A few funny incidences have occurred in the last couple months that I’ve been wanting to revisit in order to develop some closure on a personal identity struggle that I’ve had with for years – which is what is my native language (母语). The answer is not as simple as you would think.
One of the first weeks here, I went with some peeps to a show at 2 Kolegas. After the show, I end up playing a game of billards against a Chinese guy who spoke pretty decent English himself. We mostly 聊天儿 in Chinese though. Randomly, a white guy (American, judging by the accent) came up to me and asked: “Where did you learn your English?” I blinked, and was like: “In America”. Watching his face you could sort of see the wheels spinning in his head furiously as he tries to determine what exactly I am. Correcting direction, he then asks: “Where did you learn your Chinese?” Straight faced, I answered: “In China”. Both answers are true.
Second incident, I go with a couple girlfriends to try out a Korean oysen (day spa!) in Wangjing (PS: best naked day-at-the-spa experience ever – although I recommend avoiding the free buffet – almost as gross as it sounds). As we’re paying at reception, a Chinese girl comes running up to me and asks “你是那学了英文的？那么好！我也要试一试。” I sighed and answered: “Turn your life back to the beginning and grow up in America.”
The first incident was interesting because I’ve never had a foreigner get confused about my English ability before. Usually foreigners hear me and know that I’m a Chinese American. I think he must have heard me speaking Chinese to my billard partner and thought I was actually Chinese….? Either that or he came from a part of America where he never encountered an Asian before….(do those places exist still)?
The second incident is a more common occurrence for me in China. For some reason, despite being fully aware of the existence of millions of people in the world who look Chinese but speak other languages, the Chinese all without fail appear to be astonished when I open my mouth and English instead of Chinese comes out. They are even astonished that I understand English. Once sitting down to dinner at a Xinjiang restaurant, the 服务员(server) asked me if I understood what my friends were speaking.
I’ve tried to figure out why they can’t seem to tell with me, because I’ve noticed they don’t make this mistake with some of my other Chinese American friends in China. I think one of the reasons is that I do have surprisingly 正式 (proper) Chinese 口音 (accent) that when spoken quickly and with brevity can sometimes fool people into thinking I’m a native Chinese speaker. This is largely because when I was little, I lived with my grandparents in Beijing for four years. So full disclosure — my first spoken language was actually Chinese. Having moved to Beijing at the age of 3, I learned to speak Chinese before I learned English. But then I moved back to the states when I was 7, and my parents were so afraid that I wouldn’t speak proper English that they hired a tutor, enlisted me in ESL at school, and spoke strictly English at home. The result, my English was perfect by the time I graduated elementary school but I 忘光了 (forgot completely) my Chinese.
Now, if you try to get me to do anything besides 1) expressing hunger and 2) canvassing taxi drivers what the Chinese word for “boobs” and “Hooters” are (胸部 and 猫头鹰餐厅 – in case you were interested), I remain, despite my best efforts, pretty useless in the Chinese language. My Chinese teachers have long dispelled me of any hopes of actually being a fluent Chinese speaker. They actually complain that I have the worst accent of all, some weird bastardized version of Chinese in which I have simultaneously a Taiwanese, Hong Kong, American, and Beijing accent. They throw their hands in their air in disgust with my every mangled “shi, si, zhi, zi,chi, ci, en, eng” sound I make.
Which brings me back to my original dilemma – what is my mother tongue? Where did I learn my English? 我本来在那儿学了中文？
My answer: Who cares? As far as I’m concerned I speak 中英语 (Chinglish) and that’s a good enough mother tongue for me.
signing off ~ your favorite ugly pony
*I would like to dedicate this story to one of the most important influences in my life – my ESL teacher Mrs. McCallister – without whom I would not be able to speak the “-glish” – may she rest in peace.