No, I Don't Speak Mandarin

What does culture mean to you?


“You know how in Chinese, the first character for swan…”

“No.”

Stop right there. I do not know anything about the characters for swan. Turning to my classmate, I repeat the phrase for the hundredth time in my life: “See… I don’t speak Chinese.”

Starting when I was young, it’s always been a sore spot; I was the child of two Chinese immigrants, yet my vocabulary in Mandarin was limited to “Hello”, “Want” and “Refrigerator.” Worse, I felt like the only one with this deficiency; anytime I visited a Chinese friend’s house, I couldn’t understand many of the conversations, leaving me feeling awkward and clueless. Sure, our family celebrated Chinese New Year and the Moon Festival, but outside of that, I felt that the culture was at least a linguistic ocean away. I regretted that my parents had never taught me the language, feeling that I didn’t fully fit in as Chinese. So where did I fit in?

“No, I don’t speak Chinese,” yet it also felt like I’d missed some lessons on American culture. Cultural osmosis had given me a vague idea of what things were “supposed” to be like, but both my parents and I were clueless about the specifics; I still hadn’t found my place. It didn’t help that by the time I was ten, I’d moved twice, placing me in...

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