Friday, February 21, 2014

You look Chinese. I'll greet you in Mandarin.

Today the Messiah College Alumni group asked for postings about first memories of Messiah College. Mine was a revelation about my family rather than about the college.

I posted: I heard my dad speak Mandarin for the first time in my life at Messiah. Dr Van Gorder, who visually you would not guess was fluent in Mandarin, greeted dad with a visual assumption that were were Chinese. (We're ABCs*.) And my dad, who even when we would visit the Chinese church he grew up in, listened in Chinese and responded in English, answered Dr Van Gorder in Mandarin as though he spoke it every day of his life.

* American Born Chinese

My mom tells how her dad, one time, tried to "encourage" (read: require) Chinese language in the household. He laid down a decree that only Chinese would be spoken in the house. And my mom's and her four sibs' response? According to mom, there was silence in the household for two weeks.

As for me, I'm 100% Chinese by blood. But I am such an ABC! Mom says that I, like her, am Chinese "until I open my mouth". On occasion, I've received compliments on my English. Sometimes that comes back to bite, though. The summer after my freshman year, I went to Kunming, Yunnan Province, China, with Dr Van Gorder and a team from Messiah. Because I looked Chinese, and beause we were working with Chinese college students and attending English Corners, often there was an assumption that I was a Chinese national who had latched onto the group.

Usually that was fine and actual nationals striving to practice their English were glad for me that I was trying to find my roots. But once we were in the midst of a road trip and I was sitting on the curb next to an African-American teammate. The bus driver said something to me with the assumption that I could translate for the American... when I haltingly told him that I was an American, and I was very sorry (two phrases I got very good at very quickly), he started railing at me! I learned afterwards that it was something of a diatribe on "How could you turn your back on your culture and your people?" I was taken aback, shocked into silence.

I'm not alone, though. Gene Luen Yang, who wrote such graphic novels as American Born Chinese and Level Up, both of which I highly recommend, is in the process of reintroducing one of the first Asian superheroes, the Green Turtle, from the Shadow Hero line. About his Chinese school retention, he shared (pictures in the link, towards the bottom):

If you compare [the] final art with my thumbnails, though, you’ll notice that the Chinese characters are different. That’s because I don’t really know how to write Chinese, despite having gone to Chinese school every Saturday for twelve years. I basically wrote the few characters that I remember as a placeholder, so in the thumbnails the Chinese banner reads, “Gene Luen Yang is a.” That’s right. That’s the net result of twelve years’ worth of Saturdays. I can write my name, “is”, and “a". I can’t even tell you what Gene Luen Yang is, because I don’t remember how to write “cartoonist” or “teacher” or “undisciplined Chinese student.”

Moral of the story: pay attention in your language classes, kids.

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