I was taking a cab when the taxi driver asked me if I were Japanese or Korean. I told him I was neither. He asked me what country I was from. Despite the warning signs in my head screaming “oh geez, Catherine, are you going to play this game again?,” I replied that I am American. He said, are you Han Chinese? I said yes. And the nincompoop was like, “you’d better start working harder on your Chinese. I’ve met white people who can speak better than you.”
OMFG. If they’ve been studying it formally for longer than I have, then I would hope that they spoke better Chinese than me. I mean, seriously, my growing up with Chinese-speaking parents only really helped me in one way — listening comprehension. In terms of speaking, if you read this blog, then you know that I’ve had to work hard to bring it beyond the level it got stuck at when I was six or so and started spending most of my days in a English-speaking environment.
I’ve asked my parents why they didn’t force us to speak Mandarin at home, and my mom said it is partly because when we started school, we were almost pathologically shy, so our teachers said to encourage us to speak English at home so we’d feel more comfortable interacting with our classmates, who in preschool and kindergarten were mostly white.
This brings me to another point. My Mandarin skills are inextricably intertwined with issues of race and self-identity, and issues of identity for me always bring up feelings of being an outsider, both in the United States and in Taiwan. I’m not saying that I walk around going “boo-hoo-hoo, I’m a minority everywhere I go, even in a country where I look like everyone else. Boo-hoo-hoo-hoo.” Quite the contrary. My days are usually filled with wide-eyed wonderment, rainbows and butterflies.
But that only means that when someone points out to me that I am different, and then makes a value judgment about that for good measure, it just stings more because it is unexpected. I try not to let it bother me too much because, after all, what do the actions of a few classless jerks really mean to me anyway? I’ve been blessed with such good fortune in my life and being bi-cultural is one of them, so it seems petty to be upset. But I’m beginning to realize that it’s not helpful to pretend that hearing bigoted, thoughtless comments doesn’t hurt me. Does it really help to refuse to admit that, yeah, those people do get to me sometimes? Is it right for me to pretend that I have never, ever wished to just not be different?
I don’t mean that I have ever, for one minute, wished that I wasn’t Asian. But I wish it didn’t make me vulnerable to being on the receiving end of a certain kind of idiocy. It hurts when you are in junior high and your Spanish teacher says to you, twice over the course of one week, that “it must be hard for you to pick up Spanish because English is your second language, anyway, right?” It hurts when someone tells you when you are 10 years old that you are a traitor to your race because you can’t speak Mandarin fluently. It hurts when your grade-school friend says to you that American Girl can’t come out with a Chinese-American doll because “Americans are white” (they did come out with an Chinese-American doll, so eat that, Shannon!) It hurts when one of your college professors, someone you had previously quite admired, tells you that you have an Asian accent, and continues to insist that you do even after you tell him that you were born and raised in America. It hurts when another professor (in another program, I don’t want to give SLC a bad rap) mistakes one of your Asian-American classmates for you even though you’d met twice-weekly for more than semester and he should have damn well know what you looked like by then. It hurts when your closest friends in college continually refer to you as “the token Asian,” “Asian Catherine” and “the Oriental girl” and make dumb Asian jokes around you, without ever thinking for one second that it would get hurtful or old. It hurts when one of your other friends says your boyfriend must have an Asian fetish because he’s dating you. It hurts when yet another one of your friends bitches to you about how her ex-boyfriend is dating an Asian girl because, apparently, she finds that unacceptable. And the list goes on and on and on… I mean, I’m not even counting random comments or slurs from strangers here, just people I knew…
Wow. You know what I just realized? I have had a really craptacular track record with friends. It’s like I have no secret-bigot-dar.
Anyway, my point is, taken one at a time, these things are irritating, but not crushing. But, time after time after time, they do start to chew away at me: Why can’t certain people just let me be me? How much easier does it really make their lives if they deprive me of my humanity, and instead just draw up a long, pre-made list of what I should be based on my face?
When a taxi driver denigrates my Chinese ability just because I’m of Chinese descent, it fills me with a blinding rage, and makes me feel just deflated afterwards, because of all the reasons I’ve delineated above. As much as I try to ignore it, it bothers me a lot that I’m always operating on a deficit where my Chinese is concerned. I hate hearing about speech contests in Taiwan where hua yi are banned because they are “supposed” to be able to speak Chinese, so it’s not a big deal when they deliver a five minute speech on a complex topic in Mandarin. I hate it when other Chinese-Americans call me a “banana” because my American accent is stronger than theirs.
(You know what I want to say to those people who call me a banana? I want to say, “well, if I’m a banana, then you are a twinkie, because you are yellow on the outside, and full of shit on the inside.” At least bananas are nutritious.)
It gets to me more than I’d like to admit. But it forces me to grow a shell. It forces me to accept who I am, and be proud of that, because that is the best way I can protect myself. I am an American woman who is proud of her Taiwanese heritage and of her family’s accomplishments, in China, Taiwan and in the United States. I am learning Mandarin because I want to be closer to my relatives, and because it closes a little hole (okay, a gaping hole) I had in my identity. It is also a necessary skill for my job (which makes comments about it being SO VERY, VERY, VERY BAD all the more ridiculous). I know what being Taiwanese American means to me, and no tactless fool can take that away.
Whether or not I speak Mandarin with an accent is besides the point. In fact, I am proud of my accent, because it carries with it my personal history — both the good and bad parts.
Even though I was stewing on the inside, I was still very polite to that taxi driver. My personal mantra is that you only beget jerkiness with jerkiness and, besides, it only brings you down to be unkind. To be fair, I think all that taxi driver was trying to say was “hey girl, you are one of us, too, even if you say you are American. So why don’t you get going on that Mandarin? Don’t let the white people beat you at our game!”
Which is creepy. They are welcome to beat me at that game any time. In fact, if it weren’t for a white person who speaks Chinese better than me, I would not have had such a great time in my first year here. And that person is my fiance, Ron (you know, the guy with the Asian fetish).