“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.