A Daughter's Journey To Learn Mandarin Chinese At 30 : Short Wave Nearly 1 billion people speak Mandarin Chinese. But Short Wave host Emily Kwong is not among them. As a third generation Chinese American, Emily's heritage language was lost through the years when her father, Christopher Kwong, stopped speaking the language at a young age in order to adjust to life in the U.S. Now, at age 30, Emily's trying to reclaim Chinese by attending virtual Mandarin classes for the first time. In conversation with her father, Emily explores how being 'Chinese enough' gets tied up in language fluency, and how language is a bridge that can be broken and rebuilt between generations — as an act of love and reclamation.

Check out more of the Where We Come From series here.

'Where We Come From': Emily Kwong's Story

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EMILY KWONG, HOST:

Hey, everybody - Emily Kwong here. So all year, I've been working on a story for a new NPR series called Where We Come From, which tackles a question that immigrant families of color get asked all the time.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Where are you from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Where do you come from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: What seems like an easy question...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: No, where are you really from?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: ...Carries with it so much weight.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Where do you belong?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: In the in-between...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #6: I belong to myself.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #7: It's an emotional environment.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #8: Soy de aqui.

E KWONG: This is a complicated question to answer and, for me, a pretty emotional one. I'm Chinese American, but I haven't always felt Chinese American. And a big reason why is that I don't speak my grandparents' language, Mandarin Chinese. I remember the first time someone called me out on this. This 4-year-old kid we'd just met, she had one white parent and one Chinese parent, just like me. But after looking me up and down, she goes, I'm more Chinese than you because I can speak the language.

And there it was, this line in the sand between a more Chinese person and a less Chinese person. I had felt this gap before, in the silence between me and my older relatives, in the subtitles I depend on to watch Chinese movies, in the shame I feel ordering at restaurants, wishing I could say more than just ni hao, xie xie and zai jian.

So when I turned 30, I decided to finally do something about it. Here is my Where We Come From story after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: All right. So it's Friday night, and I am doing what I do every night, which is learn a little bit of Chinese vocabulary using this app.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Ren.

E KWONG: Ren. This character ren means person/human. And I remember drawing it with my grandma when she was still alive. It actually looks kind of like, to me, a person walking with bellbottom jeans.

AUTOMATED VOICE: (Speaking Mandarin).

E KWONG: (Speaking Mandarin). That means you are Chinese. So how would I say I'm Chinese American? (Speaking Mandarin). Is that a thing? (Laughter) Having an identity is confusing (laughter).

I'm Chinese on my father's side, white on my mother's side. And as a mixed-race kid in suburban Connecticut, I felt like a lost cause when it came to our language - too old, too removed. A lot of families give up trying to speak two languages by the third generation. And that's definitely true in my family. The four of us, my dad, my mom, my sister and me all speak English. But I reached a breaking point this pandemic year, wondering why is that? How did we lose this language? And how do I get it back? So I made a promise to myself. This would be the year that I try to reclaim my heritage language and figure out why I never learned it in the first place.

AUTOMATED VOICE: Ni hao.

E KWONG: Ni hao. So that's why the app and why I've been taking Chinese classes every Monday night for two hours with a lot of tone practice and flashcards in between.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, speaking Mandarin).

E KWONG: Sometimes I watch Ang Lee movies trying to catch just a word or two.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, speaking Mandarin).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, speaking Mandarin).

E KWONG: But it goes by so fast.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character, speaking Mandarin).

E KWONG: And I can only repeat it back very slowly.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: It's just really hard, and it isn't fun to be bad at something. Like, as I'm listening to myself speak these words, I know I'm not saying it right, and I'm just feeling kind of down. But just got to stick with it, I guess.

When I was 20, a Mandarin teacher told me it was too late to start learning Chinese. I wish I hadn't listened to him. While second-language acquisition is more difficult in adulthood, it's not impossible. And because it might take the rest of my life to learn, the person whose support I want most is my dad.

So - yeah, this is a conversation I've actually wanted to have with you for a long time.

CHRISTOPHER KWONG: Good.

E KWONG: When we spoke, the cherry blossoms were out in D.C., these ephemeral pink flowers that only last a week or two. I made pork stew with eggs, my great grandmother's recipe, to put my dad at ease and me, too. I felt that we needed our elders in the room to help us have this conversation. And as the stew cooked, we sat down on this blue couch in my living room to talk.

Hi, Dad.

C KWONG: Hello.

E KWONG: (Laughter) Hi. Nice to meet you.

That's my dad. He always wears a baseball cap with the letter C on it for the Cardinals, the Cubs. It doesn't really matter because for him the C stands for Christopher.

C KWONG: My name is Christopher Kwong. I'm 62. I was born in New York City.

E KWONG: To Hui and Edgar Kwong - my grandma left Beijing in the 1930s at the very start of the Sino-Japanese War. To stay safe, her family left everything and moved to southern China. And she kept moving, seizing every academic opportunity that she could. She got a scholarship to go to boarding school in India in the Himalayas and when she was 17 applied and got into Barnard College in New York City. Her senior year, she became the school's first non-white student body president. I actually have her yearbook photo, which says that her only vices were devouring oranges and volumes of Virginia Woolf. And for a while, I used to do both just to feel close to her.

C KWONG: She and her cousins and their extended families had to transition to American society and migrate into professions unlike what their ancestors had in China. They became doctors, lawyers, architects, things like that.

E KWONG: She and my grandfather met in the 1950s. He spoke Cantonese in addition to Mandarin, but Mandarin was the language they shared. He became an industrial engineer. She became a deputy chief at the United Nations. And they had three sons. My dad is the oldest, and I never knew until this year that they gave him a Chinese name, Anzhong (ph). Growing up as a kid in New York City, he remembers tagging alongside his grandmothers as they did the shopping in Chinatown...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARKET AMBIENCE)

C KWONG: I just went into fish markets, meat markets, vegetable markets.

E KWONG: ...Surrounded by people conversing and bartering and going about their day in Chinese.

C KWONG: It was the only thing I understood. In a world of non-Chinese when I was outside, it was anxiety and confusion and not knowing what was really being said and just clinging a little harder. But when you hear your native language, it's a reminder of, you're safe.

E KWONG: But here's the thing. My father stopped speaking Mandarin when he was 5 years old. When he was entering kindergarten, a teacher asked him to describe the snow outside, and he said it was green, just because green was the only color word he knew in English. It's a cute story, but it shows how much he was struggling to communicate with his teacher, with his classmates, using the little English that he knew. And his parents, my grandparents, didn't want him to fall behind in school, so they made a decision.

C KWONG: I was then given, you know, orders to start speaking English for my own emotional and social survival. So I didn't hear Chinese again.

E KWONG: And the household became an English-speaking one. My dad didn't protest. He put his energy towards learning this new language, though he says the transition to English was difficult.

C KWONG: The sounds, the vowels. I just remember that summer when we were in Shelter Island, my mother would spend hours drilling pronunciation, letters, syntax and things like that into me.

E KWONG: And after a year or two, he had it. He embraced English and, as he grew up, dove into the pop culture of the time period...

(SOUNDBITE OF HUGO MONTENEGRO'S "JEANNIE")

E KWONG: ...Watching "I Dream Of Jeannie" and "Gilligan's Island."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "'GILLIGAN'S ISLAND' THEME")

THE WELLINGTONS: (Singing) With Gilligan, the skipper...

E KWONG: He fulfilled his parents' wishes, and he never really looked back.

C KWONG: I realized I had to engage in a different world, a world of English, so, you know, I should just be pragmatic and let go and go with English.

E KWONG: Yeah. That's a big decision for a little kid to make. You know?

C KWONG: Well, my need for - I felt for survival was greater than my hurt.

E KWONG: Yeah. When you say need for survival, what do you mean?

C KWONG: Meaning to integrate into society - you have to integrate. Otherwise, you're - you know, you're going to be really in a terrible place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: He's not wrong, but assimilation has a cost. Gaining a foothold in America meant losing the first language my dad's ever known, and that's a high price to pay.

AMELIA TSENG: When you lose your language, it's almost a form of violence if it's taken from you. Right?

E KWONG: Amelia Tseng is a sociolinguist at American University, someone who studies how languages shift across immigrant generations.

TSENG: You know, we're a very multilingual country and always have been - very, very diverse country. But we are - have not historically been supportive of other languages, either through sort of active suppression or through just sort of a lack of interest in supporting them. And those attitudes, those ideologies are closely tied to things like nationalism and xenophobia.

E KWONG: So I learned from Amelia that losing Mandarin isn't really my family's fault. Language suppression is not an accident. It's woven into the fabric of U.S. history, making English the dominant language by design. The idea of the melting pot is code for this, telling communities of color that they must suppress their language and speak a particular kind of English in order to belong. A painful example of this is Native American boarding schools, where children were physically disciplined for speaking their native language. Another example is what's happened with Spanish speakers.

TSENG: For many, many years, Spanish-speaking children were physically punished in schools for speaking Spanish. They would be paddled. They would be subjected to all kinds of punishments. And although that's not acceptable now, you know, still, in recent years, there's examples of people being discriminated against for that at school - you know, discrimination against African American English in schools, all kinds of things.

E KWONG: Examples like this and more have led some linguists to call the U.S. a language graveyard. It's how in New York City, one of the most linguistically diverse places in the world, it would make sense for my dad to so easily let go of his heritage language. At age 5, It was a matter of survival. But as the years went by, it became so much more. English was a ticket to education, proof of Americanness, like acting as a protective shield in a country that has historically discriminated against Chinese people. And of course, it's the language that he and my mom used to raise our family.

C KWONG: My parents did the right thing. I mean, I can always go back and learn the language. And I thought of doing that. But I have to ask the question, who would I speak with? I live in a very non-Chinese world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: I want to respond to this question by saying, me, Dad - I'll speak with you. But his world now is so different from the Chinatown of his childhood. I get that. And I'm still in level one classes, a true beginner. My teacher, Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li, is very patient.

DENNIS YUEH-YEH LI: Jian is to see each other, right?

E KWONG: Yeah.

LI: So zai jian means to see each other again, right? Goodbye. See you again.

E KWONG: Zai jian.

LI: Zai jian.

E KWONG: Zai jian.

LI: (Laughter).

E KWONG: When I really started to learn this language, it felt less like speaking and more like singing. Placing my tongue and teeth in unfamiliar places, trying to match Dennis.

(Speaking Mandarin).

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

E KWONG: (Speaking Mandarin).

Honestly, learning this language feels like a trust fall, just knowing these are the exact words my grandparents and great-grandparents and all my ancestors before that spoke, too. It feels like they're in the room with me, watching, maybe even cheering me on.

(Speaking Mandarin). Oh, no, I got this. (Speaking Mandarin). Hold on.

The more I speak, the more my Chinese half starts to feel whole. And I've decided that any shame I feel about bad pronunciation, fumbles with grammar is nothing like the shame of not knowing the language at all.

LI: (Speaking Mandarin).

E KWONG: Half an hour into this conversation with my dad, I decide it's time to show him what I've learned. While he can't speak Mandarin any more, just hearing the language brings some of it back.

When I say something like, (speaking Mandarin), I love you, do you internalize that sentence? If I were to say, Dad, I love you in English...

C KWONG: It English, of course, it resonates. Chinese - it's like I register, Emily is learning Chinese.

E KWONG: Maybe if I get better at the pronunciation one day, it will, like...

C KWONG: Our words will always be English, Emily.

E KWONG: This stings to hear, but I know my dad's just trying to protect me from disappointment and reassure me that not knowing is OK. At family reunions over plates of dim sum, my dad can follow the gist of a Mandarin conversation between his cousin Xiaoying (ph) and her daughter Amy. Even though he has a 5-year-old's vocabulary, he still understands the feelings beneath the words.

C KWONG: It still registers an emotional twang for me, is a form of comfort on some level. I don't want to be morbid, but when I'm dying, I'm sure my last thoughts will be in Chinese. My brain will revert to that earliest stage of my life. But that's a topic for another story (laughter).

E KWONG: Hearing this, I realize I could be someone who speaks Mandarin to my dad in his last moments on Earth, provide him the comfort that only your native language can. I've heard a lot of Asian American families cautioning each other these days not to speak their language, not to show their faces. The rise in anti-Asian hate this year makes it hard to even leave the house some days. But there's one thing my dad and I agree on, and it's the importance of telling the truth. And English doesn't tell the whole truth about us, where we come from and the cost of hiding who you are.

We're here. Our culture can't be intimidated. And I - after what happened in Atlanta, I wanted to just learn Chinese even more. Does that make any sense?

C KWONG: Mmm hmm. The key is to meet challenges, stare down adversity, confront intimidation and to always strive for the truth. I think if you strive for the truth, you've lived life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: I mean, my own birth certificate doesn't tell the truth. It says I'm white, even though my father was standing right there in the delivery room. And this erasure of him is an erasure of me. I'm tired of occupying this half position and of perpetually feeling like I'm not Chinese enough. Sociolinguist Amelia Tseng says there's a term for what I've been feeling all these years, racial imposter syndrome. And moving through it requires flexibility, self-compassion, reimagining what it means to be Chinese in America. Identity is something more than a box you check on a form.

TSENG: When we think of identities as sort of these category boxes, it really doesn't have room for that fluidity, that hybridity, that contact and dynamism that's really what life is about.

E KWONG: Yeah.

TSENG: I mean, people are always in contact with other people. They're learning. They're adapting. They're changing. They're hanging on to things. You know, they're learning new things. And an identity never stays still.

E KWONG: Is it a thing we create?

TSENG: Yeah, it is. Absolutely. Absolutely. And part of how we create it is through language, the languages we speak, who we talk to but also how we talk about ourselves and other people.

E KWONG: So I am creating a new story for myself. Yes, I didn't grow up speaking Mandarin Chinese because of my grandparents' choices, language suppression in the U.S. and my own racial imposter syndrome. But it's also true that I belong to a Chinese American family. I felt it when my dad gave me congee when I had a cold or fruit after dinner, when my parents helped us hand out hongbao at school for Lunar New Year. And I know I felt it when I was with my grandparents. They were trying to teach me Mandarin in the years before they died.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

HUI KWONG: I think there's more eggs. Do you see more eggs?

E KWONG: Yeah.

H KWONG: Where?

E KWONG: I've been watching home movies lately, trying to catch snippets of their words. In this one, my grandma and grandpa are helping me hunt for Easter eggs. I'm almost 2 years old, wearing a straw hat and wandering around their house with a basket.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

EDGAR KWONG: It's another egg.

E KWONG: Grandpa Edgar is the exuberant one, giving away all of my hiding spots and offering me chocolate...

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

EDGAR KWONG: It's chocolate for you.

E KWONG: ...While Grandma Hui is the soothing one, searching for my basket when it goes missing.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

H KWONG: Where is that basket? Wait, wait, wait. Where is that basket? No.

E KWONG: Grandma died when I was 5 years old, but I clearly remember her showing me how the character for rain looks like raindrops, how to count from one to 10. And her lessons really stayed with me.

(CROSSTALK)

E KWONG: My grandmother taught my father English so he could survive. And I find it kind of beautiful that in her last years, she was teaching me Mandarin Chinese, so it could survive within me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: There's one last thing I want to show my dad before we go. We're both tired, running out of words. So I got up quickly, and I grabbed this kid's book called "Long Is A Dragon." It's got a pink cover and has a smiling dragon across the front. Grandma gave me this book during our Chinese lessons. I remember her handing it to me along with a pack of markers.

Like, a six pack with different colors. And we were using the black one to make almost brushstrokes, like Chinese characters. And I got confused, and I accidentally wrote in the book instead of on the notepad. And you can see this, like, mark I made.

A mark I made over 20 years ago. Grandma told me in that moment, don't worry, Emily. This is your book to keep.

This is proof that she and I had a connection...

C KWONG: Right.

E KWONG: ...Through the language, that she and I had a real connection that was ours. And, Dad, it's OK. She and I had a connection that was ours and she was trying to teach me.

C KWONG: Right. Even after all these decades.

E KWONG: And it's kind of, like - even after all these decades. And it's kind of, like, evidence of that to me. Finding this book was a really powerful affirmation of what I'm trying to do, learning Chinese as an adult, because it doesn't feel like a language that's other. It feels like a language that's ours. It belongs to our family. And I can engage with it if I want to and as much as I want to.

C KWONG: It is who we are. So we have to cling or retain or perhaps relearn what we are. So I think, you know, this is a journey of exploration for you. And this is so you can tie back to where you came from.

E KWONG: That means a lot to hear you say that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: Last Chinese class. I don't like it. Luckily, I signed up for Chinese II. That's right. I have graduated to Chinese II. I can speak in simple but full sentences. And a few days ago, my family got a call from Betty (ph), my grandma's sister. She had called up my Aunt Nellie (ph), my grandma's cousin. And they chose Chinese names for my sister Amanda and me.

BETTY: Wenmei and Wenda (ph). Wenmei means - wen means literary (ph). Mei means beautiful. And so the generational name would be Wen. Second one - wen da means excellent. So it's Wenmei and Wenda. So you need to...

E KWONG: It's going to take me a while to get used to our new names, Wenmei and Wenda for Emily and Amanda. But I'll tell you what - language is a bridge that can be broken, but it can be rebuilt, too. (Speaking Mandarin). After 30 years, I can say this in two languages. And I know my grandmother would be proud to hear it.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: This story was reported for NPR's new series Where We Come From, stories from immigrant communities of color. You can catch more Where We Come From episodes, plus watch a video about my journey to learn Mandarin Chinese on our website at npr.org/wherewecomefrom and across NPR video and audio platforms. The series was created and produced by Anjuli Sastry. Our senior editor is Julia Furlan. Our assistant producer is Diba Mohtasham. Our visuals producer and editor is Michael Zamora. Nicole Werbeck is our supervising visuals editor. And Yolanda Sangweni is our director of programming. A huge thank you to everyone who gave feedback on this episode - Viet Le, Gisele Grayson, Yowei Shaw, Chris Benderev, Celeste Headlee, Laura Garbes, Mina Tavakoli and Brent Baughman.

And my personal thanks to the folks at Fluent City language school - teachers Dennis Yueh-Ye Li and Jiayan Xhao (ph) and fellow student Megan Arias. To the whole team at SHORT WAVE, thank you so much for your support. And to my family, Christopher Kwong, Linda Kwong, Amanda Kwong, Timothy Kwong, Amy Wang (ph), Betty Lui (ph), Lin Li (ph) and Nellie Li (ph). (Speaking Mandarin). I'm Emily Kwong, your reporter and host for SHORT WAVE. We're back in your feeds tomorrow. Thank you for listening.

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