We’ve fallen into a pattern, my new friends. And some of my old friends, in this new context. It’s a new thing, for them, but feels familiar, comfortable, for me. You see, it’s natural for me, because it’s how I grew up.
I grew up in the US, in the heart of the Midwest, a daughter of Taiwanese immigrants. Mandarin was my first language, but ceded her position as mother tongue to English early on, in a country where assimilation was survival. My parents, though, my beautifully centered and stubborn parents, did not bend to America in our household. They spoke to me in Chinese, took me to Chinese school on Saturdays, and called me by a name only hinted at on my birth certificate. As I got older, the Chinese withered on my lips, became blocky in my throat, but my parents never yielded to my swift and booming English. I was the daughter, they were the parents, they spoke in their language. But I was allowed to answer in mine.
So habits solidified. I was spoken to in Mandarin, I answered in Chinglish or English, depending on the flavor of the conversation. Entire conversations, wholly mixed, transpired all day, every day. It was fascinating for my white friends, but immigrants’ children know this way well. And we tread this path, year after year, wearing it smooth.
But a few years ago, I decided I wanted to regain my, well, my grandmother tongue. I didn’t feel quite so good about giving her up and leaving her behind. My mother’s old friends extolled her literary prowess, my father’s calligraphy was acclaimed. I knew so little of this part of the people I lived with all my life. They had this whole life steeped in another tongue that I couldn’t see clearly. So I went to Taiwan, in search of them. In search of me.
But I was never so naive to think that a few years in the grandmother land could overpower my English. My English is sharpened with whetstones of formative years, of formal education, of a lifetime of immersion. Of hegemony. My English is quick, my English is smooth, my English is rich. My Chinese stands no chance against an adversary so bright. My Chinese is stunted.
But in Taiwan, my stunted Chinese grows stronger every day. The desiccated spirit of Mandarin was watered, nurtured. It has rebounded. My piecemeal learning from childhood conjoins gladly with my new education. Of stroke order, of radicals, of visual vibrancy that has come through thousands of years and millions of people to come to me. My Chinese is stunted, is awkward, is weak on its feet. But it can now carry its own weight.
But grandmothers do not overcome their daughters in tests of strength and agility. My mother tongue still outpaces my grandmother tongue along well-worn neural tracks in my brain. But grandmother still knows some things that mother does not.
I have a few Taiwanese friends I met in college that are with me in Taiwan now. The first several years of our friendship, we conversed in English. When I first came to Taiwan, we conversed in English. When I broke out of my limited Chinese, we conversed in English. We can now speak in Chinese.
I noticed, even back in the states, that even though they knew I understood Chinese, they always fell into English with me. They didn’t have the habit that I did with my parents, of being comfortable switching back and forth between the two languages even within a sentence. If I couldn’t continue in Chinese, the whole conversation fell into English by default. It’s a point of pride that that doesn’t really happen so much anymore.
I’ve developed a different rapport with the new friends I have met while I have been in Taiwan. Almost all of them have never lived outside of Taiwan, and so when my Chinese fails, they cannot gracefully save me. But we deal. And recently, we’ve fallen into a new pattern. Because, you see, I’ve accidentally improved their English listening comprehension by blurting out a fair share of English despite myself.
What happens now, with both sets of friends, is that when we talk about something, I mean, really talk about something, pieces click into place. My feet find that familiar path. When we start speaking faster, in tandem, with excitement, the pattern reemerges. My clunky Chinese can no longer serve me in moments like this; in moments like this, my Chinese hands over the baton. My mother tongue takes over, but my partner keeps their mother at the fore. English and Chinese, bouncing back and forth, a swift parry. We have a real conversation, each speaking in the language in which they can express themselves most fully. It feels right, to talk about dreams and fears and disappointments and joy in this way. It feels like the freest expression, it feels like communication. I think it’s a new pattern for my friends. I hope it’s comfortable for them, because for me, it’s a kind of home.