How I rediscovered pride in my culture by speaking Mandarin

By STEPHANIE LEE | December 5, 2019

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COURTESY OF STEPHANIE LEE

I’ve never really thought myself as a rebel. Stubborn? Sometimes. Difficult? It depends on the person and the situation. But a rebel? Not really. 

I was raised by two traditional, strict Asian parents. As a child, everything they said was law. I loved them too much, and I understood that they loved me very much as well. So, no, I never rebelled against my parents.

Regardless, I felt trapped and isolated. In more traditional Asian families, people don’t talk about their emotions and issues. Growing up, I dealt with most of my emotional issues by myself. As years passed, I went from trying to survive relentless bullying in elementary and middle school to developing generalized anxiety disorder surmounted by my ever-increasing academic and social pressure. I felt so much guilt; guilt that I couldn’t tell my parents what was happening, and that I was hiding so much of my life from them.

I didn’t think of myself as a rebel, but I wanted to change myself. So, I rebelled. Before eighth grade, I rebelled against my culture, my heritage, my race. I changed the way I dressed, the way I spoke, the way I presented myself. I thought that fitting more into mainstream culture would help me feel more accepted. Even growing up in a town with a sizable population of Asians, I felt a subliminal need to whitewash myself. American culture is predominantly white, and if you were anything else, you were treated like an outcast. All the cool kids either were white or acted like it, and if you weren’t either then you wished you were. The standards of beauty were whitewashed — you either had to be white or act and dress like it in order to be acknowledged as pretty. 

I wanted so badly to fit in. And the easiest way was to pretend to be white.

That's when I started trying to erase my culture. I only spoke Mandarin whenever I made my annual visits to Taiwan and I withdrew enrollment from Chinese school. I’d never talk about my culture and looked down on fresh off the boat Asians (recent, unassimilated Asian immigrants). When my classmate told me she thought I was adopted because I acted “white,” I grinned and laughed. I glared at my mother for embarrassing us by speaking Mandarin in public — it always drew looks of disgust from others. I stopped wearing the jade necklaces my grandmother gifted me, stopped caring about Chinese holidays and traditions, stopped associating myself with the land that had funny accents that sounded like pots and pans crashing on the ground.

My language skills deteriorated. That was fine with me. To me, Mandarin was the most physical, tangible thing about my culture, the thing that American media made fun of most in movies and TV shows. I wanted to get rid of it. My Mandarin took on an American accent and I forgot how to read and write. Taiwan became less  a place where I would visit my relatives and heritage and more so one where I would go to take Instagram photos and eat delicious food.  

In America, I wasn’t like the other Chinese people; I didn’t speak an ugly language. It felt so good to rebel. I finally felt like I fit in with the mainstream American crowd. I was convinced I was no longer isolated and lonely.

Things changed the summer before I started senior year of high school. I was visiting my grandmother on one of my annual Taiwan trips. She looked small as she fumbled to get a bottle of medical pills open. She set the cap aside and just stared blankly ahead. Although the TV’s blue hues only illuminated the ends of her frazzled hair, I clearly saw the roots of the dyed brown curls growing in ghostly white. I hadn’t remembered her looking so old.

“I don’t know why I’m alive anymore,” she muttered in Mandarin. “I don’t have anyone here. My friends have all passed, my daughter is so far away in America and I hardly see my son.”

I was silent. I wish that the reason why I didn’t say anything was because I didn’t know what to say. But I knew exactly what I wanted to say. I realized — with a crushing, heavy shame — that I just didn’t know how to say it in Mandarin.

I couldn’t even tell my own grandmother that I loved her very much and that she mattered to me. I didn’t even know how to tell her to stay. I desperately wished I could tell her that I should’ve called more often, and that whenever I did call I was capable of speaking more than broken Mandarin to her; that even though I was in a foreign land an ocean away, I would always be there for her.

But I stayed silent. I remember how intensely my cheeks boiled with guilt and shame. I’d never felt so much pure disgust at myself for spending the past few years purposefully pushing away my culture in order to feed a false sense of happiness, to feel like I was going to be much cooler and a better version of myself. I don’t think I fully realized that the only people I was hurting were the ones that loved and cared about me the most. Maybe I did, but it was something I was trying to ignore all that time.

So I began trying. My self resentment helped propel me in the direction of change. I tried desperately to make up for the time lost, the words unspoken. I grasped at every moment I could to reclaim the Chinese part of me: asking for menus at Chinese restaurants in Chinese, speaking Mandarin with my mother, visiting Chinatown in San Francisco for the first time in over a decade after actively avoiding it for years. I began educating myself on the history of Asian immigrants and diaspora in America and I tried to begin reading Chinese again. The despair I felt at my having abandoned my heritage slowly turned into pride. I called my grandmother more often, working to expand my vocabulary every time I spoke. 

The next year I returned to Taiwan, I forced myself to interact with others as much as possible. I sounded out words I didn’t know repeatedly, trying to spit out the years of American accent that grew on my Mandarin speech. I spoke with everyone around me; aunts, uncles, my mother, my grandmother. I talked as much as I could, telling them about how excited I was for college, how I was going to take Mandarin classes in college. I saw how everyone was brimming with pride. I felt warm. By the time I came to Hopkins, most of my accent had worn away.

When I first came to college, I was afraid of falling into the same trap of attempting to re-whitewash myself. Instead, I met Asian Americans from all over the country, not just from Asian-majority towns like mine. The people I met were so proud of their culture. They embraced festival dancing, traditional foods and ethnic languages. My desire to be reconnected with my language and heritage was reinvigorated; I no longer the need to culturally fit in. I felt pride in my culture, which was something I had barely felt growing up back home. I began working hard learning to write and read Chinese once again, and I took all the classes I could about China in order to learn more about my own history. 

I joined Subtle Asian Traits, a Facebook group of over two million people sharing memes about Chinese school, Asian pop media and slipper spankings. People talked about losing — and regaining — their pride in their culture, about mental health in the Asian community, about feeling isolated from the rest of society. I remember realizing that people were like me. I was overjoyed; I finally no longer felt alone.

Maybe the reason I’ve felt so much pride in my language is because the sounds remind me of my childhood. To me, it was a way of communicating with my history and a reminder of what my parents and the rest of my family sacrificed to get me to where I am today. It’s a way of acknowledging and honoring their endurance as immigrants in a strange land to leap over obstacles of discrimination, language barriers and feelings of isolation so I could have a better life. And with that, I finally came to a full realization and acceptance that I can forgive my attempts to erase my cultural identity. My attempted erasure was a product of my whitewashed environment and societal pressure to fit into the mainstream, but I’ve realized that acceptance never comes by bowing to pressure. Sometimes you need to rebel so you can do right.

So, yeah, maybe I’m not a rebel, but it sure feels damn good when people shoot me looks for speaking Mandarin in public.

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