Chinese laundry and cabinet workers. Photo: http://www.nma.gov.au/__data/assets/image/0010/418852/13.jpg

No Winners: Looking the Part not Speaking the Language

On my first day of school my mom told me to “Tell everyone you’re Hawaiian”. This is, of course, not true. As a child of third generation German and second-generation Chinese immigrants, I am definitely not Hawaiian. Even though I am half, I spent most of my life, as a child and adult, around my Chinese family. My grandparents only spoke Cantonese yet my mother alleges she doesn’t know the language. This is, despite the fact that I have heard her speak it; my father has heard her speak it and all my aunts as well as uncles speak it. Growing up in a Chinese laundry that served a wealthy community, I can imagine the pressure she put on herself and that was imposed on her to place distance between her physical identity and her cultural identity. I could imagine her pain, hurt and alienation when I read “How to Tame a Wild Tongue” by Gloria Anzaldua. Anzaldua writes, “So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language. Ethnic identity is twin skin to linguistic identity-I am my language. Until I can take pride in my language, I cannot take pride in myself.” My mother’s response to harassment over speaking Cantonese was to alienate her physical and linguistic Chinese-ness from racial and ethnic realities by aligning herself with a fake Hawaiian identity. She was unable to take pride in using Cantonese and as a result she could not take pride in herself. I used to be angry with my mother for disavowing the language and culture of China as well as Hong Kong, but as an adult I can do nothing but understand her.

A long history of anti-Chinese racism influenced my mother’s choice to abandon the language. Photo: http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/2006_01_02.php

While my mother had removed the linguistic component of Chinese culture from my life, she did a lot to keep the foods my grandparents ate center stage in the house. From dou fu fa (or Tofu-fa) to a 24/7 availability of white rice and Chinese broccoli, my mother made it clear to me that, like Anzaldua states, “there are more subtle ways we internalize identification [like] food and certain smells [that] are tied to…identity…” Although she did not feel empowered enough to own the Cantonese language, in the privacy of our home, she was unafraid of the food or the cooking. Even for me, as an adult, these are the foods that provide grounding and safety. I’ve always found it interesting that my mom has allowed space in her “post-Chinese” life for the cuisine and not the language, even in her own home. I think it’s because the food has already been given space in the American brain as an ethnic normal, meaning that while the food is not American, it has been given a pass because it is so ubiquitous.

Tofu-fa. Photo by Me.

Even though Chinese people, culture and food are omnipresent in Southern California, I can’t help but feel alienated and distanced from these communities. As a bi-racial person I can identify with Anzaldua’s sentiment of having “…so internalized the borderland conflict that sometimes I feel like one cancels out the other and we are zero, nothing, no one.” Even in a city as diverse as Los Angeles, where I’m from, I never get to see anyone who looks like me or reminds me of my family. I feel very separate from others not just because of my personal beliefs but also because of my physical body. It wasn’t until I travelled to Hong Kong that I really felt a part of any society. Being in Hong Kong was the first time I felt a sense of belonging and a removal of the “borderland conflict”. However, even though I was in this city and country where I felt so comfortable, I couldn’t communicate with anyone because I don’t speak Cantonese. I should be able to speak Cantonese. I know this because my mother and my grandparents speak Cantonese. I also know this because while in Hong Kong everyone approaches me speaking in Cantonese and my sister, who looks whiter than I do, is always spoken to in English. Even though the outside world had determined I was more like them than my sister based on appearances, in reality we are equally ignorant.

Chinese laundry racism from 2005! I can’t imagine what it was like for my mom. Photo: https://chineselaundry.wordpress.com/

I wish I could have been a friend of my mother’s as a young womyn. I would have told her to be unafraid and resilient. I would have implored her to speak Cantonese with pride so her children could speak to those who welcomed them. But I believe my mother was trying to protect me because it’s easier to take pride in the one language you know if it’s the dominant language.