“You’re a Chinese. So how come you don’t speak the language?”
Sounds familiar? I’m sure some English-speaking Chinese people or Chinese people who can’t speak Chinese (at all) can concur that, you get a certain kind of look when you tell them you don’t speak the language even if you’re one.
There’s a bit of silence.
“Oh, you’re a banana.”
A banana isn’t just a fruit, apparently. It is typically used to describe a Chinese individual born into a Western environment and are more inclined towards Western culture, identities, and values compared to traditional Chinese ones. Yes, yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Also, ‘Bananas’ usually consider English to be their primary language of communication and are not fluent in Mandarin or any Chinese dialect (if at all).
To give context, I grew up in an English-speaking household. My parents’ conversational exchanges were dominated by English as much as our dinner table was overwhelmed by rice bowls. So what makes this complicated is that I was living with my parents who had little to zero knowledge of speaking the language. My parents who wanted the best for me too; had good intentions in enrolling me into a Chinese elementary school in the hopes it would open more doors of opportunity for me.
It opened the door to a lot of things.
Initially, things went smoothly. I didn’t have much issues with the basics in Elementary 1 but I wasn’t scoring either. I was only barely making it through. It wasn’t until I was towards the end of a term, the cracks started to show.
Let me explain.
I knew the character 理 meant ‘understand’ and 解 meant ‘solution’. But with English in my mind, I had no idea that the combination of more than one Chinese character created a vocabulary. Hence, the word 理解 would make up a vocabulary as both a noun and verb. As a noun, it means “understanding; comprehension” while as a verb, it would be “understand; comprehend”.
So homework was difficult even when I paid attention in class. I tried to cram everything a teacher would teach only to be at home tearing up because I couldn’t do my homework. See, each workbook came with homework instructions that were in Chinese too. Here’s an example of an instruction:
Reading this now, I can fully comprehend what the instruction means. But that wasn’t the case at that time. Now as someone who could only read basic singular characters and had zero knowledge that a combination of two or more characters would form a new vocabulary in Chinese, I literally had no way of even understanding what the homework instruction meant, let alone attempt to do the exercise. Let’s keep in mind that I was a 7 year old whose parents neither read nor spoke Chinese. My inability to understand Chinese seeped into other main subjects like Mathematics and Science. I couldn’t decipher what that previous written sentence meant, let alone understand it with other jargons that were present in other subjects.
Mondays became a nightmare. Homework became a chore. The lack of understanding the language reflected in my studies. I was having a growing resentment towards the language that I couldn’t seem to grasp, just as my own peers were also growing to isolate me because I was too ‘English’ for them. It was incredibly disheartening to see friends who started out close to me moving on with better grades and to better classes, who just stopped hanging out with me when my studies went backwards.
Too much emphasis was placed on reading and writing Chinese. It didn’t make sense to me seeing other students memorizing passages just to write the exact thing in exams. It was something I tried to follow suit but to no avail as I was not used to burying myself in model answers. Teachers were getting upset with me because I was showing little to no progress in my homework. The only praise I got was for my handwriting.
I don’t blame them. But why would anyone expect me to be able to converse beautifully in Chinese after one or two terms when I did not even speak the language at home? Why would anyone think I’d intentionally screw up my studies? That I’d want to turn in an empty workbook because I was just ‘lazy’? Was I expected to love Chinese and use it frequently? It would have been bearable if they tried to correct me. But how was that possible when each time I misspoke something, I became the subject of ridicule in class?
I failed in a lot of my subjects. Even if I passed, I was just lucky. Chinese became the impossible obstacle. Scoring a B for my Primary School Achievement Test (a.k.a. UPSR) was no encouragement for me to continue the language. Pushing school aside, it just wasn’t a language I spoke back home and I didn’t have to use it on a daily basis either. What I had learned felt just enough for me. So I avoided it like the plague.
In high school, I was convinced that all my efforts in the language was not paying off and I was further discouraged to continue learning Chinese. As long as I did not have to face a language that was the root of my problems, I can choose not to face it, so I did just that. I was going to start anew in a different environment, in a high school where the majority of the students spoke English. This time there was no need for me to be a target, except the reality was far from that.
At the onset of some high school rumours, I became a target of bullying by seniors. Since the reason for being picked on is not related to this particular topic, I will save the details for another writing. The outcome was I still could not escape from being bullied mentally and physically after school. I tried to open up to my own peers, but all I can remember was being driven to the edge, and breaking into tears in the school washroom near the end of my Form 2 term. It took a cleaning lady to coax me to come out as she probably noticed I was sobbing loudly for a long time. When my parents finally found me after an hour, they didn’t question further when they saw their child in a disheveled manner. Long story short, they thought it was best I transferred to another high school.
I wanted to put the past behind me and bury everything.
Four years later into university, I found myself switching roles with the students that used to be better than me. For the first time, I felt an odd sensation in seeing the ones who used to have ease in their studies struggling in university due to the emphasis on written and spoken English. They struggled with their assignments, they struggled with the lecture lessons, and oh, how they struggled when it came down to oral presentations. At this stage, I was feeling incredibly diabolical.
How strange it was to be a position where I was “higher” than them. Although some of them needed help with studies and I helped them — I doubt I did it with the best intentions. It was all about feeding my ego and relishing off their dependence on me. I made it tough for them during Q&A sessions after oral presentations by throwing them difficult questions I knew were problematic for them. Some of my friends and I didn’t even try to hide our dislike towards them.
It was also around this time I thought I’d revisit the language that I feared so much and said to myself, “I am going to learn Chinese from scratch. This time, I will be sure that it comes to the same level as my English. It doesn’t matter if I love it or not. I just have to commit to it.”
It’s crazy how years of people telling you that you are worthless can cause you to think in a certain way. Almost every teacher I ever had in elementary school had ingrained in me that I was useless and that insecurity creeped into every aspect of my life. But somehow along the way, I realized I was being no different than the ones who picked on me before. In fact, I’m a whole lot worse because I was an adult. They were just kids then. What do kids know about hurting another kid’s feelings?
With this realization, I was inundated with a sinking sensation of embarrassment and shame. Not because I thought I was being ‘’smarter’ than them, but because I knew how my perception of those students discounted and devalued their backstories and struggles.
Slowly, the petty reason I had to start over the language was soon replaced with practical reasons. For example, reading and ordering off a Chinese menu, travelling in China, getting Chinese clients, etc. My previous job as a brand ambassador forced me out of my comfort zone, and there were many occasions where my anxieties rose when I had to deal with Chinese-speaking clients only. Some of the experiences were interesting, but there were also ones that landed me in hot water (it’s funny thinking about it now).
All those experiences, both good and bad, and also my interest to learn Chinese songs and unravel their meanings somehow opened the door for me to start loving Chinese. There was a sense of appreciation for the language that I disliked with a passion as a child. I can’t recall if it was a slow appreciation for it that I never wanted to admit or the profound usage of idioms and proverbs that was so ever present and charmingly archaic in the Wuxia (武俠) and Xianxia (仙侠) series that had me attached. Either way, it’s the reason why I am still practicing Chinese till this day.
So where am I going with this right now? Frankly, I still find it hard to confidently say I speak Chinese. It sounds unbelievable but it is what it is — even as I write this. It was a journey then but my journey’s just started. I don’t know when I will reach the end but for what it is, I just want to cherish this walk while the path is laid out for me. I will get lost a little but that’s okay.
When I say I am Chinese enough, it means that I have come a long way with the language. From the hours I spent reading in classrooms, my wrist that hurt from writing the characters endlessly on my notebooks, the tears spilled on the workbooks, the fingers that flipped a Chinese dictionary just to find a vocabulary… It also means that sometimes I still get confused between 日 and 曰 without a quick refresher course.
The truth is that learning any language is a continuous process. You don’t just practice it and speak it to be an expert overnight. Looking back on everything I had to go through, I would say it was a privilege for me to learn Chinese. In no way do I blame my parents for not being able to help me with Chinese — I know whatever they did, they gave it their all with the best intentions in their heart. In many ways, learning the language again gave me closure I never knew I needed too. It was a way to put behind the past where the students made fun of me. More importantly, it gave me a chance to redeem myself and also forgive myself for not knowing what I didn’t know before I learned it.
I believe, regardless whichever language you are familiar with at this stage in your life, you have your own experience with it too, and that becomes a story. Our stories are not simply chronicles of events but are pages in a greater human narrative revealing our growth. These narratives, they are precious, and they are something that we should all be cherishing as long as we are alive.