For as long as I can remember, the Asian-American identity had existed in various forms before I’d even known that being an ABC (American-born Chinese) was a thing. It was fed to me in drops and trickles: first through the works of Amy Tan, where I related strongly to her child protagonist Ying-ying St. Clair in the 1992 book The Moon Lady, the story of a headstrong and fairly obnoxious girl who goes through a journey of self-discovery during the Mid-Autumn Festival in China.
After that came my childhood hero, Mulan, who I encountered in a cinema at the age of five. I was completely smitten. She had a Chinese name and spoke English. Like me.
When I was nine years old, my family whisked my kid brother and me away for our first visit to Disney World. In the carbon-copy studio green screen photograph of the family, there I am: chin-length bowl cut, magenta T-shirt, a print of Mulan holding her umbrella – no white makeup, no battle armor. Almond eyes with a flick of delicately drawn lashes at the corners. I cherished these nuggets of representation and knew that if someone, somewhere, could find Mulan as cool as I found her, then maybe I could be too.
The Early Years, in Which I Make My First Friend, Who is Blonde
Before I came back to America as a just-out-of-toddlership child, I lived in China with relatives. I have no memories from this time. My earliest memories are of sheer terror, as my mother shuttled me off from day care to babysitter to day care, and I saw new unfamiliar faces every week.
I attended kindergarten at a primary school in town 20 miles away from Boston, where I was the only Chinese kid in my kindergarten class. It’s funny, the lucidity of the memories that we recall from childhood. Like brushing the dust off an old encyclopedia tome, where the cover title is as clear as it was 10 years ago.
It’s not just the names – Ms. Barry, my bespectacled teacher with the mouse-brown hair cropped short, Ms. Campbell with the foofy blonde style (which I now recognize as a distinctively 90s ‘do), and an entire ensemble of five-year-olds with wholly unfamiliar names: Annika. Brett. Pierce.
Yes, those are distinctively American white-kid names, which I hadn’t the tenacity to identify until just now. Do you know any Asians named Chad or Skylar?
And Brittany. Within my first week, Brittany latched onto me with a kiss on the cheek, announcing: “Lily, you’re my best friend.” This girl, man. She had the most blonde hair I’ve seen on a single person in my entire life. It rose from the crown of her head in a massive curly bouffant and cascaded down her back in golden tendrils. I’m not sure exactly why we were friends, other than the fact that Brittany had proclaimed it so. It’s amazing, the way children operate their lives on hearsay. Santa Claus exists because Mommy says so.
Brittany was also the most popular girl in my class. At the time, I was positive that it was because of her blonde hair. I felt immensely protected by her friendship. She’d prance in, kiss me on the cheek, and say things like, “I wish I was Chinese. Chinese people are so smart.” I wasn’t exactly exhibiting any symptoms of special precociousness or extraordinary intelligence, but it was the first time I’d felt how small and dark I felt next to this golden-haired lion cub of a girl.
The other time was when Ms. Barry corrected my pronunciation of “Shaw’s,” our local supermarket. During our cross-legged rugtime, my arm shot up to explain my weekend activity – that we’d gone to Shaw’s.
“We went to Shwoss,” I’d shared proudly.
“Sh-awwwwws,”Ms. Barry drawled firmly, flattening the vowel.
My face grew hot. Pairs of eyes pointed in my direction. “Shawwws,” I repeated meekly.
That evening, as my mother parked the Toyota Corolla in front of the supermarket, I demonstrated my newfound knowledge to my mother. “Schwoss is wrong,” I told her.
“Oh? What is it, then?”
“It’s Shaws,” I said. “Ms. Barry said so.”
From thenceforth, my parents never pronounced it the old way again.
The Next (But Still Early) Years. I’m a Kid From Chinatown. A Chinatown Kid.
A year later, I began elementary school at a school on the border of Boston’s Chinatown. By then, I had already forgotten how to speak most of the Cantonese that I did know. The demographic makeup of the school is 91% minority: about 60% Asian, 15% African American, and 12% Hispanic. As I progressed steadily from 1st grade to 5th, the number of white faces in the classroom numbered from one to two, and at most, three.
We spoke English. Our teachers spoke English. There was always one class, among the five or six classes that made up each grade, that was taught completely in Cantonese to a roomful of Cantonese-speaking kids, whom I casually dismissed as being too foreign with the sort of juvenile cruelty that children are so capable of (or maybe I was just a particularly horrible child, which I’m sort of convinced that I was anyway).
And at home, Chinese in any form had long disappeared. My baby brother, who attended local day care centers, jabbered in toddler-level Cantonese until he was old enough to attend school. And then, slowly and surely, his own Cantonese, like mine, disappeared.
The only practice I got with mother tongue came in an after school program I attended with a bunch of other Chinese kids. The program was administered by Kwong Kow Chinese School: an organization that had become such a fixture in my life as early as the age of six, the one that became the gateway to an entire glut of forced recreational pursuits.
Forced is maybe too strong of a word, but I can’t remember ever asking my mother to sign me up for not only dance lessons, but voice lessons, drawing lessons, Chinese painting lessons, and Chinese dulcimer lessons. I know I did them, because my Saturdays and Sundays were filled with these lessons, my father shuttling me from classroom to classroom.
My parents must have found a certain comfort in re-establishing my connection with a lost language. Simultaneously, they must have felt incredulous that despite enrolling me in a school that was basically in Chinatown, in a classroom where almost all of the students were Chinese, I was still speaking English at home to everyone – teachers, friends, to them at home, to my baby brother.
Because, you see, the Kwong Kow Chinese school was resolutely manned by Chinese teachers. They all came from Cantonese-speaking parts of China, a great majority from Canton province, and a great majority of those from Toisan (pinyin: Taishan). Most of them spoke little to no English. And at that time, we had plenty of Mandarin-speaking family friends (besides the fact that my father’s family had come from Hebei, close to Beijing), but the overwhelming influx of Mandarin-speaking mainlanders so visibly apparent in American cities today had not yet taken place.
I look back on these days with a sort of affectionate reflectiveness – how an army of Chinese schoolchildren emerged from the back door of a hulking primary school in Boston, Massachusetts, USA, chattering in English and Cantonese, only to be mobilized by the shrilly screeched orders of silver-haired teacher (there is nothing like the sharp bark of a Chinese woman to get children to behave).
And then we’d march, two-by-two, hand-in-hand, square backpacks bouncing on our backs, into a basement of a church, or another school, or wherever it was we were meant to do our homework until our parents picked us up.
At some point, Kwong Kow instituted Chinese classes after homework time. I envied the girls whose parents came to pick them up just in the nick of time before Chinese class began.
I tried to miss as many as possible, only because I felt supremely, sensationally, strikingly stupid in these classes.
Here’s how class would go. We were issued children’s Chinese textbooks. A single lesson’s script would sprawl over two pages – perhaps ten to twenty sentences in total, with illustrations on the bottom. Our teachers would read aoud short phrases, in clear ringing tones, while I scribbled what the words sounded like to me in English phonetics next to each Chinese character. Imagine an eight year old trying to make sense of Cantonese pinyin before she even knew pinyin was a thing.
Fat lot of good that did me, too, because when I revisited these pseudo-English translations later and sounded them out under my breath, they were always fucking wrong. What the hell is “haek?” Ha-ek? Hek? Heyk? I feel sorry for the teachers who constantly corrected me during my pathetic read-alouds. And when my mom appeared at the door, I shoved the books into my backpack and positively sprinted to her, rescued from my fate.
Despite the equality I’d felt only seconds before when we were all chattering away copying each other’s English homework and doing multiplication tables, my decided inferiority at Chinese never stuck out more.
In real life, the only moments I was called upon to summon what dregs of residual Cantonese there was left in my memory was in the snippeted encounters with my mother’s colleagues.
My mom worked in a community health center clinic on the first floor of my school’s building (a fact that my hideous bully of a fourth grade teacher made ample use of – often summoning my mother with a flourish to humiliate me for horrifically out-of-control slights like “having sneaky eyes” or asking for a pencil from a fellow nine year old).
And as such, they came in, white coat after white coat, exclaiming at how smart I must be as they peered over my multiplication tables (they weren’t that hard) or how big I’d grown for my age (can confirm I was “big”). Mommy had already put me through my paces at that time, where I rehearsed to her “Zhou San (good morning)” and memorized every single auntie’s name along with her accompanying perm. Donna Yiyi had the mid-length curly hair and the face that resembled a friendly bulldog. Auntie Pauline had the short straight hair and gave me expensive dolls every year for Christmas.
And every time one of them appeared, I summoned all my strength and language memory to nod and smile and understood where I could. Usually, the conversation revolved around me being impressive (“lek”) and pretty (“leng” – also, I was an emphatically inferior looking child, so they were also the kindest, most well-intentioned liars I’ve ever known), and I was rarely called upon to discuss the finer points of fourth grade social studies or fifth grade percentages.
I was safe. And the inkling of shame that I felt from not being able to discuss the finer points of social studies was buried as hastily as it had appeared.
The Later Years, in Which I Go to College and Try to Actually Learn Chinese Again
My years spent at Boston Latin School and Tufts University only solidified the extent to which I’d already left my language behind. The pockets of Cantonese that I’d been lucky enough to keep using with my parents’ colleagues and friends gradually disappeared as I grew older – along with fewer red packets at Chinese new Year and a near halt of Christmas gifts. Every month, there were fresh zits on my face. I learned to use eyeliner and lip gloss at the age of twelve, and learned to scrub it hard from my waterline after school every day (I have the permanent eyebags to show for it).
In a valiant last-pitch effort to save me from the demolition of both Mandarin and Cantonese from my psyche, right after my first year at Tufts, my parents enrolled me in what I thought was a summer exchange program at Tsinghua University in Beijing.
Despite that three-month period becoming a blur of cheap beer and lost phones and lots of new friends and strange new acquaintances, I manage to slow the steady demise of my grasp of Mandarin, a language I heard spoken daily between my parents but that I’d never used myself. Between ordering trays of vodka shots diluted with other questionable clear liquids in Mandarin, asking for directions from buskers near the Temple of Heaven, and taking quizzes (and scoring badly) in the local McDonald’s near my apartment with a private tutor, I lived a charmed, carefree, and altogether irresponsible life.
Two years ago, I took a flight to Guangxi, where all of my existing relatives live. My mother’s family lives in a single tall-storied building in Qinzhou, a 5 floor house with a roof, bedecked with eagle and dragon statues and portraits of my grandfather, who smoked cigarettes religiously and died when in his 70s. I saw him last when I was 11, suspiciously but gamely biting into the sticky mozzarella that topped my favorite food at the time: Pizza Hut pizza. This building was as luxurious as any I could have imagined: it was five floors and housed multiple aunts and uncles and bedrooms, and there was a bathroom on every floor.
I was 24 during my last visit. The first thing wasn’t the house. It was its surroundings. I’ve read about the advance of Chinese economic growth and seen it with my own eyes in our very own Chinatown – the new boba shops with their shiny signs and the pho restaurants whose signs flashed neon, grime gathering at the curlicues of its print. Gone was the swamp with the secret rock path that I’d carefully squished through many years ago. The sandy alleys in between our homes were gone. Instead, two blocks away, were new malls and new McDonald’s, manned by girls in perfect lipstick and freshly starched uniforms.
On the inside, the people were different too. There was my raucous second uncle, his hair now speckled gray – his left hand constantly quivering. Shuffling from room to room in his plastic indoor slides. My aunts had grown rounder in the middle. There were no babies in the house – something that I’d always counted on like an assembly line – oh, someone’s popped out another baby. Grime crept on the corners of the bathrooms and settled on the statues.
It was the same in Liuzhou, where my father’s family still lives. My Yeye, my grandpa, lives in the 7th floor of a old cement walkup. In southern China, climbing those stairs is annoying on a good (overcast) day and hellishly punishing at worst. You don’t know what heat feels like til you’ve done it – the salty sweat pouring from every possible pore – from your brow and your underarms, cotton shirt sticky and damp.
When I first entered, my dad raised his voice. “This….is….my….DAUGHTER!” he shouted in Mandarin. He waved his arms and pointed at my face. “My….DAUGHTER!” And then my Yeye’s face, year-worn and pockmarked, broke into an enormous smile. “Ey-yoooo!” he said. “This is your daughter?” I nodded mutely.
I watched Yeye bite into a cob of corn with gusto, his brows furrowing as he concentrated on this very serious task.
When I was 11, I had visited this very apartment. I climbed those seven flights of stairs with my entire family. My baby brother had fat legs and chubby cheeks and wore a blue baseball cap during every minute of every day. Yeye pushed figurines on him – plastic helmeted figures on motorcycles and plastic cars. And then, one day, he and my grandmother (Nainai) decided that they wanted to take us out for dumplings.
My Mandarin was barely passable at the time. I acquiesced, nervous and uncomfortable, ready to do my duty as an eleven-year old, despite not speaking a lick of Mandarin. The four of us, my Yeye, my Nainai, my 5-year-old brother and I, made a picture: silently boarding the local bus, spitting with smoke and dirt and fume, arriving at a shiny shopping mall’s 15th floor, where there was an open food court with plastic real-life displays of bowls of dumplings of noodles.
“What do you want?” they said kindly to us. We pointed and nodded, and I smiled as much as I could. I ate as many dumplings as I could that day, agonizingly aware of the lack of conversation. The silence. If Yeye or Nainai noticed, they gave no indication. Instead, they watched us with smiles on their faces, remarking to each other how big we’d grown, as if we weren’t there. That we were eating was enough for them.
When I write memoirs or pieces that provide snapshots of my life growing up, I cringe at the Joy-Luck-Club-ness of it all, despite Amy Tan basically having an entire monopoly on girl Asian American literature at the time – she was basically the Judy Blume of Asian American girls.
I mean, her book about Siamese cats got made into a PBS television show (the theme song to which I can still sing in its entirety. I have no regrets). In fairness, it isn’t a very complicated song, which is made up of the words “Sagwa is my good friend,” over, and over, and over.
In my own writing, I offered up predictable tropes like smelly lunches, wishing my parents were cool white parents like in the movies, and struggling with my Cantonese in Chinatowns. I never knew how bad the smell of pork-and-chive dumplings supposedly was until I eagerly released it from its Tupperware in a room full of fellow first graders for the first time.
I suppose it’s because of a deeply-rooted insecurity in my own experiences – that instead of offering me comfort and community, I worry that I sound like everybody else writing about the Asian-American experience. Like, the world doesn’t need another story about white kids telling me my lunch smelled bad and about tiger parents, playing piano, and the softly hidden but deeply persisting shame of losing my mother tongue.
I Become an Adult (Sort of), and Move to Hong Kong
“Why Hong Kong?” is a question that locals here ask me constantly – incredulously, playfully, eagerly. Why Hong Kong, indeed?
I could have (if the forces of the global labor market generously allowed) ended up in Beijing with its awesome marbles-in-mouth Mandarin, or maybe Shanghai, where the skyline glitters just as much.
Instead, I chose Hong Kong, a city that had existed as a centrepiece of the lost language of my childhood – where my friends from primary school had family and where I imagined I’d be transported back to my days spent in the South Cove clinic kitchen, where my mommy’s colleagues cooed at me in Cantonese and gave me red packets during the new year.
In retrospect, the ease of language assimilation was both a blessing and a curse. In sweeping naiivete and optimism, I saw myself emerge from a handful-years stint in Hong Kong, the picture of cosmopolitan worldliness and multi-lingual sophistication, so fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English that I’d make my parents cry.
Instead, I sit in bed, munching on a baguette a-la-Regina-George, Deliveroo and Food Panda bags littering my floor, cursing at myself for having somehow, someway done my taxes for Hong Kong and the US, and yet, my umpteenth year into adulting, still having no idea how to do my taxes.
It happens every year. My Mandarin? Rusty and unused, especially in the context of Hong Kong’s growing uneasiness and hostility towards mainland China. My Cantonese peeks out sometimes, making a shy appearance in familiar environments like when I’m ordering the cha siu or macaroni soup I loved to eat so much as a kid, or grunting directions at a cab driver who happily charges me for a twenty-minute ride that should last five (I say nothing during these moments, because although I’m older, my age hasn’t afforded me much more of a spine).
My Cantonese was phonically better, but my vocabulary remained about as rich as a four year old’s. Whenever anyone from home asked me if my Chinese had gotten any better, I shiftily changed the subject with a lengthy explanation as to how the business language work was English, and you know how a lot of people in Hong Kong, especially on the Island, speak English, and using English is just easier, you know, and I just feel like it’s not my fault that I didn’t expect to be using Cantonese as much! Hong Kong is just too darn easy to assimilate into!
Within 6 months, I signed up for private Cantonese tutoring lessons. They were at a language house in Wan Chai and taught both Cantonese and Mandarin. To my surprise, most people (including born-and-bred Hong Kongers) said I was an idiot for not learning Mandarin instead.
Despite my initial insecurity about the wisdom of my choice, I decided I didn’t care. Cantonese was my first language. People spoke Cantonese in Hong Kong. I lived in Hong Kong. I should speak Cantonese. Logical. I was being logical.
I spent a handful of weeks schlepping to the language school right after work, laughing with my teacher and letting her correct my shoddy-at-best pronunciation. I asked for homework. She shrugged. “Well, a lot of my students have busy day jobs. I don’t really like assigning homework because I just feel like people need to learn at their own pace,” she said dubiously.
Well damn. Who was I to say give me homework?! My inner nine-year-old won. No homework it was.
And in my day-to-day, I used English. The weekly classes ended, and I slunk back to my apartment on Hong Kong Island, with expat bars in my streets and bougie supermarkets near my office.
Today I still rehearse phrases and hastily-put-together sentences under my breath, the way my mother taught me to. I confidently order roast duck over rice in restaurants and balk when I hear Cantonese on the phone at work. I haven’t learned to read Dream of the Red Chamber in its original Chinese text or amassed an army of local friends. Instead, I while away my time with American-born Chinese like myself or European expats. And bury my three-years-in-the-making guilt.
I am a product of diaspora. I left my language because of complacency. Because of shame. Because there wasn’t a future where I could see myself using it. But by the time that future presented itself as not a remote impossibility, but as a definite reality, the thread that bound me to it had become sparse and thin. Is there a future for me and my language?
Can I learn the stories of my mother, of my father, and of the quiet hordes of family relatives who live in Guangxi today?
In September of last year, I was there. I hugged my aunt tightly and felt joy to be there. I walked visited the fishing docks with my dad, and returned home in the evening to full houses, Cantonese and Mandarin swirling all around me, their affectionate and loving voices echoing, saying nothing.