混血兒：hùnxuè’ér； a person of mixed race
I am half-Taiwanese, but I wasn’t raised speaking Mandarin. In fact, the only phrases I used in my childhood were “xie xie”and “zai jian”, to my Poh-Poh and Gong-Gong. Besides those two phrases, I could only count to three.
I took a Chinese class with my mom and younger brother when I was about 6 years old. The only words I remember are “pingguo” (apple) and “shui” (water). Through my childhood and teenage years, the idea of delving further into the Chinese language didn’t even cross my mind.
But something happened when I was 20. I’m not sure whether it was the fact that my university was full of international students and I heard more Mandarin being spoken than ever before, that I became more aware of how many Chinese and Taiwanese friends I had that had been raised speaking their parent’s native tongue, or the fact that my Poh Poh and Gong Gong were getting older. I realized that, for the last 20 years, I had been denied an opportunity to grow up knowing a second language.
And so, I signed up for a beginner Chinese course at university. I realized though, that I’d be learning the simplified writing system as opposed to the traditonal one used in Taiwan; that many of the phrases taught were more common in mainland China than in Taiwan. But I figured that it was a start, and I naivley thought that I would have a high level of language comprehension at the semester’s end. Four months later I could finally count and give simple greetings in Mandarin, much to my Poh-Poh’s and Gong-Gong’s delight. But I still felt incomplete.
It wasn’t until eight months later that I was able to take the second level Chinese course. And truthfully, it was harder than I wanted it to be. I wanted to be able to spend 10-30 minutes on assignments and review everyday and see improvement. Instead, I would spend an hour or more and have to keep checking how to write each character, how to say each word correctly, and going back into the textbook for guidance. It didn’t help that at this time I was in 4 other courses that were taking up most of my time, and because Chinese wasn’t part of my degree requirements I pushed it to the backburner more often than not.
However, a new opportunity arose through these struggles. An opportunity to live in Taiwan for two months and take Chinese classes. I applied, was accepted, and found myself on the plane to Taipei before I knew it. For 8 weeks I took daily classes at the National Taiwan Normal University (Shida, NTNU) Mandarin Training Centre. I got to explore the capital of Taiwan, make trips to Tainan and Sun Moon Lake, visit some family that I’d never met, and make a handful of amazing friends who I still keep in contact with to this day. Living in a country where I was fully immersed in the language was (and is) the best way to learn Mandarin (any language, really).
When I got home, I was motivated to keep up speaking in Mandarin as much as possible. I could speak a little more with my grandparents, and once a week met up with a friend who had gone through the same program for conversation in Mandarin. I was also trying to teach myself new characters through the textbooks I had bought while abroad.
But I was still a university student. Which meant that more often than not I’d only spend 10 minutes a day on Mandarin, if any time at all. School was my priority, and Mandarin became something that disheartened me. I wasn’t getting better. I was stagnant. I wanted to get better. But I wanted it to be easy. I didn’t have to work this hard for anything else, so why should this any different? There were some months I simply stopped my self-study altogether because it was easier than pushing on. The textbooks stayed at the top of my desk, simulteously collecting dust and filling me with guilt.
Now, three years after my summer in Taipei, and I’m back in Taiwan. I’m more confident approaching store owners and buying things or ordering food. Things I should’ve been ok with 3 years ago, but actions that admittingly made me super nervous. What if they don’t understand me? It’s happened before. What if they laugh at me? It’s also happened (and feels super shitty, I might add). This time, I just jump right in. Nothing lost, nothing gained. My level of comprehension has noticeably increased from last time. For the last several months, everyday, I’ve been watching Taiwanese dramas and actively listening, and writing down words and phrases that commonly come up or that I can use. I don’t know if it’s because of this, or a newfound attitude, but I feel as if I can feel my improvement.
As I’ve previously mentioned, it hasn’t been easy. Although I have loads of friends back home to speak Mandarin, I’m nervous to speak with them. A stranger would be easier to talk to. I’m not sure if this is fear of judgement or simple shyness, but I haven’t taken the initative or opportunity to speak that much at home. I’ve already decided that upon my return to speak more to my grandparents. Now that I’m not in university I’ll have more time to go over and visit them
A few months ago my family got new neighbors, a young woman and and her mother. The mother only speaks Chinese, no English, and I desperately wanted to try and converse with her. But again, shyness. One day I had to help translate a request for my mom, and I have no idea if I did well or not, but we everything worked out in the end. And it really made me realize that a few minutes a day learning a few new characters would not cut it anymore.
During my travels I’ve met so many people who are bilingual, even trilingual, and it’s really nailed in that I do want to be fluent in Mandarin, ideally in a few years. I’ve thought this before, but this time feels different. I can tell that I will be more serious about my efforts when I return home.
And now, I have to admit something that will change the tone of this post from motivational to slightly melancholy.
I’ve spent a lot of time feeling resentful towards my family for not exposing me to Mandarin when I was a baby to the point that I could speak it fluently. I resented them for not forcing me into Chinese school, even though I know I would’ve hated it. I feel denied an opportunity that could have been easily provided to me. I do realize how petty and terrible these thoughts are, and I wish that as a child or even as a teenager I would’ve realized how badly I would want to be fluent in my twenties so that I could have started learning earlier. Furthermore, everytime I see non-Asians and hear them speaking fluent (or comparitavely better than myself) Mandarin, I can feel a cloud forming in my mind. That’s my language, my roots, that should be me. You have taken something that’s rightfully mine, and made it yours. And yes I’m jealous and yes I realize that these feelings stem from both insecurity on my end, self-pity at my horrid stuyding efforts, and disgust at myself for thinking that I can put minimal effort into my self-studies and expect huge, noticeable changes overnight.
That’s not how this works.
I have to work. A lot. A lot more than I’m used to. This is going to be harder and more frustrating than any university course I’ve ever taken. And of course I don’t hate these people. A culmination of negative emotion and mindsets results in these thoughts, that I AM actively trying to reframe. The jealousy will likely not leave, but if I can use these situations to motivate my studies then I consider that a win.
When I left Taiwan three years ago I knew I wanted to come back for longer; ideally six months to one year for actual full immersion, this time in a smaller city. Even now this is a very important goal of mine, and something I plan to work towards since I want to accomplish it before I turn 30. It’ll take work. And there will be more moments where I just want to spend 10 minutes on Chinese. Or just skip it. But I’ll push on. Through every moment of frustration I can only hope one of equal reward arises.