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Finding Identity in Language

Finding Identity in Language

When I was much younger, maybe 7 or 8, I remember sitting with my mom watching the Monkey King television series (1986) for the first time. It had English subtitles running across the bottom of the screen and while having to read while watching tv was a new experience for me, what really caught my attention was what I was hearing. This was the first time I had ever heard Mandarin.

My father is of Irish heritage and an Army veteran. Wherever we moved everyone spoke English. Whenever he talked to me, it was in English. My mother by contrast is Chinese-American. More specifically, she is Teochew, a Chinese person who originated from the Chaoshan region of eastern Guangdong, China. So, she too spoke to me in English and the only time I heard her speak her home dialect was with my Grandmother on the phone. Teochew sounds nothing like Mandarin and so it was fascinating to hear something so different that my mother still called Chinese.

As I grew up, I held onto that fascination with Mandarin. It's almost as if instances, where I would hear Mandarin and be completely shut out of the conversation, increased exponentially overnight. It made me feel isolated because even if I shared culture with Mandarin speakers, I felt like I would never truly share it because I didn't know the language in any way. At the same time, I also developed a desire to learn my mom's home dialect. I wanted to at least feel connected to that part of my heritage by knowing a few phrases. However, my mom found it difficult to teach me anything and so I continued to feel like there was a wall between me and that half of my identity.

By the time I was in my senior year of high school, I was struggling to figure out what to do with myself. But I was taking a college writing course in my final semester. We were given a topic completely at random from a hat submitted by our peers. I had to write about second language acquisition. Since I was still interested in Mandarin, that's what I focused on. How do English-speaking adults acquire Mandarin Chinese as a second language? How well do they learn to speak Mandarin? Writing that paper, motivated me to do what I could to learn Mandarin myself. So, at the very last minute, I decided to apply to schools with a Chinese major.

I expected to finally feel more connected to my heritage, which in some ways learning Mandarin has enabled me to feel this way. But, ultimately what I've gotten out of my education was also an appreciation for a culture that is different from the Chinese culture I've known from my mother. One that I share and yet am completely new to. Learning Mandarin made me appreciate how diverse the Chinese identity really is.