Language, multiculturalism, and identity

I speak four languages fluently. I’m not saying this to brag; I have a friend who speaks over two dozen languages and know most people in Western Europe speak (at minimum) three. I’m a second generation immigrant that fell in love with a third language while in high school and with a fourth while at university. My original goal was 8 by the time I turned 28, but that age has long since come and gone.

So, when I sat down to write for Interspecies, a shared-world science fiction anthology, I knew that I needed to share this experience of living at the intersection of culture and language. In “Underground Intelligence,” I introduced Ān-Tíng, a complicated female protagonist: a human raised in the context of an alien culture, immersed in the latter in order to spy on an occupying force.

I taught at a Chinese-American private school for a few years in my mid-20s. In some ways, it was reverse culture shock; I had been steeped in multiculturalism for so long that stepping out among a student body that was 95% Chinese-American seemed strangely out of place.

However, I soon discovered that the perceived homogeneity hid a vast diversity of immigrant experiences. There were students who were fourth generation Chinese, whose parents barely spoke any Cantonese at all. There were students who were fresh from Hong Kong or China, whose English comprehension was rocky at best. There were students, like me, whose parents were from abroad, but who had been living in the United States their entire lives.

One afternoon, the office received a phone call as I was chatting with one of the school secretaries. Half of the office staff spoke Cantonese; the other half were second- or third-generation immigrants like myself, but from a Cantonese background.

“Does anyone speak Mandarin?” someone said.

I volunteered to speak with the parent, picked up the phone, and translated for the office staff.

Afterward, all four of the secretaries stared at me in wonder.

“I had no idea you spoke Mandarin!” one exclaimed. “I’m really impressed.”

I looked at her strangely. In my experience, every Chinese kid my generation spoke at least a little Mandarin. After all, almost every Chinese kid I knew was, like me, descended from immigrants that arrived in the 1960s and 1970s.

But when I thought about it, it made sense: this woman was at least a third generation immigrant. Over time, their use of the Chinese language became subsumed by daily interactions in English. After all, they lived in California, and everyone had been educated in the American school system. Language loss was a given. I, too, even after years of Chinese school, barely read and write; my contemporaries range in being fully fluent to illiterate and speaking Mandarin with a heavy American accent.

“How come you’re impressed?” I asked. “A lot of people speak Mandarin.”

“But your English is so good!” she insisted. “You’re an English teacher!”

I failed to see the connection.

I received a copy of a Shoshone dictionary a couple of years ago, with the intent of laying it out and sending it back to the tribe in digital form someday. The tribe is concerned about language loss; unlike Mandarin, which has a large native speaker base, the last native speakers of Shoshone are few in number and aging quickly.

The local schools are bringing elders into the classroom to teach Shoshone to the students, but the latter are inundated with English everywhere they go. They get it in school, of course, but it’s also everywhere else — everything from communicating with their peers (both in person and electronically) to the media they consume. The most Shoshone most speak are names of specific people, nicknames given to children when they’re very young.

This community is trying to preserve its language as much as possible, desperately looking to inculcate the vestiges of their language — a part of their culture — to the next generation, for them to pass along to their own. The tribe’s careful attempt to preserve their culture is admirable and, hopefully, successful.

I spent three weeks in Brazil in my mid-20s in an immersive service experience, doing homestays and living among a community for a week or more at a time. Being bicultural meant that I was used to context switching, shifting my world view from Eastern to Western depending on who I was talking to. Brazil was a comfortable place for me; it seemed familiar in some way. The architecture of the buildings was just like 1980s Taipei, almost as if I had stepped into my grandparents’ home, with tiled floors and plastic over the couches to keep the ever-present humidity at bay.

The people I interacted with also reminded me of the particular brand of Chinese-American culture I had been living in. The community revolved around food and conversation, with people often taking half an hour or more to move from one place to another because they wanted to make sure everyone was included.

One woman who went on the same trip as I did was from Sweden, and had no such familiarity with the culture. She hit complete culture shock and was still in a state of anxiety and stress a couple of weeks into the trip. By contrast, the first question people often asked me there was: “Are you Brazilian?” I had slid into the culture almost as second nature.

Ān-Tíng lives in a world where Mandarin is dying, where English is the trade language of humans, and where learning inlari meant that you had a leg up in the world. In some ways, it’s the story of what it means to live in a place where language is a symbol of culture, and where culture reflects what it means to be human.

You can read Ān-Tíng’s story (and three others) in Interspecies, which I’m happy to announce is now available in paperback. Check it out, and let me know what you think about it!

Elaine is an engineer at Adobe. You can find her on Twitter at @elainecchao. All statements in this essay are her own and do not reflect the opinions of her employer.