Being half-Chinese, China, its culture, and its people has always been a part of my story. However, my relationship with the language has been a lifelong tug-of-war battle.
I was born in Sacramento, California, and spent my childhood years flying between Daly City, a small seaside suburb outside of San Francisco, and Hanjiang, my mother’s rural hometown village in the Fujian province. As my mother was born and raised in China, my siblings and I spent almost every one of our childhood summers in Hanjiang to be with family and friends. I event spent my preschool and 1st-grade years going to school in China, so from a young age I was somewhat familiar with the language.
I have fond memories of my childhood in China; playing hide-and-seek with my little sister in the crooked alleyways of our family’s siheyuan, watching Chinese soap operas with my grandmother in her enormous, mosquito-net flanked bed and attending my uncle’s red-saturated wedding in our own family’s courtyard. Going back and forth between China and the US every year was a normal part of my life, as well as speaking in different languages with the two sides of my family.
When I was 10, my family made the cross-country trek from the West Coast to the East Coast by minivan and settled in the Northern Virginia suburbs outside of Washington D.C. The summer trips to China stopped around this time and without frequent exposure to the language, my Chinese greatly deteriorated. My mother wanted me and my siblings to have the ability to speak Chinese so she enrolled us in weekly Chinese Sunday school classes.
3 years in 3rd grade
From 6th-8th grade, I dreaded every Sunday morning and refused to do any of my Chinese school homework. My aversion to learning Chinese came from a combination of pre-teen defiance against my mother and, like every other 13-year old American girl, the desire to spend my Sunday afternoons hanging out at the mall with friends or watching Degrassi reruns on TV. I was so adamantly against Chinese class that for those three years I didn’t progress at all, staying in the same 3rd-grade level Chinese class, memorizing the same characters, completing the same fill-in-the-blank grammar exercises, and reading the same texts about frogs in wells and snakes with feet. I was always the oldest, the tallest and the only half-Chinese kid in my class; I stuck out like a sore thumb. It wasn’t a good feeling to sit in the back of the same classroom every year, knowing that my Chinese wasn’t progressing but at the same time not wanting to “give in” to my mothers demands. As you can tell, I was a pretty angsty middle-schooler.
Before I entered high school, I was given an ultimatum: take Chinese in high school to fulfill the language requirement, or continue going to Chinese Sunday school classes. It’s not hard to guess what I chose. However, when I started Chinese classes in high school, I found that once again, the majority of students were native speakers and were all miles ahead of me in terms of language proficiency. I struggled to keep my grades up as I continued to dread Chinese class every week.
The trip that changed everything
During my junior year, my Chinese teacher told us about a study abroad opportunity called the National Security Language Initiative for Youth Scholarship (NSLI-Y). After three years of Chinese in high school with the same classmates, I was more comfortable with the language and no longer felt like an outsider among the native speakers. While I still found learning Chinese extremely difficult, I was intrigued by the idea of spending a summer away from home and meeting people from all over the country as part of the program. Not knowing what else I would do for the summer, I applied.
My summer in Nanjing through NSLI-Y was quite literally, the best summer of my life. It was the first time I had been back in 6 years and the China I experienced that summer felt like a different universe than the one I remembered from childhood. Whereas all my previous times in China consisted of family gatherings and following my mother around everywhere, this time I was with new friends from Pennsylvania, New Jersey and North Carolina (just to name a few).
Free of parental guidance, we lost ourselves among the underground markets at the Xinjiekou metro station, sweatily climbed Purple Mountain to its very top and discovered the delicious wonders of the shengjianbao shop at every street corner. My confidence in using Chinese grew exponentially as I bonded with my host-mom over our mutual love of beef noodle soup and bargained with street vendors for kitschy knick-knacks at the Confucius Temple Night Market. By the end of the summer, I was thrilled to be able to read street signs and navigate the public bus system by myself. Those six weeks in Nanjing completely changed the way I felt about Chinese, as I saw how the language I had been trying to reject my whole life finally had a practical use. China was fun, and I needed to actually learn Chinese to access all the best parts. With a newfound appreciation for my mother tongue and culture, I came back to the US eager to improve my Chinese language skills.
The summer after my first year at the College of William and Mary, I returned to China through the Critical Language Scholarship (CLS). I had decided to pursue a Chinese Studies major and came to China through CLS because of its intensive language immersion. This time, I traveled to Changchun, a small rural town in the Northeast, and stayed with a local Chinese college student named MingMing. With a strict language pledge put in place by the program, I struggled the first few weeks to communicate with MingMing solely in Mandarin and felt awkward anytime I tried. I also thought since we grew up on different sides of the world in two extremely different countries, we would have nothing in common and hence nothing to talk about. However, as my Chinese improved through my classes and I spent more time with MingMing, I was surprised by some of the trivial commonalities we shared: we both loved our sisters but absolutely could not tolerate them borrowing our clothes without asking, both shamelessly sang off key at KTV, both wanted to travel the world.
MingMing eventually became one of my closest friends on the program, as well as my first genuine Chinese pengyou. We shared meals together every week and stayed up late at night in our room trading stories, jokes, and perspectives; I learned about China through her eyes and she about America through mine. Looking back now, I’m dumbfounded I once thought another 20-something college student in another part of the world wouldn’t have some of the same pressures and aspirations as me. At the end of the summer, we shed tearful goodbyes as she promised to visit me one day in America.
My relationship with MingMing was eye-opening in showing me how cultural dialogue and mutual understanding between two countries is truly fostered at an intimate, person-to-person level. Because of my active efforts to learn Chinese and to understand her culture, I was able to connect with MingMing, learn about China through her eyes, and expand my own perspectives about being half-Chinese.
I realized my lifelong endeavors of memorizing characters and fill-in-the-blank grammar exercises had a function outside of simply fulfilling my mother’s wishes in being able to speak the language. Chinese was a tool to connect me to a whole universe of people living on the other side of the world, who all had unique stories to tell and perspectives to share, yet who were all a part of the understanding of my own identity and upbringing.
I came back to Beijing the following spring semester to continue improving my Chinese and, presented with the golden opportunity to intern with Golden Bridges & Project Pengyou, to contribute to the cultivation and curation of these unique stories and perspectives. Chinese is no longer the monster tugging on the other side of the rope. We balance each other out, working together to build bridges connecting people from different universes in the same world.