I stared intently at the lunch menu. It was in Mandarin and had no photos. I was doomed. The only thing I could read was “vegetable rice.” Great, my least favorite dish. Embarrassed to expose my poor Mandarin reading skills, I had no choice but to order it.
Ordering food off a menu in Mandarin had never been my forte, but it has gotten significantly better over the 11 years I spent living in Taiwan. When I first moved to Taiwan from the United States as a seven-year-old, I often cried and complained about taking Mandarin class. I missed being back in America and longed to return in the summer. Whenever local Taiwanese people heard me speak fluent English and asked me if I was from the U.S., I would proudly nod my head.
Besides my youthful stubbornness, attending an international American school in Taipei did not help my Mandarin improve quickly, either. Most of my teachers were American, so I learned every subject and conversed with my peers in English. The only time I did not speak English was during my hour-long Mandarin class. I remember being in the most beginner class and having one-on-one lessons with my teacher to learn the Chinese alphabet. If I complained to my parents, they would threaten to transfer me to a Taiwanese local school.
As I got older and less attached to my naive American pride, I grew increasingly embarrassed about my poor Mandarin fluency. It became a constant source of shame. I got frustrated that I could not communicate with a native easily, and got irritated when local people tried to communicate with me in their broken English. I can usually get by with short conversations, but once I engage in certain conversations like politics and philosophy, the holes in my vocabulary begin to show and people start treating me like a foreigner.
I felt hurt. How is it that I spent 11 years growing up in a country where most people look like me and share the same history as me, but still get called a foreigner? At that point, I didn’t feel American either. In fact, when Americans ask me where I am from, I would answer Taiwan. No matter where I went, I was going to be called a foreigner. Naturally, I began to blame myself for my condition. It was my fault for not learning Mandarin more diligently. It was my fault for not going to a Taiwanese local school. Maybe I would have been better off if I stayed in the U.S. At this point, I was neither authentically Taiwanese nor an American.
All these negative feelings brought me great shame. My guilt for being disconnected from my heritage was eating at me. I hoped these feelings would go away when I went to the United States for college, but they only came back stronger. In everyone’s eyes, I was Taiwanese, but how could I qualify if I do not speak, read and write Mandarin like a Taiwanese local? How is that possible if Taiwanese locals see me as a foreigner?
As I began to think about why I was ashamed, I realized that I was trying to put myself in boxes that did not fit who I was. In my mind, I could only be Taiwanese or American, nothing in between. I did not see myself as Asian American, which I narrowly saw as people who spent most of their young lives in America. However, the more I thought about it, the more I became open to associate with this group because of our shared sense of displacement.
According to Pew Research Center, nearly two thirds of Asians born in the United States (65 percent) speak only English at home. Many parents do not teach their native language to allow their kids to integrate into school and avoid getting put into English language development classes. Many Asian Americans also have never set foot in Asia.
Although I did not experience the same level of pressure for assimilation that many Asian Americans growing up in the U.S. have faced, I do relate to the difficulty of improving one’s secondary language skills when fully immersed in an English-speaking environment. I experienced it during the seven years I spent in the U.S. and 11 years I spent attending an American school.
Our inability to speak our parents’ native language fluently, or at all, is not a result of our personal failures or our parents’ failures. We are simply the results of our circumstances and upbringing, which were not conducive to learning our parents’ native language. We do not owe it to ourselves, our family or the Asian American community to change ourselves. As Asian Americans, we are different from just being Asian or American. We are our own independent entity.
While it is an admirable pursuit to take steps to learn your parents’ native language, we shouldn’t do so out of shame or a sense of obligation. Learn it because it is fun and enjoyable. Learn it because you want to connect with your parents and heritage on a deeper level. Most importantly, learn it because you want to.
Alexander Chao PO ’25 is from Taipei, Taiwan. He enjoys reading about nutrition, watching anime, and road cycling.