Communication Breakdown | Illustration by Jee-Shaun Wang
This modified piece was originally published at the Alhambra Source.
Mandarin is the language of my parents and my grandparents and beyond that I am not so sure. But my Mandarin is horrible.
It wasn't always this way. As a young boy in Monterey Park,
I learned to use Mandarin at home and English at school. If I spoke English to
my parents or grandparents I was scolded. Scolded! But it worked. Mandarin
became the language of my home life; along with almost all the other kids I
knew, I would go home and speak Mandarin where they spoke Tagalog or Cantonese
or Fukienese or Spanish.
But when I was 10 or 12, my Mandarin vocabulary sort of
plateaued. I stopped watching Chinese dramas with my grandmother and started to
play basketball and video games instead. I lost touch with the language as I
clicked buttons on controllers and made beeping sounds on the television
That's when I discovered Chinglish, a mix of Mandarin and
English that most of my Chinese American peers share and speak at home with
their parents. Each party learned to understand what the other wanted, but not how and why we wanted what we did. Speech became utilitarian and only
later would I realize what was lost.
My senior year I rejoiced when I was accepted to the
Maryland Institute College of Art. But going to art school can be highly frowned
upon in the Chinese community. My parents, their friends, and older relatives
all would tell me “you should consider how you are going to make a living and
how you expect to support your parents by being an artist.” I tell them, “it's
okay”; they say, “but still.” Chinese parents want their children in popular
big schools like UCLA and USC and Yale and Harvard. If you mention anything
other than the best, they will scoff or shake their heads and mumble something
along the lines of “I’ve never heard of that school...”
I had never lived in a city with buildings like Baltimore; I
never experienced autumn or winter the way you saw it in movies with snow and
cold weather. All that was foreign to me since I grew up in a place where
winter meant 60 degrees Fahrenheit (or 80 right now). Baltimore reminded me of
fairy tale books with all the brickwork and stone churches (okay, along with
the not-so-fairy tale muggings and murders). But the biggest change was the fact
that this place was not overflowing with Asians.
I didn’t feel welcome. I felt invisible and I was certainly
shorter than the average white person. For the first time in my life, I felt
Asian. When I entered an apartment in which a party was being held, somebody
from the corner yelled out that I had brought the sake. Another time I was
walking down the street and a bus full of young black children threw crayons
and yelled “Go back to China, Jackie Chan!”
When I returned home for the first time in college during
winter break I cried into my bowl of rice and tofu because I had missed it so
much. I felt like I had left America for three months, and then I realized that
maybe I had never really been in America in the first place. The people I met
in Baltimore seemed to live something more like what the movies depicted.
People’s mothers actually sent them cookies in the mail! We never bake at my
home. The oven is only good for storing pots and pans.
This was around the same time that I realized that I
actually had, for once, important life-changing things to tell my family. I
wanted to share my progress as a man and as a student and I wanted them to know
how I’d felt while I was away. But when I turned to speak to them, only a few
words dribbled out of my mouth. I could grasp what I wanted to communicate to
my parents, but lacked the words in Mandarin to do so. I can't tell them about
the grey sky which I love for its color, or lack thereof, because I cannot
explain how I felt just like a cloud -- without sounding like a child in
To this day they know me only as their son who draws comics
well, nothing more. They know that I am a nice person, but they do not know
that I enjoy the books of philosophers as much as I enjoy reading the Sunday
comic. They know that I like to eat, but they do not know that I relate the
flavors of food with the culture of my family. In short, I have never really
spoken with my parents.
* * *
Jee-Shaun Wang enjoys hot drinks and books with pictures. He is inspired by the cold and also by cave paintings. You can find him when you need someone to draw. If you like looking at things, look here!