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Homecoming: A Reflection On Mandarin and Me

Updated: Mar 21

Eileen H. '25

My first language was Mandarin Chinese, although by Kindergarten English had quickly outpaced it as my strongest language. I was always talkative as a child, and my mother is still proud of the fact that I spoke my first words earlier than all her other friends’ babies. Now, I speak native English, fluent Chinese, broken Spanish, and baby Taiwanese Hokkien. For a long time, my relationship to language and languages has been in constant flux, with lots of ups and downs. It has changed immensely alongside my growth as a person and my ties to my culture. But I think it’s a story that deserves to be told.

My first language was and will always be Mandarin, even if a lifetime growing up in the Bay Area has rendered it secondary to my English. Mandarin was the language my mother spoke to me as a baby, which is why I think it is the language closest to my heart. Sometimes when I feel sick, the best medicine is hearing my mother speak to me in her soothing Taiwanese Mandarin. But I haven’t always felt this way. In fact, it wasn’t until I entered high school that I began to realize how important it was to me. Growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood, I was never ostracized or teased by my classmates about my culture, but there was always an unspoken understanding that the language I spoke at home and the culture I grew up with was not the norm. I would come home from sleepovers wondering why Mom spoke broken Taiwanese-accented (different still than a Chinese accent!) English that was so completely foreign from the effortless, flowing language that Madeleine’s mom used. The fact that my parents drove more than an hour both ways to send me and my brother to Chinese school every week did nothing to make me love the language more. For the longest time, Chinese was the thing that made me different, and not the good kind. It was a burden, another thing my crazy Asian parents made me do when all I wanted was to stay in and read a good book on a Friday night. 

By the time I was in middle school, my once-fluent Chinese had trickled to a halt. English was the language I felt in, dreamed in, wrote A+ school essays in. Mandarin I could do without. When I spoke English at the dinner table and my parents admonished me to “講中文” I would scowl and bite my tongue, preferring to not speak at all rather than stumble embarrassingly over the broken Chinese that had once flowed in me like a river. I tried to ignore the feeling that I’d locked myself out of a kingdom, one where I had been given the keys to and then foolishly lost them.

Coming to CPS taught me how important a second language was. Seeing my friends apply themselves in Chinese class and speak in their funny lilting American accents made me laugh, but it also helped me realize that the language my parents had spoken to me since childhood was a gift. Learning to use the five tones, navigate sentence structures so alien from English, and most importantly, not sound like some sort of parody John Cena, I learned, was not an easy feat, and my parents had laid the foundation for me. I already had a running start when everyone else was still learning to walk. Struggling through Spanish class also gave me an appreciation for the effort my parents had taken to learn English. My mother, who came to America at age thirty, must have fought so hard to attain the English that I had, up until then, dismissed as “not good enough.”

I’ve heard it said that you’re only truly fluent in a language when you dream in it. If that’s the case, I think my Chinese is probably a lost cause. I swear I’ve heard my mother speak to me in perfect English in my dreams. Hearing your own mother speak to you in a language that you know she never would in real life is heartbreaking, all the worse because you know it comes from your deepest, subconscious view of her. It hurts even more because I know that maybe in another life if I had worked harder to keep my Chinese, it wouldn’t be this way. It hasn’t been easy, starting to learn it again seriously. I was so embarrassed to speak Chinese, which was halting and broken and more Chinglish than real Chinese. I had an irrational fear that my parents, who had been the ones forcing me to learn it in the first place, would now turn around and pull a petty “I told you so,” or worse, tease me when I made mistakes. It helped that my brother was out of the house, though. Once he left home for college, I no longer had anyone to speak English to at home, and no one to tease me if I sounded like a five-year old dabbling in experimental, new-world Mandarin. My dad swears that my brother leaving is the real reason why my Chinese has improved exponentially in the past few years, but honestly, I know that it was a change in my own mindset. Even though I still make mistakes and occasionally speak with questionable grammatical structures, I’ve learned that most of the fear of embarrassment and being teased was all in my head. Once my parents realized that I was finally trying to learn Chinese, they started encouraging and helping me. Bit by bit, it has started to come back.

At this point, I was undergoing a bit of a cultural identity crisis. Sure, my Chinese was coming back, but what about the rest of my culture? For me, my language has always been much more than a way of communicating. My perception of Chinese is so deeply intertwined with my Taiwanese culture: the stories my father tells me about a way of life that I have only ever heard of at the dinner table and never experienced for myself. There are the bad memories, like the stories of living life under a brutal military dictatorship in the 70’s, or the half-trauma-half absurdist-comedy show recollections of innumerable, inconceivable school beatings and interminable exams. But I’ve also heard about the contented, unnameable feeling of walking down to “Shevuhn” (My grandma’s affectionate name for Seven-Eleven) for the daily newspaper and some instant ramen. I’ve dreamed about lazy, sticky summer afternoons of walking down the street for a bowl of shaved ice at the corner store. My mom has described to me the wondrous awe elicited by hearing Whitney Houston’s sonorous, American voice through the radio for the first time. I had proudly called myself Taiwanese-American all my life, but what did I really know of my culture, my politics, my origins? How could I call myself Taiwanese when I couldn’t even speak Chinese properly? I was suddenly seized with a longing to experience the Taiwan that my parents had shown me a glimpse of through their stories.

In spring break of my sophomore year, I went back to my grandma’s apartment in Taipei for the first time in 6 years. I was so worried that my family and my cousins wouldn’t understand my Mandarin, more Chinglish than Chinese. I was afraid that Taiwan wouldn’t live up to my expectations, or perhaps that I, with my California background and American lifestyle, wouldn’t live up to the country. My fears were completely unfounded. Yes, I sometimes forgot the names of things in Chinese, and sometimes I’d struggle to put together complicated sentences, but I was also embraced with open arms and love by my Taiwanese family. As cheesy as it sounds, I realized that love transcends the myriad languages that we humans have constructed to hear each other through the noise. But in truth, I had always known this: my trip back home only confirmed it. My father has never said “I love you,” but he has spooned heaping ladlefuls of congee into my bowl and whispered, “你是我的小寶貝” with a smile when no one else was in earshot. Even though my mother and I don’t always speak in the same language, we have always understood each other on a deeper, intrinsic level than some of my peers who speak the same tongue as their parents. My mom is my best friend, my secret-keeper, my greatest confidant, and no language barrier can keep us from understanding each other where it matters the most. 

Going back to Taiwan was also extremely validating, not just linguistically but culturally. My family has had roots in Taiwan perhaps as early as the 17th century, when our Fujianese ancestors sailed across the Taiwan Strait to the island of Formosa. My grandfather bought our family apartment in the 1970’s, and our family has lived on the same street in Taipei for almost fifty years. Walking down the street in the humidity-soaked air, riding the tiny little elevator up four flights of stairs, taking my shoes off at the doorway, and finally entering my grandmother’s flat felt like coming home. I watched as my mother, who is more serious and reserved in America, seemed to grow a second personality overnight as she gossiped with my aunt in her native Chinese, or bargained with the fruit market owner for the freshest guavas.

For the first time in a long time, I heard the comforting sounds of Chinese– my first language– being spoken all around me. The people on the street looked like me, spoke my language. And I heard my little cousin practicing Hokkien, a language that I had always associated with old people (namely, my grandparents.). I have always had a complicated relationship with Hokkien. When I was little, my parents made a pact: my mother would teach me Chinese, while my dad would teach me Hokkien. Obviously, my dad didn’t keep up his side of the bargain or I’d be telling this story about Hokkien, not Chinese. Hokkien, which is sometimes called Taiwanese, or Taigi, is a dialect of Chinese that comes from the province of Fujian, but the two are not mutually intelligible. Every time my grandpa comes to my house, he speaks exclusively in Taiwanese. I can understand more than I let on, but my Taiwanese has its limits. I can’t, for example, make sense of him when he sits himself down at the dinner table and starts ranting about the stock market or the state of America in Hokkien. (This is deeply frustrating to me because he does it more often than you would think.) Whenever my grandparents come over I feel like I’m playing a game of Mad Libs that never stops– I can understand about half the words, but I have to fill in the other half and cross my fingers that it makes sense. It has always annoyed me that my grandparents don’t at least make the effort to speak in Chinese, a language that none of us feels completely comfortable speaking, but that we share in common. My relationship with Taiwanese is complicated, because although some fundamental part of me feels most at home when I hear it, I am also dizzy and befuddled when my older relatives speak it and expect me to respond magically.

But I also understand that Taiwanese is, for my grandparents, not only the language that feels “right,” but also an act of resistance. When the Kuomintang fled to Taiwan from China in 1949, they brought with them a crushing military dictatorship and an insidious blueprint to conform Taiwan to mainland China: language suppression. Taiwanese kids were beaten in school for speaking Hokkien, or other indigenous Taiwanese languages. In many multi-generational Taiwanese households today, the grandparents are the ones who speak it as their first language, while their children and their grandkids speak Mandarin Chinese. There is a disconnect between generations, and a fear that our language may die out if there are no efforts to teach it to our children. So hearing that my baby cousin was learning Hokkien in school as a program to reconnect Taiwanese kids to their roots was healing to me, and helped me view the language through a lens of possibility and resistance. 

If there’s anything I’ve learned from my efforts to speak Chinese, it’s that language is not a birthright. It can be lost without practice, given up to the pressures of mainstream society. But it can also be nurtured and brought back. It’s never too late to relearn or start to learn a language, even if it feels that way. Despite popular belief, language acquisition is a spectrum, not an on-off switch. It doesn’t suddenly come back in a day, or even a year. It requires deliberate practice and continuous effort. But, oh, the rewards! When I speak Chinese in my Taiwanese and English-tinted accent to my grandma, all I feel is love. Chinese is a gateway to the culture I have always looked for, a way to fight back against those who push for conformity. It feels, in short, like homecoming.

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