The City College of New York, CUNY
For me, language lies at the crux of my identity issues. My mother is Ecuadorian, and my father is Chinese. Being an East Asian presenting bi-racial woman of color has afforded me certain opportunities while barring me from others. As the daughter of first-generation immigrants from opposite corners of the Earth I am in constant battle with my ethnic identity. This fact is especially complicated by the pressure of my parents and peers to assimilate into white culture. My linguistic repertoire is a conglomerate of broken language that demonstrates my inability to fully identify within any community.
I was born and raised in a small town in upstate New York. My parents moved after my older sister was born in an effort to give us a better life than they had in the Bronx. I cannot blame them. The City is marred by their memories of discrimination, poverty, and crime. They grew up in a very different reality than the one I enjoy as a middle-class college student. How could they know how far removed I would be from our culture; could their staying have even prevented it? My sister and I grew up in a densely inhabited apartment complex. My mother called us “Latinese” to give a name to our mixed heritage. Small enclaves of Indian, East Asian, and Black communities grew with us. Our families were different than other families in the area. Other families had multi-level houses, driveways, and white picket fences. Other families who have been living here for generations; whose parents were college educated; who spoke “proper” English.
I remember grappling with illiteracy at age seven, still not able to understand how the symbols could make sounds. For years, I felt like I was holding my breath– like the inhale before reading a sentence aloud, only I could never read it. Finally, in first grade, I learned the basic conventions of English. For the rest of grade school, I focused on developing my command of the English language with the added pressure of using elevated vocabulary. My worth as a student was inextricably linked to my adept use of English. Being the daughter of a lower socio-economic family of color, however, heavily affected my ability to interact with the respective native languages of my parents.
Cantonese /ˌkantəˈnēz/ (noun) 1 the embodiment of my cultural estrangement. My father speaks broken Cantonese as he immigrated from Hong Kong when he was just two years old. My parents could not afford to send me or my sister to Chinese school where we would learn at least one of our native tongues. Even today, my understanding of Cantonese and Mandarin is very minimal. I carry an incredible sense of shame because of this. I feel as though I cannot connect with the culture that most closely aligns with my outward appearance. This has caused a lot of confusion in the way I navigate the linguistic world. I am frequently ostracized by my East Asian peers because of my inability to speak any Chinese dialect. Similarly, I find a lot of difficulty with my usage of Spanish language.
Spanish /ˈspaniSH/ (noun) 1 the false pretense of my ‘belonging.’ Although I am more familiar with Spanish, I still feel distant from my Ecuadorian roots. I am proficient in Latin American Spanish because it was taught for free in my public school. I studied Spanish in a formal setting from the time I was twelve to eighteen. Spanish holds connotations of maternal love and home life because of my mother. She often speaks on the phone with close friends and relatives in a Guayaquil dialect. I have always admired her adept handle of her mother tongue. While I have formal education in Spanish, I find it very difficult to practice out loud. I feel an overwhelming pressure to speak well because it is my culture which stifles my ability to perform. The fact that I do not look Hispanic manifests in the way I am usually overlooked by others within the community. Ultimately, my means of culture refugee came in the form of white assimilation.
The external pressure to blend into white American culture is perhaps the most pervasive element in my linguistic biography. At home I was raised by American television since my parents both worked full time jobs to make ends meet. My predominantly white town was corrosive to ethnic identity retention. I faced a lot of bigotry growing up for how I present in the world. For many of my peers who also belong to either of my racial backgrounds, they say I “talk white.” I used to find the English language freeing. As a poet I find my soul through creative written expression. In school I was recognized countless times for my poems and essays. I used to pride myself on my use of literary devices, syntax, and grammar. Once I entered college, however, I realized the discrepancies in my cultural capital. My white friends frequently point out my grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and misuse of words. Through thorough reflection, I realized it is because my parents do not speak or write properly at home. The nuances of any language are repeated, practiced, and ingrained over time. These gaps that exist in my only language remind me that I cannot lay claim to be a “true” American either. I am truly humbled by my inability to identify with any culture through language.
Communities of color use language as a vehicle for authenticity and solidarity. When a person fails to demonstrate proficiency in their mother tongue, their identity is called into question. As a Chinese-Ecuadorian American citizen I afford cultural access to three starkly different languages. The fact that I do not have a strong handle on any of these modalities of speech is my greatest source of shame. Most days, I feel like an illiterate child in the spaces which most align with my values and familial traditions. I know that once I find the courage to engage with my native languages, I will finally find myself.