m an introvert and I had to drag myself out to talk to people. I’m not the kind who does well in big groups, so I ended with a small circle of friends, but I knew I could count on them. Those people are lifesavers.

Depression is real, and being far from home, international students are more prone to it. Don’t give it an advantage.

Finally, I know you are there to study, so do study and get good grades, but don’t let studies take you away from enjoying the place you are in. Organise a road trip, go watch a film, do touristy things.

You are only in that city for a few years. Enjoy it.

Find Maurizzio on Twitter @Maurizzio_Z.

Samantha: Where I Belong

Samantha was born and raised in Hong Kong, where she attended international secondary school. She studied her undergraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh, and now works with Friends International in Scotland to support international students.

Ethnically I am Chinese. But in terms of national identity, I have never felt a strong tie to my Chinese heritage. The reason for this may be due to growing up in a multicultural environment.

I lived in Hong Kong, but grew up listening to and watching American pop culture. At home, I spoke Cantonese with my parents, while at school I spoke English with my peers. I studied in an international school under the UK education system, where my classmates were the children of expats and immigrants from all over the world.

In class, our teachers referenced things from the UK which I had never seen in Hong Kong: Jaffa Cakes and scones among other things. They also shared stories about themselves from their childhood years, waiting eagerly in the mornings for the milkman to deliver glass bottles of unhomogenised milk, and how they would then fight with their siblings to be the one to sip the cream on top. They were experiences which I had never encountered and can only imagine.

Since most of my education was in English, it became my dominant language. I remember once my Chinese tutor said to me: “you are not Chinese”, because of my poor ability to communicate in the Chinese language. It stung. I held back tears, determined not to cry in front of her. Looking back now, I do know why that hurt me.

As humans, we deeply desire to belong. Our sense of belonging impacts our identity.

Living in Hong Kong, I struggled to fit in with the local Chinese people no matter where I went. I always thought it was because of my poor Chinese, but after going to the UK for university studies, I found that I could not fit in with the local British people either. Although I had the language, I did not have the culture.

We International school kids are a community of our own. We have our own culture – a product of the east meeting the west. There is nothing else quite like it.

Though quite at home in our own little circles, we were very much foreigners to the locals. So then where did I belong? And what determined this? My ethnicity? The language I spoke? The place I spent the most time in? My culture?

One summer during university break, I joined an international student outreach. It was run by Friends International, a Christian Ministry organisation that aims to reach international students in the UK with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

On our team that year, we had nine members from eight different countries. We were all from different places, with very different upbringings, and all spoke English as a second language. But as I listened to the stories of these people and shared with them mine, we connected in a way closer than I have ever felt to any community. This was very interesting to me, and as I probed at it in my mind, I slowly began to realise that it was because we are united in something bigger, something that transcends language and culture, place and time.

You see, when we believed in Jesus and gave our lives to Him, we began to share life with Him and with others in Him. We became united in His family, in wondrous fellowship with brothers and sisters of every race and age around the world, and this is a bond profoundly deeper than anything else!

I found where I belong: in God’s family.

Stephen: TCK Care

Migration means leaving things behind. It moves you into a disoriented world which doesn’t add up in the way you were used to. You have to start putting things together in a new way.

Ruth Padel, The Mara Crossing

My name is Stephen Black, and I grew up in the bush in Nigeria.

I had a rich childhood, full of excitement and adventure and a fair share of grief and loss as well. I grew up in farm country where I had the freedom and safety to be a kid in a way that I’ve never seen again. And I gained the ability to learn languages, cultures, and people which has served me well time and again in my adult life. To be real, I lost more friendships, endured more stress, and encountered more violence than a child ever should. And I wouldn’t trade it.

I have found that sentiment to be a common theme among TCK’s – that there were difficult, painful aspects of their mobile, multicultural lives, yet that the experience as a whole has shaped their identity and their culture. It’s given them skills, strengths, and an awareness that they never would have found otherwise.

So I talk to people about what it means to be a TCK and how to care for a TCK, taking advantage of those benefits and processing the losses and the grief. I have begun collecting those stories, strategies, and supportive conversations in the form of a podcast: TCK Care.

Stephen now works as a TCK Care Worker, and uses his podcast to discuss and share TCK stories and experiences, connecting with a range of people who have grown up abroad, and those who have researched these themes. He describes it as ‘a podcast for those with a multicultural childhood, past or present.’

Jude: Human Amongst Robots (Poem)

Jude was born in Brazil, and moved to Italy when he was 11 years old. He moved to England as a young adult, before later returning to his beloved Italy.

When I was 24, I decided to leave Italy and have a ‘London experience’. I arrived there alone, and I had to start from zero – that meant a new job, new house, new friends, and a new culture. It was the most wonderful, painful experience I’ve ever had.

London is amazing – loads of culture, hundreds of things to do…but mostly you are alone. And when you come from a Latino/Mediterranean culture, you are taught to expect a ‘mi casa es tu casa‘ welcome. In the UK, I had to face the fact that ‘mi casa es tu casa…if I want you here.’ I was living with deep depression, anxiety, and loneliness.

For the first three years, I had a love-hate relationship with the country.

I didn’t share my experience with other immigrants that were in my position. It was only after I published my poetry book ‘Words/Wars’ that a few people reached out to me: “I thought I was the only one that lived in that loneliness.”

I would say this: this might not be the last place you live in. Give yourself the opportunity to live more experiences and see more places. Don’t build boundaries; be open, because life changes, and you will change with it.

LND
The fog is in town and
my heart is gone.
I am drinking a hot cappuccino
in Starbucks,
and voices are all around me.
Memories of my life get
louder in here
because this place is so empty,
and people
look like crazy robots.
I don’t miss being a robot.
I am real now.
A human amongst robots.
I have a heart that pulses hard.

Jude tweets at @JsaintJude, and his debut poetry book is for sale on Amazon.

“Have You Heard of London?”

I’m pretty British. If you asked me where I was from, I would say Britain. When I was living in England, a lot of people would look at my Spanish name, or pick up on something different in my accent and say, “No, no – where are you really from?” And I would think about it, and shrug. “Britain?”

My mother is Scottish, my father is South American. I was born in Scotland. I lived the first four years of my life travelling with missionary parents, and then we moved to England. I lived there for about seventeen years, before moving to China, and now Scotland.

So you see, it’s confusing for me when people tell me I’m not really English, because…what else would I be?

Languages Are Suspicious

There’s a joke in Catherine Bohart’s satirical video ‘How to be an immigrant British people like‘* that “British people are suspicious of people who speak more than one language…why do you have a secret code that only you and your friends understand?” Because the thing about your average Brit is, they don’t have a good reputation for language learning.

*This video is full of British humour, which is very dry and sarcastic! It’s meant to poke fun at some of the racist stereotypes in society today, not to be offensive.

In my family, we started learning Spanish as kids. And then when I had to start studying French at school, I was good at it because a lot of the grammar and vocabulary was similar to Spanish. At university, I jumped at the opportunity to learn some Mandarin Chinese. I love languages – every time I travel to a new country, I’ll try to learn at least the basic phrases to get by. I’ve collected bits and pieces of Swahili, Zulu, Rufumbira, German, Thai, and Indonesian along the way.

Now, of course there are so many British people that also love to travel and learn languages. But that wasn’t the case for my friends. They would get annoyed with me for going to European summer camps, or to visit family in Scotland every school holiday – “You just disappear,” they’d say. “We never see you.” And now that we’re adults, I keep missing reunions because I just live too far away. My school friends all live in the same county that we grew up in.

Have you heard of London?

I loved living in China, partly because Chinese people would accept my ‘English-ness’ without question. They wanted me to comment on English politics, or cook English food for them, or recommend some British TV shows. And I could, because I grew up British, more or less.

The only problem was, when I met other British people in China, they couldn’t identify me as one of ‘their own’. I remember taking a group of British students out for dinner, only to have one of them turn around and say, “Oh, Dani, I forgot to ask – which state are you from?”

Another time, someone at my church stood up to give a notice in a perfect cockney accent. I went up to talk to him after the service, introduced myself, and said, “Whereabouts are you from?”

“Well,” he said. “Have you heard of London?”

Have I heard of London?

“I’m British,” I said, and he quickly changed the subject.

I’m not offended by things like this. I know that my accent changes, especially when I’m outside of the UK. But it does make me feel a little like a fraud, that I almost shouldn’t be telling people I’m British if my ‘country-mates’ can’t back me up on that.

Fake-British

When I was in England and people would do the whole “Where are you really from?” thing, I would just tell them I was Scottish, and that would usually satisfy their curiosity.

Now I live in Scotland, it’s pretty obvious that I’m not really Scottish. I don’t do small talk quite how they do, my accent is different, and I’ve never heard of half of the famous places here! The only problem is, Scottish people actually know what an English accent sounds like, so “I’m English” doesn’t really cut it here, either.

It’s not at all that I’m ashamed of my South American heritage – I love being with that side of my family, and I love visiting in that part of the world. But I’ve never lived there. My Spanish isn’t even that fluent. It’s part of my identity, and so is my British-ness.

I was sort of hoping that writing this up would lead me to a conclusion ‘British people don’t really think I’m British, but I’ve learned…’ That would have been a really nice way to end. But I don’t have a neat answer. Sometimes it still hurts me that people from a country that I identify with so strongly don’t accept me as one of their own. More often, these days, I’m trying not to care.

I’m trying to enjoy the places that I get to live and explore, and to remember that in the grand scheme of things, nationality is a social construct. We (humans) drew up borders and claimed ownership of them, and those borders have changed, are changing, and will change. We’re all just people living in cultures and within land boundaries that other people pretty much just made up. That’s not to say those things aren’t important, just that they are not permanent.

So to be honest, you can ask me if I’ve heard of London. (I have.) You can ask me about my accent, or my name. It’s okay. I’m going to keep calling myself British, though, because at the end of the day – who’s to say I’m not?

Love, Dani

Zoë: Homebird

From age 2 to 10, Zoë grew up on two missionary/charity ships. She and her family lived with people from over 45 nations and cultures, while moving from country to country every few weeks. She moved back to the UK in 2009.

A good friend of mine was explaining why I’m such a ‘homebird’ (despite still being terrible at remembering to tell my family when I’ve arrived somewhere safely!), and why I feel most comfortable with my family. Wherever I am, whether it’s a ten minute car ride or a twenty hour flight away, I have to make myself fully at home, be fully with the people I’m with at that moment. I think it’s because I don’t know how long I’ll have with them.

As an MK (Missionary Kid), my family were the only people who understood me, and what I’ve been through. Throughout all of the moving, they have been the only stable (human) thing in my life.

I’ve always struggled to understand people that don’t get on with their families, but I’ve realised that family has a different meaning to some people. For me, they are the stability throughout the change. There’s this bond between us, an understanding that might not be there in other families.

We went through so much together – illness, university, turbulent plane rides, summer camps…there’s a bond that can’t be broken or understood by ‘outsiders’. That’s what family means to me.

Now I’ve started university, and am living away from my family for the first time. I’ve struggled a lot with having people around me not ‘get’ me. I feel this loss of something, this sense of loneliness. But I’m also learning that the people I’m surrounded by now are also the people that will experience and understand this season with me, and it’s okay that it’s not my family I’m sharing it with. I’m thankful for them, and I’m thankful for a God I can rely on through all of these changes. He’s the only other stability I’ve had in my life.

So if you’re in a similar situation, take heart. You will be okay. I will be okay. He’s got us, and in every season there’s a new opportunity for growth.

Eleanor: Fluently

 “But inside us there is a word we cannot pronounce and that is who we are.”

Anthony Marra , A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

My name is Eleanor Chin.  I was raised in the United States, in the Bay Area in California.  Best known for its veritable traffic jams, increasingly bizarre tech unicorns, the astronomical cost of living, and extremely liberal political bent, it is also home to a significant Asian-American population. 

My father is Chinese-American, my mother is Caucasian.  Adopted from China at six months, I grew up speaking only English, and mostly spending time with other purely Caucasian families. 

From a young age, I had a natural inclination toward foreign languages and mythology traditions from other lands.  I was very good at Spanish, I taught myself French, and I played around with a few other languages.  I was a hopeless dunce at mathematics and sciences, however – a trend that would continue into my later schooling. 

At age eleven, I began attending a Chinese school with many Taiwanese immigrant families.  I was wildly in love from day one – the tones, the script, and of course, the miniature toys the teachers would bring us as homework motivators.  For the first time, I began to be conscious of my Chinese heritage, noticing that my family’s values, priorities, and habits were significantly different from other kids in school.  I used to hang out with a bunch of white girls, but I started seeking the company of other Asian-Americans.

I took my first trip out of the United States at age fourteen, to Vietnam.  It was a significant experience, and I came home with a renewed love for Asia and its languages.  I got more serious about Chinese, finding a private language tutor, reading more books about Chinese history, and actively pursuing friendships with people from China and Taiwan.  I also began to read memoirs about Chinese-American experiences.  Outstanding: Growing Up Asian, by Cynthia Meng, and Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother by Amy Chua brought into striking relief a sneaking suspicion that I wasn’t an “authentic” Asian American. 

As I observed my family and community, I found myself to be at odds with myself in multiple directions, enhancing this belief.  First it was the academics.  There is typically a lot of pressure in an Asian-American homes to bring home excellent marks in school, particularly in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) related subjects.  I never experienced this kind of pressure, and as I was a complete dunce in maths and sciences anyway, I was extremely grateful.  But still, I felt that I was cheating somehow, that I should experience that kind of pain to legitimize my experience as “truly” Asian-American.

Then there was the violin.  I started playing of my own accord.  My parents never made me practice, and I never partook in any violin competitions, let alone win any of them.  This bothered me a lot.  A common theme in the “real” Asian-American world is the prevalence of developing inner discipline through a musical instrument.  I played the violin, like a “regular” Chinese kid, but I wasn’t very good, because I didn’t practice enough—to me, it was worse than if I didn’t play at all.  I was really ashamed of myself, as if my credibility in being Chinese-American hinged on how many violin competitions I won. 

Finally, there was Chinese.  I was very, very good at learning Chinese.  I had more fun in Chinese school learning words than I had in youth group throwing water balloons.  It might have been the drug of being so spectacularly good at something so effortlessly, but I was totally, completely in love.  I think I poured so much into learning Chinese because I desperately wanted to have a meaningful relationship with my Chinese self.  A relationship that wasn’t at odds with the cultural norms, and that would also be understandable to my non-Asian friends. 

 I went off and lived in Taiwan and China, one year in each place.  In both places, I found that I was more culturally American than I thought.  Despite my significant language abilities, and sometimes in light of them, I found myself once again estranged.  Now, I was not only a bad Asian-American, but also a bad Asian. 

Why did I ever learn Chinese? I asked myself.  The last ten years have been an extreme waste of time.

Jhumpa Laheri, author of In Altre Parole, once wrote of missing the Italian language, “that emotional distance is always more pronounced, more piercing, when, in spite of proximity, there remains an abyss.”

My Chinese had already hit a glass ceiling years ago, so I subsequently tried to define myself more fully as a linguist by pursuing Japanese and Korean, which are close cousins.  Fluency evades me though; my emotional connection to these languages is just not as deep.  Or maybe it’s because I’m still burned out from a decade-long linguistic journey that brought me right back to where I started. 

Language shapes existence, and so despite being thankless, onerous, and insanely demanding, I remain in awe of and inspired by foreign tongues.  The word I cannot pronounce may not be in Chinese, or for that matter, in any language I know.

I trust that someday though, I’ll speak it fluently.