Say Something in Chinese

When I was a kid and my white classmates learned that my first language was Mandarin, they typically had one of three reactions:

“Really? Was it hard to learn?”

“So how did you learn English?”

“What’s my name in Chinese?”

Whatever their initial reaction, it was usually followed with the command, “Hey, say something in Chinese!”

When I was very young, I would oblige by commenting on the weather or their outfit, but I eventually got tired of feeling like a Mandarin-speaking sea lion and learned to respond with, “Something in Chinese,” which usually made it clear that I was not interested in continuing the conversation. I have only recently begun unpacking some of the resentment and confusion I felt toward my cradle language.

My parents settled in the Midwest among a community of highly educated immigrant Chinese professionals. We attended a Chinese church and most of the kids I grew up with could speak a smattering of Mandarin, Cantonese or Taiwanese. But in those days there were no trendy Mandarin immersion schools or Mandarin-speaking kids shows, so our cradle language was quickly subsumed by English. I dutifully went to Chinese school two hours a week from first grade through middle school, but I resented the extra class time and homework. Despite my attitude, I clinched the speech competition year after year, which I sometimes suspect was due to my deeply entrenched study habits rather than any latent gift for gab. I outperformed my peers linguistically overall, to the delight of my parents and their Chinese friends. “Wah, hao bang, ah! Your Mandarin is so good!” they cooed, and I would do a few more verbal backflips in response to their applause.

Many PAAC members I spoke to share similar memories of sitting sullenly through language school, or perhaps skipping it because Saturday morning cartoons took precedence. But others, like my older cousins, grew up in the 1970s when it was much less common to teach children Mandarin or Korean or whatever language their immigrant parents spoke. Some have parents who didn’t want their children to face the same prejudices they did, and thus wanted their children to speak flawless, unaccented English.

A lot of us have experienced some kind of cradle language renaissance during college, even though many people also reported a steep drop-off in their language ability after leaving home. Perhaps we got homesick. Some people, like me, took academic language classes to atone for quitting Chinese school several years earlier. Others immersed themselves in Asian pop music and television dramas, often picking up a large vocabulary about love or martial arts that I never found in my textbooks.

In college, separated from my family for the first time, my mother tongue became a way to seek, or perhaps form, my identity. During freshman year, I proudly tested out of entry-level Chinese in order to take the courses designed for semi-fluent speakers that emphasized reading and writing. I did well enough until the upper-level undergraduate course, when the materials were only written in simplified characters  (jianti). I had read traditional characters  (fanti) my entire life, and suddenly the words that had once been familiar seemed like strangers. I quit my Chinese studies after that course and focused on my chosen majors, one of which was, ironically, English.

I never got to use my Mandarin much as an adult, despite sometimes claiming proficiency on resumes and job applications. (And squirming awkwardly when asked whether I could translate marketing materials into Mandarin, or would I consider teaching Mandarin classes in addition to my 150 biology students?) My spoken fluency has gotten progressively rustier and my writing skills, which never made it past a third grade level anyway, atrophied even more. But after becoming a parent, my cradle language has reemerged in unexpected ways.

After having a half-Chinese child and moving to an even smaller and more remote Midwestern college town, I now find myself speaking more Mandarin than I have since freshman year of college. The large research university brings in a plethora of Chinese faculty, postdocs and students, some of whom send their children to the same daycare my son attends. My interactions with those parents typically follow a set arc as well:

We look at each other, possibly making eye contact, possibly not.

The international families are speaking fluent Mandarin, while my child jabbers away in English. I am dressed in the typical white suburban mom uniform of leggings and a T-shirt. Very clearly Americanized.

We glance at each other again, and somehow … they can tell that I speak Mandarin!

They make their way over to me and start speaking excitedly and very, very rapidly, in Mandarin.

I respond haltingly, “I also … have this son … of two years. My husband is a … big after-graduation science man. And an American.” (This is my way of covertly begging them to speak more slowly and simply.)

No one ever seems to slow down or bat an eye. So either my Mandarin is not as bad as I feel it is, or they don’t want to embarrass me by talking to me like I’m seven. Either way, I’m left catching only half of what they say, frantically assembling context clues in my head, and either replying like a slightly slow child  or smiling politely until the conversation is over.

I confess that I sometimes resent this pattern as much as I resent being a sea lion for white people. I know I should feel grateful for the chance to practice my mother tongue. I know no one means for me to feel stupid or excluded. But I try to speak slowly and clearly when someone acts like they’re having difficulty understanding what I’m saying. I go out of my way to speak their language. Would it kill them to try and speak mine, or at least slow down?

But then I remember that these parents either spend most of the day working with people who don’t speak their most comfortable language, or they’re at home not speaking to anyone over the age of three. That I can definitely understand and sympathize with, whatever the language! So fumbling over my sentences may be the least that I can do. (And one of these days, I may beg one of these Chinese parents to take pity and actually tutor me in Mandarin.)

Truth be told, I miss hearing and speaking my cradle language. I regret losing so much of it because I was hiding from that part of my identity, and I fear being unable to teach it to my child.  I’ve experienced the great gulf between me and my own family members caused by linguistic, geographic and cultural distance. I recently lost my last remaining grandparent, a woman who was born a few short years after the Republic of China was founded, who survived World War II, the Chinese Civil War and the flight of the Kuomintang to Taiwan, from whom I like to think I get some of my entrepreneurial spirit (and almost certainly my temper). Because I lacked the  fluency to communicate with her beyond, “I’m hungry” and “No, I don’t have a boyfriend yet,” most of this history and heritage is lost to me, except for a few precious stories.

Many other Asian-Americans also find themselves newly galvanized to relearn their first language when they have children of their own or face the loss of older family members. And thus as the generations turn over, language becomes not just something we’ve lost but something we find again and make new meaning from. There’s a wide range of how we’re teaching our kids their heritage language, sometimes dependent on how much we ourselves know, sometimes not.

Many of us have parents who can provide our children with Chinese, Japanese or Korean language exposure or, in some cases, waipo’s Taiyu bootcamp. Some are able to send their children to Mandarin immersion school, while a surprising number have placed their children in Spanish immersion programs while speaking a variety of languages at home. I don’t have any of these options, but I’ve taught my two-year-old to count to ten and sing “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” in Mandarin, which is good enough for now.

I’ve sometimes questioned whether my child will ever be “American enough” to survive in an era of xenophobia and immigration battles, but perhaps I need to make sure he is Asian enough to hold onto his heritage in a country where he is a minority. As I haltingly reclaim my and his Chinese-American identity, the Mandarin language becomes more than a performance or an academic subject to study. It becomes a profound means of connection and belonging, even when I stumble over discussions of potty-training with the Chinese parents in my son’s daycare. My friend Melinda Tan told me of a recent trip to Taiwan where she was able to translate Taiwanese for her children: “In a way it was a relief to know I could fall back into not only speaking Taiwanese, but ‘being’ Taiwanese, in a way that I cannot in [New Hampshire]. When I speak the language… I fall into another way of being, not just in words but [in the] connection that I feel with other people. My kids felt a sense of belonging when we visited.”

I suppose that connection  is what I’m trying to maintain when I encourage my son, “Say something in Chinese!”


Jennifer Duann Fultz is a Taiwanese-American freelance content writer and digital marketing consultant whose parents probably still don’t quite understand what she does but are proud of her anyway. She lives in the Midwest with her husband and son. In her spare time she enjoys reading, cooking, trying to plan her life in advance and pretending to organize her home. Her website is aminusmama.com.

Unanswered Prayers

“God, You are sovereign and you know all things. Your love knows no bounds and is lavish. I am grateful for your love and grace in my life. I want to do your will and I want to know Your heart. When words fail me, hear my heart in prayer. Will you give me the gift of praying in tongues? If it’s your will… Amen.”

I felt a strange comfort when I first heard people praying in tongues around me. I was eight or maybe seven years old. My mom brought me to a revival at a local Korean church because some famous preacher from Korea came. It was rumored that the Holy Spirit was with him and he was slaying people in the Spirit. I didn’t understand too much because the Korean words being preached were unfamiliar. As I looked around that cavernous sanctuary, I saw all these people lying on the floor. The preacher was praying for people and then at the moment he would touch their forehead, they fell backwards into the arms of two people who were the designated catchers. They would gently lay the person down on the floor. I don’t know why, but I remember it being unusually warm in there and noisy. So many people saying what seemed like a Buddhist chant that my great-grandmother used to repeat. I looked around again and saw that my friend was getting prayed for and I saw him fall backward. I can’t remember if it was me or if it was my mom that initiated it, but all of the sudden, the preacher was in front of me. I don’t remember what he said or the questions he asked, but I felt the firm push of his hand on my forehead. I expected my eyes to close and my body to fall backward, but I didn’t. I faltered back and then gingerly walked back to my seat with the cacophony of prayers and shouts surrounding me. 

Why hadn’t I been slain in the spirit? What was wrong with me? Did God’s spirit not want to be in me? Did I not believe enough? I walked away with the impression that I didn’t want it enough, or that I lacked enough faith. More than feeling rejected, I felt confused. Maybe I didn’t understand what the preacher was saying so it didn’t happen for me. To this day, I still wonder why it happened for so many, but not for me? 

Many years later at a high school retreat, my very Presbyterian Korean church had several instances of praying in tongues, people being slain in the spirit and even some holy laughter. Again, I felt like an outsider. Why was my faith not enough for me to experience these apparent gifts of the Holy Spirit? I prayed every day to experience the Holy Spirit’s gifts also and I asked for God to increase my faith. I prayed that God would help me to get rid of any hidden sins in my heart. When it came time to graduate high school, I was whisked off to another retreat where two people with supposed gifts of prophecy prayed for me. One pastor gave me a verse – Numbers 6:24-26: The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine on you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.

It wasn’t exactly what I was looking for because it seemed like a generic passage to me. The other person prayed furiously in tongues, but no one was there to interpret or tell me anything. That was the first time I prayed asking for God to give me the gift of tongues. These pastors and people looked like people who were anointed and highly spiritual. They were the ones chosen by God and I desperately wanted to be chosen. 

Growing up with Buddhist grandparents that converted to Christianity later in life and somewhat Christian immigrant parents who really went to church for community and to be with other Koreans, I didn’t fully grasp the concept of religion and God. Going to church was the thing to do on a Sunday like going to Korean school was the thing to do Saturday mornings. You just did it. But I constantly felt conflicted. 

When I got to college, it was the first time I had the choice to go to church on my own. It was scary to suddenly have a lot of freedom and I wanted to go with what I was used to. Campus ministry felt too wild and uncertain, but the English ministry of a Korean Presbyterian church felt familiar and safe and there was really only one big one that had a huge college ministry. I immediately got swallowed up in this church and did everything I could to seem like the perfect Christian. But there was one big thing that I felt was holding me back – I still couldn’t pray in tongues. It was a prayer that I prayed for so long and now, as a college student, I felt silly that I still had not received this gift. Again, I asked myself, “What’s wrong with me? Am I even saved? Is it because I was not slain in the Spirit? Did I miss God’s Spirit? Am I not Christian enough?” After a year of asking these same questions, I finally found the courage in me to ask one of the college ministry pastors about it. He simply said to me, “You should ask God to give it to you and He will give it to you.” Was it really that simple? Because I’ve been asking since I was a kid and still nothing. So I pressed the pastor, “What if you ask and you don’t receive this gift?” He looked at me and said, “I guess it wasn’t God’s will.” Up until a few years ago, I earnestly prayed for the gift of speaking in tongues. After some reflection this past year, I’ve come to the realization that this is an unanswered prayer. 

In my wrestling with this unanswered prayer, I’ve grown a tremendous amount in my personal faith. Those questions I was asking myself? I found answers to them – unexpected answers. And the questions didn’t stop because the answers led to more questions. I sit in the tension of my many questions and it has not only drawn me closer to God, but it also revealed to me that my upbringing and my early faith experiences missed a lot about God and faith. I never picked up the Bible to read to see what it said for myself until a few years ago. I still have moments where I feel conflicted because it still sometimes seems that the Christianity I adopted rejects the very core of who I am and how God created me. The Korean part of me has been denied culturally as a Christian. There are certain traditions that our family shied away from practicing and participating in once we started going to church and it stopped completely when my grandparents adopted Christianity. I had to let go of my Korean-ness in order to be fully recognized as a Christian. Sometimes, the institution of church made it seem like God was saying to me, “You can’t be Korean and Christian. You have be one or the other. You choose.” God also created me to be outspoken and loud with a bent toward fighting injustice. Traits like that were fine if you didn’t identify as a woman. It always felt like I had to choose one or the other – that I couldn’t be both and still can’t be both. But I’ve finally started embracing the gifts that God has given me instead of wishing I had the gift that would make me fit in with a group of people who wanted me to conform not transform. 

“God, You are sovereign and you know all things. Your love knows no bounds and is lavish. I am grateful for your love and grace in my life. I want to do your will and I want to know Your heart. When words fail me, hear my heart in prayer. Thank you for making me the way that you have made me and for the gifts that are unique to me. I want to change the world for You. Amen.”


Phyllis Myung is a writer, mom, wife, sister, daughter and friend. She primarily works as the director of children and youth at her church in Boston and is passionate about families, mental health awareness and hamburgers.

Website | Instagram

“Are you there, God?” It’s me, Nancy Emmanuel Hugh.

Dear God – if there is a God:

Am I doing this right? Is this thing on?

Hello, my name is Nancy. I am six years old. You may know me from being God. Today, I would like to share with you my prayer, which is that I would like to be white – that is – to not have a color and a question mark. To be a Reynolds, which is Steven’s last name and also the name of the tin foil, or a Hellman, which is Stacey’s last name and also the name of a mayonnaise, which is also white but is also HELLMAN, which I would not like for you to send me, which is why I am talking to you.

Anyway, how are you? Oh, hm, that’s nice.

I think being white means you can play out in the ditch when it floods and you can eat Gushers and you get grounded (please explain this? Are you put in the ground?) instead of smacked around. Maybe if I shut my eyes and count to ten, I will open them and wake up colorless.

Dear God – if there is a God:

You may have heard by now that Nancy is not my real name. It’s the name that Vicky – my mother’s nice white friend – gave me and told me I should use because I’ll fit in better at school with an American name. So, I think that makes Ophelia my Chinese name? But I think I have another Chinese name.

But I don’t have a middle name, unlike Cara Anne Matthes or Beth Anne Butler or Casey Anne Jordan. So I thought I’d pick one for myself, and it iiiiiiis… Emmanuel!

What do you think? I think it’s so pretty and girly and I think it’s the long version of Emma, so it’s like Emma Anne DeLonghi’s name but more original.

To be beautiful, you have to be blonde and to have blue eyes, as you know since you look like this too, but I’ll settle for green or even for brown like Helen Moy has, but they have to be light enough that people can tell they aren’t black. So, not like a fermented black bean, please, and more like a Taco Bell bean.

Today in math, we played Around the World with multiplication tables, and I got that 1 x 3 = 3, but what came out was “SAN!” and then afterward, Brittany said, “three,” which was the right answer, and I was so embarrassed. Should I have said nothing instead?!

Dear GITIAG:

Do you know Stephanie? She looks like a mix between who I am and who I wish I were. I sneak out during classes to watch her paint. (Don’t judge me; you would sneak out too if you already knew everything.) Stephanie is an older girl, which means I should pretend I’m cool so maybe she’ll forget I’m 13.

She’s painting a mural on the school hallway, and her hair is short and her voice is like smoke and she has paint on her white tank top. I don’t know why I keep coming back to watch her. Obviously because she’s very good, and I want to be an artist too, or at least look like one, as you can tell by all the black I’m wearing. I hope she never finishes the painting.

Someday, I’d like to be as good at something as Stephanie is at painting.

Dear GITIAG:

I’ve decided you don’t exist, which makes being angry at you really hard. Because now who else do I blame but myself for this predicament (good PSAT word – level I) in which I know the boy I’m dating is using me, but maybe it’s fair because I’m using him too – testing the prayer that I could love a boy and make my mother happy. (He’s just her type.)

High school is hard so far – thanks for asking. If I still had a Top 8, let’s just say you wouldn’t be on it. I changed the spelling of my last name so people can’t find me (but I hope they like my profile song if they do). Now it’s “Hugh,” so it’s like the same, only different.

Have you heard of the Day of Silence? I’m going to do it: a whole day where no one can ask me to talk and I don’t have to answer any questions.

Also, have you heard of Linkin Park? They’re a band. Backward, their name is Krap Niknil.

Dear GITIAG:

Hey – are you ignoring me?!


Ophelia Hu Kinney is a second-generation Chinese American, the daughter of circumstantial pragmatists, and the sister of a hopeful romantic. She lives in Maine with her wife and cat. Her fiction has appeared in The Common, Inheritance Magazine, and HESA Inprint. To read more of, and more beyond, this lifelong story of queer Christian identity, visit QueeringTheKindom.com.

Perfection is a Lie We Tell Ourselves

I’m turning 40 this year. Today, in fact. And honestly, I think I am going through some kind of mid-life crisis.

For the first time ever in my life, I considered walking away from my 4 children and husband. Just open the front door, walk out, and keep walking.

This is especially disheartening since I was abandoned by my father and I had thought myself better than this.

I had hoped, anyway.

There’s nothing particularly wrong. We lead a good, comfortable life. I love my children. I love my husband.

And yet. And yet.

I feel trapped. Resentful.

Angry.

Seething.

There is no declaration of wonder and awe and gratefulness like the Talking Heads song, Once in a Lifetime. “This is not my beautiful house. This is not my beautiful wife.”

No.

Instead, the other day, I screamed and screamed. I couldn’t stop screaming. The screams just kept pouring out of my throat until I finally managed to stuff them back into my insides.

Swallowing my bitterness as I was taught.

Swallowing. Always swallowing.

My 22 month old baby boy just stared at me; frozen.

I can’t quite recall what happened to rip such a primal sound from my core, but I guarantee you it was not serious enough to warrant any such thing.

THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL LIFE.

THIS IS NOT MY BEAUTIFUL HOUSE.

THESE ARE NOT MY BEAUTIFUL CHILDREN.

The irony is not lost upon me: I got everything I wanted.

I have my beautiful house. I have my 4 beautiful children that I asked for and got in quick succession. I have my decent, loving husband who is not necessarily beautiful but still extremely attractive to me and at this stage in my life, what else was I expecting?

Actually, I take that back.

He is beautiful.

Who else but a beautiful man would put up with my shit without ever once martyring himself? He is a unicorn.

And yet. And yet.

I am furious.

Why am I not keeping up my end of the bargain?

I got everything (or almost everything) I wanted so why I am so sad? Why am I so lonely? Why does everything feel so bad?

Why do I feel as if I’m living a stranger’s life and everyday, I’m stuck in this slog of parenting, this endless parade of literal and figurative shit? I mean, I begged for these children but did I really think it through?

I feel as if I’m some Sheryl Crow cliche.

And it hits me.

Even if I got what I wanted (or thought I wanted), the problem is that I’m still stuck with myself. I tell myself that if just XYZ happened or my life was XYZ that I’d be ok. Everything would be fine. I’d be better. I’d be satisfied.

But it’s not true.

In the end, there I am. Still.


Virginia Duan is an author/writer and incapable of writing in brief. She swears. A lot. She also finds it almost impossible to refrain from commenting online for the sole purpose of making people admit they are idiots. Fatal flaw is fatal.

Website: https://mandarinmama.com

Practice over Perfection

“If you are depressed you are living in the past. 
If you are anxious you are living in the future. 
If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
Lao Tzu

Hello, my name is Marsha, and I am a recovering perfectionist. Somewhere between striving for straight A’s and drilling scales on the piano, my joy for learning became a twisted drive for praise and perfection.

 

Perfect daughter. Perfect sister. Perfect student. Perfectly anxious all the time.

Fear of failing after being praised for being “so smart”, but also questioned as to why I only got a 103 on an 100-point test when there was a 5-point bonus question.

Learning to see my body as a thing to be judged and ridiculed when relatives repeatedly compared me with a cousin in a game of Who’s Fatter This Visit?

Fear of displeasing my parents and bringing unrelenting judgment from elders. Never Chinese or Thai enough. Too loud, too athletic, too boyish, too opinionated.

Fear consumed my curiosity and joy. To combat my fears, I chose to battle the judgments and expectations with perfection. Somehow, I thought trying to be perfect would free me from the judgments of others, to find peace within. Instead, perfection trapped me between the depression of the past, all the mistakes I could not change, and the anxiety of the future, where failure could happen at any moment. By college, the disease of perfection progressed to self-loathing. Who could love someone so flawed? Why should I even try if the possibility to fail exists? Nothing I do is ever good enough. This must mean I’m not good enough.

I was about 4 years out of college, struggling in a stressful job, drowning in an unhealthy relationship, when I realized something had to change. With this realization, I carried all my anxieties, sadness, doubts, and fears into the hot room the first time I walked into the hot yoga studio down the street.

My face felt like it was going to melt off in the humidity. Nothing would be left of me but a puddle of sweat and a yoga mat. As the class began and I attempted to move my body with the teacher’s instruction, the heat began to strip away what I carried into the room, leaving behind only what was necessary. To survive the heat, the bright lights, and the glaring reflection of myself in the mirrors, I had to put down my baggage and dig into strength I didn’t realize I already had.

After final savasana, the cool air rushed over my rosy-pink face as I walked out into the air-conditioned lobby. Despite looking like I had just fallen into a pool with my yoga clothes on, I felt light, clean, and unburdened by the baggage I had carried into the room just 90 minutes before.

In that moment I knew I had to make a choice to change: do I keep choosing perfection or do I choose a new path and let the illusion of perfection go?

I came back the next day. And the next. And the next, for 60 consecutive classes. The heat melted the walls I had built up around my heart. The structure of the class built a bridge between my mind and my body, giving me a chance to observe myself without judgment. In a room full of mirrors, there is no hiding. I came to appreciate the connection with myself through my own reflection, to check in and show myself compassion – arguably one of the hardest things I learned how to do.

After each class, I left the hot room a kinder, more patient person. I found a deeper well of empathy for others and the ability to listen with intention. I discovered how to make space for my own self-care, how to be fully present for others.

Over time, the priority in my yoga practice has shifted from finding depth in a posture to a mental practice of courage, determination, strength, patience, and awareness. I now approach the postures with curiosity, how my body feels journeying into and out of the asana, being fully present in the moment instead of anticipating how deep I could bend. In the same way outside the hot room, I shifted my life from trying to be perfect and now choose to approach life with awareness and curiosity for what each day brings. I’m much more interested in living than being.

The courage I found to walk into the hot room each day became the courage I used to leave an unhealthy relationship and punishing job.

The determination and strength I cultivated by getting into certain postures again and again after falling out drove my decision to move back in with my parents as a necessary step to applying for graduate school and switching careers. I knew I could persist and make it happen someway, somehow.

The awareness of my breath gave me the awareness to recognize my old perfectionistic behaviors during stressful times and stopped me from repeating old patterns of behavior.

Most importantly, however, my practice taught me how to love and accept myself exactly As I Am.

As I continue my practice, I am often reminded that it is a yoga practice and not a yoga perfect. Life isn’t perfect because it is so much more. I use to say that yoga changed my life, but I’ve come to realize that I changed my life.

Yoga gave me the path. I walk it.

 

About the Author: Marsha Ungchusri is a Chinese-Thai-Texan-American currently living in the DMV area. Grocery shopping is her shoe shopping. When she isn’t practicing yoga, you can find her experimenting in her kitchen, refining recipes and flavor combination to feed the people she loves. You can find her cooking adventures @princesshungry and bite-sized reflections of her yoga practice @marsha.fierce.