by Claire Liu, Naperville North High School
Contrary to what most would believe, my first language was Chinese. Spending the first couple years of my life under the wings of my lao lao (grandmother) and lao ye (grandfather), it was almost inevitable that I picked up Chinese first. My parents used to joke, with pride, that two-year-old Claire Liu had the best Chinese in the family.
Now my parents use the same joke with a hue of shame. “Had.” “Was.” These days, I can barely speak three lines of Mandarin before I sound foreign even to my own ears and I need to force myself to stop, close my eyes, take a breath, and start again.
What goes unseen are the one too many experiences of being admonished by classmates and teachers alike for using Chinese in the classroom. Years of being renamed as “Ching Chong” and “Ling Ling” took their effect and the 2 languages I knew became more like 1 ½.
Being silent wasn’t enough. Year after year, I watched as fellow Asian Americans in the news were villainized for speaking their language. Specifically, during the fall of 2020, Professor Greg Patton was removed from his position as a business professor at the University of Southern California (USC) after teaching the word “nei ge” (那个, “that one”) in one of his classes. In all honesty, when I saw this on the news, I wasn’t very surprised. For fluent Chinese speakers, “na ge” is a common filler, much like the sounds of “um,” “er,” or “like” in English. As the pronunciation is similar to the n-word in English, I have a trained anxiety to speak over my relatives whenever they slip into this habit in an English-speaking country. Without context, I know the possible consequences of using the word. However, Professor Patton’s context of teaching Chinese filler words during a communications lecture at USC failed to adequately resolve the issue and he lost his job.
This isn’t the first time the use of “那个” was misconstrued in America. In 2016, two men came to blows over a GuangZhou man’s use of the words. It is a common communicative error that remains unresolved in the US. Nevertheless, each time the issue appears in the media, I see continuous streams of comments from well-meaning, ignorant (at least I would argue) viewers asking why Chinese people simply don’t use the word. They “respectfully” request Chinese immigrants to stop using their language, a language that has been developed over the course of 5,000 years. Yet we are unable to question why English speakers can’t “kindly” break all their habits of constant “y’knows” or “uhs.” That would be a ridiculous request to make.
Without our language, we are effectively silenced. The voices of the Asian-American community are not only being suppressed, but it is done so under the guise of “privilege.” In November of 2020, the North Thurston Public School district in Washington separated Asian-American students from other students of color in their performance report. Not only were Asian-American students not listed with students of color, but they were grouped into a category with white students. The identity of Asian-American students are manipulated on the whims of a school district’s goals. Similar to the model-minority stereotype, Asian-Americans are consistently isolated and oppressed from the rest of Americans. Our language and our culture are effectively weapons to be used against us.
This past year I began the journey of reclaiming my pride as an Asian-American. As frightful as 2020 has been, it began with a hopeful charge. Early in 2020, the film “Parasite” drew massive attention as the first non-English film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. After 92 years, it had finally happened. As a film enthusiast, I had talked about “Parasite” with my father months before the awards, despite little hope for its deserved recognition in the U.S. As a child that dreamed of becoming a film director, I had already resigned myself to the exclusive success of English-only films for over a decade.
So obviously my emotional eruption when I saw director Bong Joon-ho stand on the stage of the Academy Awards and deliver his acceptance speech in Korean resulted in an enormous mess of tears, tissues, and snot. I am well aware that Korean and Chinese are two very different languages from two very different countries and cultures, but I had never felt that kind of pride before. The pride of looking at someone with the success I had always dreamed of for doing something I had never dared to do. Someone, who despite our different countries of origin, at least looked a little bit more like me.
The fight for linguistic equality is still ongoing. As an ARMY (BTS fan) myself, I was overwhelmingly enthusiastic and happy this year when the K-pop group BTS earned their first Grammy nomination. Still, I could not help the hint of disappointment and resignation when learning that it was awarded for their first (and only) English single, “Dynamite.” As catchy and impressive each of their performances of “Dynamite” are, the complexities of their majority-Korean songs this year such as “Black Swan” and “ON” have been ignored in American media due to the language barrier. No matter how many translation videos are put onto the internet, the easy excuse of non-English lyrics is thrown as a figurative glass ceiling.
By limiting success in the media and discriminating based on language, the U.S. has essentially stripped minorities of their identities and limited the condoned diversity of our country. From our daily lives to popular culture, Asian-Americans are continuously separated from both white Americans and other BIPOC Americans at our own expense. We cannot speak up in our own languages without increased threats of discrimination and the violation of our livelihoods. Speaking English without an accent is the only way to be rewarded. We are both literally and figuratively silenced from an artificial superiority of English. However, just as the eventual successes of “Parasite” and BTS have come with 2020, I choose to remain optimistic about the future. Through increasing awareness and education, split-second discrimination against Asian-Americans can decrease. As enormous as it is, judgemental ignorance can be defeated with time and effort. The world does not revolve around English. It is a conglomerate of diverse cultures, people, and languages. It is time that we grow to celebrate that.