Sha Mei Guo Lao: Growing Up Bilingual 傻美国佬

This post is written by our Social Media Intern, Emily Gao, and was originally posted on the Outspoken Asian website.

sha mei guo lao (n.) silly american

Linguistic Imperialism (n.) – refers to “the transfer of a dominant language to other people”

My brother and I have made fun of the way mama pronounces words. And as much as I hate to admit it, sometimes we still do. We’ll be in the car, she’ll try to explain some fact or share a story and and instead of listening to her, we’ll start to parrot the way her “engrish” sounds. Growing up bilingual, “Chinglish” became a staple in our family, but so was taking jabs at the way our parents spoke.

Being born in America, mei guo chu sheng de, has given me the privilege of sounding American. In other words, I sound “white.” Looking at me you would never pin me as white, but isolating my voice is a different story. From a young age, I knew American and white were synonymous with each other. What I didn’t know was how I used my American privilege to attack my parents. Being able to talk on the phone and pass as white is something my parents will never go through. Their voice gives away their Otherness before you even see their skin. I didn’t recognize the privilege in the way I spoke. Apparently, an accent makes you seem uneducated. In reality, it signifies the struggle of assimilation and your bilingual talent.

The ability to speak English without an accent, so-called “perfect English,” gives me advantages my parents don’t have. Standard American English, along with cultural and generational differences, has been part of my assimilation process. However, that doesn’t mean I should let it colonize my identity. By failing to notice that earlier, I only furthered the distance between my parents and me. I belittled my Mama: this is the same woman who journeyed to a whole new country where she knew no one, became a pediatrician, and then ended up giving up her doctor life to raise three kids.

One time we were in the kitchen and The Beatles’ song “Let It Be” came on the radio. As we were listening to The Beatles, my mom started to sing along. She does opera and is a pretty talented musician.

“Letter B, Letter B,” she sang. I turned towards her, laughing, and informed her.

“Are you serious? It’s ‘Let It Be!’”

Making fun of the way she talks is an outcome of my American privilege

It stings when my mom corrects the way I speak Mandarin. “Mama, I’m trying! I want to communicate with you.” Talk about electrocuting my self-esteem. So if all you’re going to do is scoff at me and hastily tell me what I’m doing wrong, what’s the point? I’m trying! I hate that: be constructive or leave me alone. Besides, you know what I meant! All it does is make me insecure about even trying to speak it, I think as she points out the slight intonation I was wrong on. How was I supposed to know they were different? Those two words sound exactly the same!

I wonder how she felt when I mocked her English.

To speak Mandarin, you must get down your tones. The language is broken off into four different tones: one, two, three and four. Each mark what be the undulation a certain word needs. For example, take the pinyin (letter spelling) of xia. Depending on the intonation used to say xia it can mean to be scared, shrimp or to put down a chess piece. Think of it as English synonyms on steroids.

Yet despite knowing what it’s like to learn a language entirely different from the one I grew up on, I have mocked the way my mom speaks. Most likely a manifestation of internalized racism and sexism, I admit that I have not treated with my mom with the respect she deserves. Her accent was my excuse to treat her like a joke. I have no right to be condescending towards anyone because of how they sound, let alone my own mother.

Looking back, I might as well have been shaking my privilege in her face shouting “you are other and I am not! I pass.” Unconsciously or not, I took pride in my white passing voice. My voice is an unfair advantage, but “na-na-na I can withhold that I am Other when I’m on the phone and you can’t” is not a reason to disrespect the voice of my parents.

The respect my parents deserve was traded away when they came to America. Now, even before opening their mouths, they are judged for their appearance. Their accents, in my head, only exacerbated the problem. They are incredible people. My mom’s plight is something white people will never face. So why is the mark of non-whiteness problematic though? It isn’t. It is who they are. It is the sign of heritage spanning thousands of years.

I admit that I have been a privileged child to my immigrant parents. To them, I am the daughter they love — generational and cultural gaps aside. We may not get along, but that doesn’t make it okay to be disrespectful in the way I have been. A large percentage of that rudeness comes from my own insecurity with my race. My parents’ immigration is inspiring and astounding. They came over to America with $30 dollars in their pocket and rolled up to Baylor University submerging themselves in a new culture with hopes of becoming doctors and raising a family. The opportunity America offered enticed them, challenged them and mocked their native tongue. While our generational and cultural gaps create distance, I know that the respect my parents deserve has yet to be granted to them.

How many strangers have snickered about their pronunciation? How many co-workers? How many friends? How many white faces have engaged in such torment? They don’t need that from their family too.

Now I’m cognizant enough to make use of my discretion when I have an urge to engage in this type of mockery. But I’m far from conquering my internalized racism. I am learning that finding comfort in the fact that identity is a constant process — it’s a constant work in progress.

I am Asian American: the two parts of me can coexist. It’s making sure one side doesn’t colonize the other that’s the hard part.

Emily Gao AKA “emdash” is an activist artist who spends her spunky time inside writing alone or outside making strangers laugh. Follow her @emdashery!

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