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SPEAK! Re-learning Our Heritage Languages

Written by Pai

Graphic by Pai


QUIET! is the title of Silk Club’s bi-annual zine that features creative works about Asian and Asian American experiences. The name QUIET! refers to how our stereotypically introverted demeanor has been used as a means of belittlement and ridicule to our community. I was thinking of this meaning in relation to my relationship to my native/heritage language.


“SPEAK!” is my internal monologue when I’m frustrated at my lack of ability to freely express myself in Chinese, hence the title of this collection of experiences. Having complicated experiences with learning/re-learning our heritage language is a common theme echoed among many Asian Americans, and I have collected some of those experiences here.


What is your cultural and linguistic background?


Lisa: Vietnamese (+American lol)


Asela: I'm half Korean and half Chinese, but my mom is an ethnic Korean who grew up in Japan, so I'm more familiar with Japanese culture through her eyes. I speak English at home and only knew Japanese through TV shows my mom picked out. I only know very, very few words in Japanese, but I'm hoping to learn the language one day as well as Korean.


Melody: I’m Chinese, and I speak Mandarin Chinese and grew up in a household with both parents speaking Mandarin Chinese. I went to Chinese Sunday school up until I was about thirteen, at which point I promptly forgot most of what I learned. I recently began to re-engage with my culture and am making an effort to relearn now.


Alice: Half Chinese, half Vietnamese. Grew up with only Vietnamese culture because my mom (Chinese) was born in Vietnam. I went to various Vietnamese weekend schools. I went to an independent one that was on Saturdays and one that was associated with church on Sundays. I started the independent one (the Saturday ones) in elementary school and then in middle school I went to the Viet school with my church. Then I did it once more in junior year of high school at St. Thomas University where they had a Sunday Vietnamese Language learning program.


Pai: I was born in northern China and moved to the United States when I was in preschool, so that makes me a 1.5 generation (I think is what they call it). Mandarin Chinese is technically my "first" language but unfortunately is no longer my dominant language. My parents and I spoke mostly Chinese but we use "Chinglish" at this point.


What was your relationship with and attitude towards your heritage language growing up?


Lisa: Stable. That’s the first word that comes up — I’ve always consistently spoken Vietnamese with my parents at home, along with English here and there. I was eager to learn Vietnamese as a child but the older I grew I just got lazier. As a child, I attended Vietnamese classes every Sunday at my local Buddhist temple. Now, since I no longer take classes, I do miss taking all of those classes; however, my college schedule definitely wouldn’t allow for that.


Asela: My attitude towards Japanese is more like I wish I learned it at an early age. My mom wanted me to focus on learning English since I was born in the US. I watched a few Japanese TV shows, but I mainly speak English. Although I understand why my mom wanted me to learn English, I wanted to speak and write in her language. Now that I am older, I want to start learning my mom's language.


Melody: Mostly clueless? I kind of raise myself in books and literature, which is so ridiculously lacking in Asian representation that I couldn’t envision a life that involved my culture and heritage. So while I did put some effort towards learning my culture and language, I didn’t realize how much weight it would hold in my life until it was too late (about three years after I quit Chinese school, and about six years after I’d stopped trying in them).


Alice: Growing up, I spoke Vietnamese with my parents and didn’t mind at all. I used to sing Vietnamese nursery rhymes & watch Vietnamese shows with my mom. I noticed a shift in my attitude once I started attending elementary school. I started to be more conscious of my Vietnamese culture and would try to push it away. When I would go to school for Vietnamese I saw it as a burden, an extra class that I was wasting my time in meanwhile other kids got to enjoy their weekends. I eventually stopped speaking Vietnamese at home and my parents don’t speak Vietnamese with me as much as they used to.


Pai: It was the usual English for my school/social life and Chinese for my home life. I attended Chinese Sunday school from when I was 9 to 15. I spent my formative years in a nearly all-white school district in western Pennsylvania and internalized a lot of xenophobia and racism. This made me ashamed when my mom would speak to me in Chinese when my white friends were over at my house, and I felt that being bilingual was a "hindrance" to achieving a "normal" American childhood. I would lie about how "I didn't really speak Chinese that well," as if that would placate my racist classmates.


Why did you decide to re-learn your heritage language?


Lisa: Because I wanted to learn the language my parents spoke, but after 3 years of those classes, it was more so my parents wanted me to keep going than my own interests.


Asela: I mainly take self-taught, online classes for financial reasons and it allows me to organize and manage my time.


Melody: I switched to a high school with a much higher East Asian population and realized how much my culture and heritage actually mattered to me and that I wanted to know my heritage language. Then I started getting involved in fandoms of Chinese web novels and dramas, and it really cemented my desire to resume learning Mandarin Chinese. Currently, I’m mostly learning on my own, using some materials I begged off my mom. I tried Duolingo but it was weird and didn’t address what I needed to learn.


Alice: Although I grew up with Vietnamese culture, I also wanted to get connected to my Chinese side and hopefully share something with my mom through it. I’m relearning Vietnamese through language apps like HelloTalk (where you can talk to someone who is fluent in the language you want to learn; it also connects people from around the world) and DuoLingo, and I’m learning Chinese through classes at UT and getting a minor in it.


Pai: I was a liberal arts major, so we have to take a full sequence of a foreign language at UT. It didn't make sense for me to take any other language when my own heritage language ability was dismal. I wanted to be able to better communicate with my family members and feel close to my culture.


What were your thoughts and experiences as you began learning (or re-learning) your heritage language?


Lisa: Whew. I don’t remember most of it as I was in 4th/5th grade when this happened! I guess I was excited and maybe very confident because I knew Vietnamese much more than the other kids (in reading, writing, and speaking). I had a good time through all my years because I was more fluent but alas, laziness seeped in.


Asela: I had a difficult time communicating with people despite the fact that I was born in this country and English is my primary language. Thus, I was put in ESL classes for 9 years until I reached junior year in high school. Despite this, I still hope to sit down and find the time to learn my mom's language to better communicate and understand the culture, as well as learning Korean to get to know more about my heritage.


Melody: I‘m mostly really frustrated because there’s so much basic stuff I straight up don’t know. I’m always surprised whenever I actually know something, and I have had waves of hopelessness where I think I can’t do it, I’ve delayed too long, I’ll never be able to understand Mandarin.


Alice: It’s challenging at times, but I enjoy it. I did some relearning of Vietnamese over the summer and I felt more connected with myself and my culture. As for taking Chinese, it is definitely a struggle, and I don’t use it as often as I could, but it’s nice to be able to go home and speak to my mom in Chinese. I wish I could tell my younger self to not push away or be ashamed of being or speaking Vietnamese. Because now, being away from family, I feel the most disconnected from the culture that I grew up with.


Pai: I took the accelerated Chinese course at UT for "heritage" speakers, and it was a certain type of vulnerability being a college student but having to communicate among each other in an elementary level ability and in a language that I’m used to exclusively using in a home context. I noticed I began to understand more of my parents' conversations, but at the same time I realized how much of the words they spoke to each other were lost to me.


What is your favorite phrase in your heritage language?


Lisa: “Hư” which means naughty LMAO. It’s my favorite because I use it to playfully scold my family whenever they do something wrong that wasn’t serious, like getting dish bubbles on their sleeves or putting too much soy sauce in their rice. It’s my way of being sarcastic.


Asela: Kira Kira (Twinkle or pretty), Sakura (Cherry Blossom)


Melody: 糟糕 (zao gao) which means “disastrous”


Alice: “ Tại sao mày không uống bia?” “Why don’t you drink beer?” It’s just a stupid funny pick up line that obviously will never work but is good to have in your back pocket.


Pai: 过 分 (guo fen) is a phrase I find myself using a lot. It means “excessive” or “extra.” I also like the proverb “穷 家 富 路” which means live frugally at home so you can be a bit more lavish when you travel LOL.


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