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Intergenerational Illiteracy

A few months ago I was visiting with my grandparents. Some of my cousins have been getting married, and my grandmother has been keeping the invitations in a little box, along with some letters and keepsakes. My grandmother was excited to share the box with me. She brought out a handwritten letter because she wanted me to read it.

I held the letter up and began reading the scrawls of traditional Chinese, haltingly, aloud, in Mandarin.

It's strange, because when I was younger, I hated attending Chinese language school. At age ten, there was something humiliating about learning Chinese from textbooks designed for four year olds in Taiwan. It was always on a weekend morning when I knew all the "American" (which in my city, meant white) kids were at home watching cartoons. The teachers were strict and reminded me of my mother. They were different from the teachers at school. They taught by rote. There was a part of me that didn't want to be like them, that wanted to individuate and differentiate and prove my Americaness. My mother monitored my progress at elementary school like a hawk. Surrounded by other Taiwanese immigrant parents trying to justify reasons for uprooting across an ocean, they compared their children's accomplishments as small talk. Some parents took these comparisons lightly and congratulated one another. To my mother, they highlighted inadequacies. And my inability to master this language reminded her of what was missing. There were pushes for me to try traditional Chinese dance, or to learn how to recite formal Chinese performance poetry (朗誦). None of this was compatible with the intense, compelling pressure I felt from greater society to be "normal" and assimilated. I never visited Taiwan, so there was no incentive to learn Chinese when my world was brimming with English.

English--even though I learned Mandarin first. I know this because my mother wrote it on my elementary school application. I was the most advanced reader in my first grade class, but because the word Mandarin was on my application, I was pulled out of class and tested for ESL. I didn't understand why I was being tested. They showed me flashcard after flashcard of images. I only remember one of the flashcards: it was an image of a toothbrush. I screwed up, I called it a "brush tooth," because that's what tooth brushes are for. I immediately course corrected and said, "No, no toothbrush." I remember that exact moment, even though I was only six years old, because I knew I had messed up, and I was terrified, terrified that something had broken, but did not entirely know why I should be scared. All I knew was that getting the cards right was important, my instincts were that I had to get them all right, or something would happen to change my fate.

I wasn't segregated into an ESL classroom. I grew up, went to school (the school, the implicitly normalized school, and also the cultural other school, Chinese school.) I majored in English, and somewhere along the way my automatic thoughts were no longer in Mandarin. A switch flipped and I began thinking in English. I gained relative pronouns and verb inflections and articles and tenses and pluralization. I lost tones and aspect particles and measure words. In college, I picked up Chinese again--but only because a "foreign" language was a mandatory General Education and English major requirement. I'm not sure I learned very much, other than how to type Chinese phonetically on the computer using pinyin.

I can maybe read parts of a menu, fish, chicken, beef, pork, tofu. Words and fragments of sentences I can make out, but unfamiliar characters are pure static. There is no phonetical sounding-out of words in Chinese. You either recognize the character or you don't, and if you don't maybe you parse it out based on parts of the character, or guess based on the words around it. But you can't sound it out, hear it, make inferences on it's meaning aurally.

About a year ago, after twelve years of intermittent language education, my brain finally began processing Chinese better. Without practicing, my reading proficiency improved. I know it's coming from a different part of the brain than the part I usually use to retain knowledge, from somewhere more subconscious. But when I read the letter my grandmother handed me, I was still nervous.

And I couldn't do it. I tried to read it, was able to capture some of it, but not enough to understand it. My grandparents stared at me.

"She doesn't know how to read," my grandfather said to my grandmother. There was shock in his voice. She's illiterate.

It was the first time I'd ever had reason, as an adult, to read something Chinese in front of my grandparents. They learned that their adult granddaughter is illiterate.

--

Mandarin Chinese is my grandparents' third language. It's my parents' second language.

It's my second language.

Both English and Mandarin Chinese are imposed languages of cultural oppression. I've mastered one. The other is terribly out of grasp, but spoken by one out of six people on the planet.

The third language is Minnanese. Well, sort of. Anglicized in English, it almost looks like my Chinese name anglicized in English: Minna. It's not the same words in Taiwan, but to me it is incredibly ironic that a Taiwanese American woman named Minna cannot speak Minnanese. It's also called Hoklo, or Taiwanese.

Taiwanese cannot be learned from reading books. It does not have a written tradition. It is learned from being around other Taiwanese speakers.

My grandparents grew up speaking Taiwanese. They raised my parents speaking Taiwanese. When my grandparents were in school, Taiwan was occupied by Japan. They learned to speak Japanese. When their children were in school, winds had changed and the Chinese (specifically the Kuomingtang party of Republic of China) occupied Taiwan. Children in my parents generation were forced to learn and speak Mandarin in school. Taiwanese was forbidden. There are records of Taiwanese children being given lashes for speaking their family's language in the classroom, though my mother says this was not something she encountered personally since she learned Mandarin early from being immersed in the mostly waishengren neighborhood she lived in.

Today in Taiwan, Taiwanese thrives. Taiwan is still under the control of the Kuomingtang, but consensually through democratic vote. Taiwanese is spoken freely. To many in Taiwan, it's viewed as a language of resistance politics, as part of a unique cultural identity.

I don't know it. My family is benshengren. According to my grandparents, the KMT did terrible things to them, to their friends. According to my parents, the KMT even did something insidious that changed my family's fate and resulted in my being raised in America, raised American.

When my parents immigrated to the United States, they made a practical choice to teach my brother and I the most universal language in the world. Adaptive, right? So the Taiwanese part expired and withered and grew irrelevant. It became the language my parents used to negotiate and argue in front of us, knowing we wouldn't be able to understand them. I can understand a little because my grandmother babysat me when I was a toddler. My brother knows even less.

I should know Taiwanese. When I speak to benshengren Taiwanese people, they assume my family is waishengren because I can't articulate myself in Taiwanese. This is so painful. They assume my family was part of the cultural caste that inflicted martial law and white terror on their families, because I can't demonstrate that I am Taiwanese through language. I feel so lost.

There's another language, one even more original and ephemeral, lost to time and my relatives' insistence that we are "pureblood" Taiwanese people of Han descent. One of the Austronesian languages, indigenous, and perhaps even extinct. If you want to argue colonization, then even Taiwanese is a supplantive language.

--

The one board game that my family can play together is Jenga. Well, almost everyone...my grandfather isn't dexterous enough anymore. My partner, a white guy, can play with my Taiwanese grandmother, because you don't need to really talk when you can gesticulate. I can fold pork and chive dumplings from scratch. For lo ba bun, I have to look up the recipe online.

I haven't been to Taiwan since I was ten years old, for a grandfather's funeral. Last weekend I hung out with my friend's Taiwanese relatives and they asked me how often I go back. I struggled to explain in Mandarin, how it's impossible to "go back" to something you've never really known. I have no context to compare my American life with. Unlike most Taiwanese American kids, my family was never wealthy enough to have me spend my summer breaks in Taiwan.

When I say I am Taiwanese, I really mean Taiwanese American, an admixture of "mainstream" American culture and the ferocity of expatriate members of the Taiwanese diaspora. Generational legacies of people burned by the KMT, the attitudes of our parents locked in a pre-Taiwanese democracy cultural freeze. I'm intensely defensive of this identity, because it explains why I am not white, it explains why I am not Chinese, it explains how I have been able to integrate myself.

It also explains why I want to go to Taiwan and run around and eat food.

--

One of my friends interviewed me about being Taiwanese American for a school project last year, so I sat down and explained the whole language shift thing and how my grandparents don't speak the same language as me, etc. She asked me why my parents never taught me Taiwanese and I speculated about how Mandarin is more adaptive (read: useful.)

She then speculated that perhaps this kind of language shift is a form of intergenerational trauma. Because it means that I've lost the language that my family has spoken for centuries. Because it means I communicate with my grandparents in their third and my second language. Because it's never going back...my kid's first language will undoubtedly be English, and it's highly likely that subsequent generations will know less and less Taiwanese or Mandarin.

It must be so incredibly mind-boggling to my grandparents--the fact that I'm illiterate. They were taken out of the Japanese-run schools before their teens. A Japanese teacher begged my great-grandparents to allow my grandfather to continue his schooling and they denied him. My grandparents had to learn how to read and write Chinese on their own, and learn Mandarin to survive the KMT white terror on their own. Education was so important for them, that when one of my uncles flunked out of public high school they scraped together money to put him through private school. They wanted their children and grandchildren to be educated. Yet, their granddaughter with a college degree from UCLA, in a graduate program, cannot read a language they taught themselves. All my cousins who grew up in Taiwan can speak and read Taiwanese, Mandarin, and some English. The granddaughter who grew up in America-- beautiful, dreamy America, land of opportunity--is actually the most illiterate.

I felt so ashamed, and so sad, sitting there and holding that letter. Not because some cultural tie had been completely broken, but because it had been stretched thin, pulled taut across the Pacific Ocean and thinned out. Made fragile because some self-interested Taiwanese American ten year old didn't want to try hard enough in the local Taiwanese community's Mandarin language school. Didn't want to try because she wanted to be really, truly, American, and she didn't think she could be both at the same time.

There's a new education fad called Mandarin Language Immersion schools. Rich people send their kids there, and bunch of people who are Mandarin-speaking immigrants and have American-born kids, too. Kids go to school and learn from teachers who speak only Mandarin. They leave elementary school fluent, reading and writing. I think about this a lot, how my life might have been different if there had been more of these programs around when I was young. If learning Mandarin had been normalized in 'regular' school, would I have been so resistant to learning it?

I think a lot about sending my future kid(s) to one of these public schools, but the houses in those school districts cost upwards of a million dollars; I could start saving now and never afford it. Even if I did, would they still be resistant to learning? Wouldn't learning Mandarin--even if it would make them more competitive in the global market--simply solidify Chinese colonialism and the erasure of Taiwanese identity anyway? These Mandarin Language Immersion schools are almost always full of kids from Chinese speaking families and rich white families...would the trade off be that I send them to a school where they exit fluent, and also completely inexperienced with interacting with black and brown people of color?

What am I trying to repair? I can't even articulate it, because I don't know what is missing. Being Taiwanese American is all I have ever known.
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Comments

Nothing to add, but this was a really interesting and touching thing to read.