Identity, Life

The only way to connect to my Chinese family is through a language I barely know

I wasn’t sure which was the chicken or the egg — my desire for a close relationship with my parents, or my wielding of their native language.

“Oh, Esther is going to law school in New York.”

“Wow, does she know what law she’s going to practice?”
“Probably business. God forbid she go do CIVIL law, there’s no money to be had there…”

 I sat at the table on New Year’s Eve night listening to these chatterings, sipping apple juice out of a Solo cup and casting glances at the group of five wives around me. They were cracking almonds with their teeth in between snickers over the ins and outs of each other’s posterity.

‘But some kids, like Sister Li’s oldest, they’re what Americans call ‘idealistic,’ and go off to where it’s impractical but they believe they’re doing good —”

“Yes, NONPROFIT work, can you imagine? What poor pointless sacrifices one could have to make…”

When I was little, my parents quizzed me on Chinese words by pointing to random household items and making me respond and describe them in English. Before long, I was singing the lyrics to complex Chinese pop songs, watching dramas without the subtitles on, befriending international students, and charming adults with my fluency range. The latter made me a formidable asset for decoding conversation at these “Asian parties” when I was in high school and more of my friends came to them. But now, at age 22, I was alone in dissecting the chatter of our immigrant mothers.

“At least she’s a woman, of the softer sex. But enough about that girl — how’s Esther’s black boyfriend? Is it strange because he’s black?”

“Cha yu fan hou de hua ti.” That’s the saying my mom uses to refer to anything worth gossiping about the Chinese children once they’d ‘flown the coop,’ so to speak, and gone off to college. Whichever job, spouse, friends or hobbies you picked up after were all up for discussion. These days, I often found myself the only person under age 35 but over age 14. But I still went to make small talk with familiar faces.

Now I was killing time after gorging myself on dumplings and waiting for the New Year countdown to begin.

…Or my name to crop up in conversation. Whichever came first…

YUAN!” Mrs. Zhang, the leader of the pack, trained her attentive gaze on my mom. My mom, quiet at the right time but loud at the best, turned to her with a smirk.

What’s Little Crystal up to these days?” Zhang switched from almond to pensively chewing on a grape, unbeknownst to the fact that I was lurking 15 feet away.

It seemed my mother’s friends, many of whom had known me since I was 5 years old, sometimes spent more time talking about me perhaps because I spoke better Chinese. Because there was less of a language barrier, I often came home from school complaining to my mom in broken Mandarin about all that went on. In college, this meant I was explaining my Nietzsche readings or the philosophy behind why journalists believed Trump won the election. I wasn’t sure which was the chicken or the egg — my desire for a close relationship with my parents, or my wielding of their native language.

For better or for worse, they didn’t seem to censor much around me. “Crystal shouldn’t have picked journalism,” is how every bit about me begins. But before long, it would delve into conversations about my character and how, if anyone from our community were to pick a noble career, it should be me.

As uncomfortable as it made me, I like to think the more authentic me was up for grabs when it came to my immigrant community. Because I revealed more to my parents, there was more to muse about with their friends. Many of my friends thought bridging the gap between elders was a lost cause. Especially me, I had to train myself to be less sensitive. In the eyes of an Asian immigrant community, a profession like writing involved a lot of one-track mind determination, but also willful idealism. Neither of these was qualities a Communist government had commended in China during their time. In fact, it was almost scorned to have dreams that were inflexible and unconventional.

Still, each time I waited for the moments in which someone thoughtfully revealed why they still thought I was somewhat redeemable by immigrant standards. The one way I could get through to them even if cultural gaps were large.

It was usually my mother: “At least she can speak Chinese,” she would chime in. “At least we can hear that child communicate, and we know she has a good heart because at least she can speak Chinese.”