guest post by emily chang: the curse of the chinese school cheater

Aloha! I'm on vacation, taking a much-needed break from blogging for a bit. But it's all good, because I've enlisted the help of some great guest bloggers to keep things going around here. Here's actress/writer/producer Emily Chang who wishes she had paid more attention in Chinese school.

When I audition for a part that requires speaking Chinese, I'll call my mom in a panic, asking her how to simplify sentences written by Hollywood screenwriters. I once read for a role in a Guillermo del Toro movie and I translated dialogue into Chinese that had the eloquence of, roughly, "I come from there. When I remember stuff, I remember bad." (Stunner: I didn't get the part!) Around me, dozens of other Asian actresses frantically called their moms too, asking how to say this or that before the casting director called them in.

It's finally here, the time my parents warned me would come: The day I'd regret not paying more attention in Chinese school.

The principal's daughter, I alternately studied and cheated my way through 10 years of agonizing Sundays at Chinese school. At 17, I passed the final exam with flying colors, graduating #2 in the class behind Tommy, the Taiwanese native-turned-bike messenger-turned-drag queen. Relieved, I never looked back and quickly forgot everything.

It's one of those things that so many 2nd generation Asian Americans have wondered about but are only now beginning to experience. As many of my friends are starting to have kids, the loss of our native tongues -- Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tagalog -- is becoming realer than ever.

In my early 20s, I was outspoken as hell about it. At the time, I was touring nationally with a spoken word group, I Was Born with Two Tongues. We performed angry and impassioned poems about race, identity, culture, freedom. We wanted our people to love themselves and to stop disowning their own cultures and histories. We shared the stage with people like us: Beau Sia, Kelly Tsai, Bao Phi, too many to name here. At one show, we met a young student at Northwestern named Phil (now known on the Internets as Angry Asian Man). We became family, spread across the country, related by common struggle. Together we founded the very first APIA Summit in Seattle, which just had its 10th anniversary earlier this month in Minneapolis. Many of our crew went on to become the cultural critics, writers, politicians, community organizers, artists, and academics that influence what Asian America is today. To this day, many of these people remain my close friends.

Back then, we wrote and talked a lot about language. We wondered if we'd be able to pass on what we knew about being Asian to our kids. Would our parents' culture be completely wiped out by the next generation? Could we sufficiently teach our children the languages we ourselves had already forgotten? I vowed to teach my kids Chinese so they'd be even better than me. They'd be so fluent they'd be crying tears of Chinese, dammit! Of course, we were young at the time. Few of us had kids. This was all hypothetical and vaguely poetic.

One of I Was Born with Two Tongues' pieces: Letter to Our Unborn Children

Fast forward a decade: I'm not a mother yet (sorry, mom and dad!), but with a new baby nephew in the family, my Chinese school cheating has finally come back to haunt me.

My nephew's 2nd birthday is coming up, and he's all kinds of awesome. His vocab is peppered with English and Chinese phrases like Yuck! [when he walks on sand and/or pets my cat] and Pai pai sho (clap your hands) [when he's done anything good like clean up his toys]. It's amazing, watching him grow from a speechless baby into a kid who can actually speak to us. Daily, he finds that language is powerful; it can communicate his wants, his anger, his joy to us adults. It's awesome watching his grasp on words grow.

Meanwhile, his Auntie Emily is going down the opposite path, finding it harder and harder to express herself, and wishing she'd paid more attention in Chinese school. The words I can speak to my nephew are limited; English seems wrong and foreign somehow, but my crappy Chinese is embarrassing. The more I try to speak to him, the more I realize I've forgotten. I don't want to teach him the wrong accent or inflection by example. At some point, his Chinese will surely be better than mine. I baby talk to him, wondering when he'll inevitably surpass me and roll his awesome baby eyes at my Chinglish.

I wonder what the old crew would say today. Many of them now have kids. Most have tried to instill some sort of bilingualism via the grandparents. Some have given up altogether. And some have even moved back to their parents' country. I wonder what will become of my nephew, if he's going to suffer the same fate as me.

The irony isn't lost on me. A decade ago, I was pissed about the perpetual foreignness of Asians in America. I was fully American, born and raised, after all. But isn't this what America has historically been all about? A few hundred years have shown that everything melts in this pot. Most descendants of the immigrants from the early 1900s no longer identify with their Irish, Italian, or Polish roots. Today, we see them as American. I want that, but I don't want to lose my language or culture along the way. Can't we have our cake and eat it too?

I could write angry or sad poems about it, but what else can I really do? We can enroll my nephew in Chinese school, but you see where that's gotten me. As for myself, I've joined an informal Chinese chit-chat group with my friends to practice speaking, but that's mostly an excuse to pig out on dim sum once a month.

Yeah, yeah, tiger mom, you were right. I guess the lesson here is not to cheat in Chinese school. The bigger lesson is to pay attention, because things are changing in Asian America as we know it. We're a young group, and what we do next will influence where we'll be a generation from now. Did I blow it? Maybe. Is this the natural course of things when people move to America? Probably. In all honesty, I don't think Chinese school would've made that much of a difference with me. All I can really do now is watch this little kid grow his own way into language, and hope that he does better navigating his generation than I did.

Emily C. Chang is an actress, writer, and producer (Colin Hearts Kay, The Humberville Poetry Slam, and the upcoming Nightdreamblues), and voracious eater. Website: www.therealemily.com Twitter: @chihuac

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