Real You Mandarin: Angela Lin on Empowering American-born Mandarin Speakers to have Adult Conversations

Real You Mandarin is an online language course created by Taiwanese American and Taiwanese co-founders Angela Lin and Jane Liu.

Angela is Taiwanese American, with extensive language learning experience across multiple languages and learning techniques. As creator and co-host of the But Where Are You Really From? Podcast, she has spent years discussing the unique cultural and identity challenges faced by Asian Americans, and brings that exploration as inspiration for this course.

Jane, a native of Taiwan, brings 4 years of experience teaching Mandarin to students globally. Raised in Taiwan but having lived in Australia and Europe for several years, she offers a special blend of Taiwanese heritage and Western perspectives.

Combining their unique cultural points of view and language abilities across East and West, Angela and Jane were inspired to fill the very apparent gap they saw in the market and finally create a Mandarin language resource tailor-made for this underserved audience. We were excited for the opportunity to learn more about why Angela built Real You Mandarin, especially as a tool that will empower American-born Taiwanese to have deeper, more meaningful conversations with those we love.

Hi Angela! It looks like we have pretty similar backgrounds as Taiwanese Americans born and raised in the United States,  with access to resources and a Mandarin-speaking community to develop “enough” fluency to get by but not quite enough to deeply communicate with the people in our adult lives. What was your language upbringing like?

A: I grew up speaking Mandarin at home, particularly with my mom. My dad liked to speak English with me because he had English-speaking clients so wanted to practice with me, but it was always Mandarin-first with my mom. Although she spent some time learning English going to “Adult School” (ESL-type class for adult immigrants), she never felt that comfortable speaking it so we always defaulted to Mandarin. 

That sounds really familiar. Both of my parents spoke Mandarin and Taiwanese at home and expected the same of me, but they did send me to Taiwanese school every week to learn to read and write, too. What about you? 

A: From a formal education standpoint, my parents sent me to Chinese School every Sunday from when I was 5 years old up through high school graduation. That’s where I learned reading and writing, too. Although I graduated top of my class and even skipped a few grades, by the time I graduated at age 17, even back then I recognized that my overall Mandarin level was close to child-level compared to my peers back in Taiwan. 

Right, I think most American-born kids feel that way, and to be fair, one day of immersion is not the same as daily education. I think it’s also a very different modality to learn a language for the sake of fluency vs. using a specific language to learn to be a human in this world, to express yourself and understand others. 

A: Absolutely. Aside from that formal education, from a cultural immersion standpoint I also had two main avenues for that. Every 1-3 years, my family would spend summers in Taiwan with our extended family where I’d be there for all of summer vacation (~3 months), speaking Mandarin with my aunts/uncles and of course cousins. The other avenue which is perhaps most unlike some of my peers, is because I grew up in a Taoist family, I spent Saturday afternoons (in the US, not Taiwan) attending a cultural class where I studied Confucian texts. Though I barely understood what was happening from a content standpoint, it was another avenue that forced me to read and speak Chinese. 

So what are some personal experiences that inspired you to build Real You Mandarin

A: I have always struggled with trying to express myself fully, particularly with my parents. At the root of it, the cultural gap between growing up in the west vs. the east played a huge factor in my inability to properly communicate as well.

Probably the biggest and earliest culture clash I remember was when I was in high school,  thinking about what I wanted to study in college, and trying to explain to my parents that I wanted to pursue something I was passionate about rather than just something “steady” that could earn a high salary. I was at a huge loss for words because it wasn’t just that I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain my perspective; it was also that my parents fundamentally didn’t understand why I would be thinking that way because they grew up so differently from me. 

I definitely relate to having the basic words to express what you want, but not having the depth of language to effectively communicate why. I can’t feel seen or understood until my parents understand why something matters to me. They can disagree– and they probably will! But I would feel better if this conflict came from a place of profound, true understanding. These aren’t conversations that Mandarin textbooks prepare you for.

A: I completely agree. The lack of vocabulary made me feel helpless and childlike, and the cultural gap made me feel quite distant from my parents. This and then countless similar conversations growing up after becoming an adult and wanting to express my opinions about things like societal and political events, supporting the LGBT community, and so many more “complex” conversations, but feeling unequipped to, was the main inspiration for my course.

Your approach is such an accessible, immediately useful way to accelerate your fluency. I love that your first few modules are about dating, relationships, and pop culture, but also that your next series will go one step further and support Mandarin conversations about growing up as a minority, relationships, mental health, and sexuality. How do you envision this programming serving American-born Taiwanese? What difference do you hope to make in our community?

A: As the name of the course suggests, our hope with the course is that we can help other American-born Mandarin speakers start to express their “real” selves when they try to have these deeper conversations with family, friends, and back in the motherland. 

Ooh, yes, I love that framing of not just our “real” selves but our whole selves… feeling empowered to communicate the fullness of our experiences and perceptions, not just what was available to us within a Mandarin-speaking household or weekend program.

A: This sense of empowerment is at the core of it. As an avid language learner myself (I speak intermediate Japanese and advanced Spanish as well), I know first-hand the power of language in making you feel empowered, as well as the ability to make you feel like you’ve quite literally lost your voice when you aren’t able to fully express your opinions like you can in your native tongue (in our case, English, since we grew up in the US). 

Unlike true “foreign” languages like Japanese and Spanish in my case, when it came to wanting to improve my Mandarin, I always felt like my level didn’t fit nicely into any regular class. I knew too much from a speaking/pronunciation, reading/writing, and cultural standpoint to start from scratch, but had way too many fundamental gaps in reading/writing and “common knowledge” things to jump into something more advanced. From having many other Taiwanese-American and Chinese-American friends growing up, I knew there were plenty of others who felt the same.

That got me wondering why no one had ever built a Mandarin course catered to people like us. We all kept getting the same advice that we had to just “immerse.” Watch Chinese language shows on Netflix and spend lots of time in the motherland. Ok, but how does that help me speak my mind better now with my own family? It doesn’t.

So how did that ignite a product-based solution?

A: The catalyst for actually building this course came from a recent trip back to Taiwan where I had to act as translator between my non-Chinese husband and in-laws, my parents, and pretty much everyone else in Taiwan. I felt stifled with my child-like vocabulary, to the point where I was inspired to hire a private tutor to learn more “real-life” vocabulary just to get by more easily in Taiwanese society. Things like common vocabulary and role playing scenarios at restaurants, bars, taking transportation, etc. 

Between having this recent experience and feeling at a loss of having no Mandarin resources tailored to the ABC/ABT audience, I figured, if no one else was going to make this resource for us, maybe I should just be the one to do it myself! So I teamed up with my Taiwan-based Mandarin tutor and crafted Real You Mandarin focused specifically on navigating these “real life” conversations that we’re all already having in English, but struggle with tackling in Mandarin. 

And I’m sure you realized very quickly that it’s not just about translating the words, right? Like what are you trying to solve for that Google Translate can’t?

A: A huge part of what we realized in developing this course was having to overcome cultural gaps, not just pure word-for-word translation. Language is not 100% translatable – all the people who tell us to just “watch Chinese shows on Netflix” don’t realize that learning how to speak fluently in Mandarin like someone back in Taiwan or China does not help us express things that only other people who grew up in the west care about – things like how meaningful seeing true media representation in Everything Everywhere All At Once was, or why growing up as a minority has shaped our world-view in so many ways, or why seeking individual passions and pursuits is not selfish, despite what the tenets of filial piety might dictate. 

Yes! So not just having the right words, but the right framing, the right delivery, the right approach – all of that matters in effective communication. I would feel so much more confident trying to express myself if I felt like I had all of these tools to work with.

A: Exactly. Helping other American-born and raised individuals be able to bridge some of these gaps and empower themselves to find their voice again, is at the heart of our mission at Real You Mandarin.

What are some ways that advancing your fluency has changed or deepened your relationships with your Mandarin-speaking family and friends? How have they responded? 

A: I think the changes are subtle. Although I still wouldn’t consider myself natively fluent by any means, even the tiniest bit of improvement in being able to talk about “real” things like mental health with my parents has deepened our relationship in that they see me a little bit less like a child and more like an adult. 

That’s probably the biggest thing, right? The vocabulary we’re taught growing up are the ones most useful for us as children communicating with adults, often from a position of deference. That’s a particular toolkit of vocabulary, and what you’re saying makes me realize that maybe it keeps us stuck in that kind of relational dynamic even when we can, and should, evolve. 

A: I honestly think having a language gap makes it so our parents feel it’s easier to just not have those types of conversations with us, or want to give up shortly after getting started, than try to get any deeper. But when I push past the initial resistance, and try to continue that conversation, even with my imperfect vocabulary, my parents are more willing to continue engaging as well. 

I’m sure the changes aren’t overnight, though.

A: As with most things with Asian parents, it’s not like anyone is going to come right out and pat you on the back and say “wow, good job! I can tell you’ve worked really hard on improving your Mandarin!” Again, it’s subtle. Just as I have noticed in deepening my Japanese and Spanish, it’s that they quietly let you in more on deeper conversations or their true thoughts on things. After all, isn’t deepening human connection one of the greatest pursuits in life in general? Being able to keep digging away at deepening those relationships by removing those language barriers little by little is what it’s all about. 

You also host a popular podcast, BUT WHERE ARE YOU REALLY FROM, dissecting and reflecting second-generation Taiwanese American experiences. What have you learned in the last few years about the Asian American community? What has surprised you?

A: It’s been such a rewarding experience hosting But Where Are You Really From? over the past 4 years (!!). My co-host and I have had the opportunity to explore so many different topics over the years, as well as meet so many different Asian-American guests. Although we are all unique individuals, it’s clear that regardless of what type of “Asian” we all are, the Asian-American community is a strong one, and we have a deep bond with one another because of having so many shared experiences growing up bridging the cultural gap between east and west.

Surprisingly, I think one of the main things I’ve learned is that growing up Asian-American has shaped our identities and world views on so many different things in life, but does not in and of itself have to define who we are. Though my co-host and I started the show trying to tackle exclusively “Asian-American” topics like filial piety, model minority, etc., we quickly realized that these things are only a part of who we all are. It’s once we started expanding the topics to things like mental health, dating and relationships, and other “real life” topics that anyone regardless of race can relate to, that we realized that growing up Asian-American already naturally shapes how we view all these things, even if these topics are not inherently “Asian.” For example, we realized we both had challenges with expressing love in explicit ways like through words of affirmation or touch, and more naturally lean towards acts of service because that’s how we experienced love from our families growing up.

Additionally, after living abroad in Asia these last two years (Japan, Korea, Taiwan), I also started to appreciate just how unique Asian-American identity is from “Asian” identity, and started sharing more of that on the podcast. Ironically, living abroad in Asia for this extended period of time has helped me feel more secure in my “American-ness” because that’s generally how others see me when I’m living in these Asian countries. 

No one cares that I’m “Taiwanese-American” – they just see me as American, because culturally I am deeply American even if my parents and extended family are all from Taiwan. I realized that this dual identity concept is unique to immigrants, and is not something that people of more ethnically monolithic countries can easily understand. That realization actually helped in the development of Real You Mandarin quite a bit, as when my Taiwanese co-founder tried to translate some of these dialogues in which culture clashes existed, I pushed strongly to ensure that the translations accurately reflected the “Asian-American” view, and had to go many steps deeper to explain things like what being a “token Asian” really means, since that’s not a concept that a Taiwanese born- and raised individual would inherently understand or know how to articulate at first pass.

You’re really helping us tell our stories, even to the people we feel know us best.
A:  It’s funny because in a lot of ways, I’ve felt like all the experiences I’ve had up until this point with the podcast and engaging with the community on social media has equipped me with what I need to tackle bringing Real You Mandarin to life. I truly hope that this course kickstarts other American-born individuals’ desire to improve their Mandarin so that they can unlock the part of them that they’ve had tucked away for all these years and empower them to feel like their real selves when they speak Mandarin.

This is going to be such a powerful resource for our community, Angela. Thank you so much for taking the time to share it with us. 

Real You Mandarin:

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