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Don’t drop the Chinese culture
It's important to remember our background
“It’s actually pronounced Liang, but Lee-ang is fine.”
“Wait, say that again?”
“No. But it’s alright, no one can pronounce it.” I shouldn’t have said that.
“No, I want to get it right. Is it Lie-ung? What am I saying wrong?”
“Yeah, that’s pretty close!” It’s not. It never is.
As a kid, my mom always told me that regardless of the fact that no one can pronounce our last name with the same Chinese form of pronunciation that our family uses, I still have to tell people what my name is, that I am Kyle Liang, not Kyle Lee-ang. She knew that as I met more people at school who only spoke English, I would be more inclined to speak English at home, and soon not speak Chinese at all. Which is exactly what happened. I can still understand a conversation in Mandarin Chinese perfectly well because my parents refused to speak to me in anything else—even though I came home from the bus everyday speaking English to them. I just didn’t see the point in speaking Mandarin at home when none of my friends or teachers spoke it. My mom constantly preached to my brother and I, “What’s a Chinese person who can’t speak Chinese?”
“Good one, mom!” is what my sarcastic, pre-teen self thought of that question. But as I grew older and as I surrounded myself with more Caucasian-Americans who only spoke English—so when I got to Quinnipiac University—I realized that maybe my mom was right. If I lose my ability to speak Chinese (which I haven’t, but am well on my way to at the rate I’m going), am I therefore grouping myself with the rest of the American population who can only speak English? That can’t happen to me—I’m Chinese. Right?
The conversation following the Lee-ang versus Liang case usually continues like this:
“Hold on, do you speak another language?”
“What language do you speak?”
“Swahili… I’m kidding. I speak Mandarin Chinese. What’d you expect me to say?”
I used to think it was silly that people had to ask me what other language I speak, but the truth is, at first glance, I’m guessing most people just assume that I am so Americanized that all I know and all I was raised by is American culture. What they don’t know is that my mom came to the United States from Malaysia at around 20 years old and my dad from Taiwan during his 20s, and the both of them proudly and stubbornly held onto their native culture and traditions all this time and passed those same cultural influences down to my brother and me. What is unfortunate is that no one else can see that from his or her first impression of me.
Back to the question of “What is a Chinese person who can’t speak Chinese?” I may not look like I am from China; however, I have adopted a multitude of Chinese values and practices that my parents propagated to me, and their parents to them, for as far back as our family and the Chinese people have existed on this earth—one of those practices being our language. Our language, the Chinese language, has been with us for the length our existence, along with our customs, holidays, values, and the other aspects of our culture that define us.
So when I meet people who claim that they are this or they are that, I can’t help but wonder how? How do they define themselves as this race or that race, this nationality or that nationality, Italian or Irish? What about you allows you to define yourself in those terms? Is it the blood that runs through your veins, or is it the way your family has dinner every night? I want to know because I ask myself these same questions.
One of the beauties of living in America is that our population represents that of many across the globe. At the same time, as the generations continue, many of those familial heritages that were once so unmistakably distinct are now becoming part of a conglomeration that is impossible to separate. Whether that is good or bad, I don’t yet know. It can mean that our country is forming its own identity. Or perhaps all those unique cultures that once existed so heterogeneously in America’s not-yet-melted pot are being lost or forgotten as families in America grow increasingly similar upon the birth of each new generation.
Now don’t get me wrong, I am all for interracial couples (I have been a part of one… or two). But I fear that there will be a time in the Liang, not Lee-ang or Lee-ung or Lie-ung, family history—whether it be when I have kids or after my kids have kids—when no one will speak Chinese, and when everyone sits down for dinner there is not an ounce of traditional Chinese cooking on their plates. I know it sounds like I’m joking, but these are small aspects of a much bigger idea for what I think it means to be Chinese. Every culture, just like every family, has their own traditions, and if those traditions are not respected across all generations then they may very well be lost. Assimilation and Americanization are bound to happen. What we need to do is stress the importance of cultural retention. And it needs to start young. Because if children don’t see the need for cultural retention at a time when “fitting in” is largely on their minds, then by the time they’re old enough to realize its importance, it will surely be too late. It almost was for me.