The Story of My Selves

Navigating identity in a bilingual household.
Writer: 
August 8, 2016

In the home videos my father filmed of my childhood, I am often the star: a skinny, bright-eyed girl, shouting with ear-piercing shrillness in Chinese, running to get back into the camera frame whenever it tries to pan away from me.

My parents like to point to these videos as proof that there existed a time when I only spoke to them in Chinese. By the third grade, however, my English had far surpassed my Chinese. By the end of high school, my Chinese language skills had slipped so far that when I tried to tell my uncle what I was hoping to study in college, I found myself at a loss for how to express myself.

Growing up, I understood early the relationship between language and identity as I struggled to manage the split identities engendered in a bilingual household. I was loath to bring friends over to my house, where I felt hampered by my parents’ watchful presence and embarrassed by the Chinese they spoke to me. In English, Emily was multifaceted, opinionated, and occasionally funny. In Chinese, she was meek, obedient, and wholly concerned with being fed, clothed, and achieving good grades. 

Perhaps that is because the Chinese I grew up with was a language based on needs and wants. Names of food, states of being, expressions of dissatisfaction or pleasure: This was the vocabulary I learned with facility and, until I went to Duke, the only Chinese vocabulary I knew. Meanwhile, in English, I had accumulated nearly two decades of word choices, idioms, and turns of phrase I liked to deploy, those elements that constitute what we call a “voice” in writing. The story of myself, it turns out, could not be translated between languages, because the language it was told in inextricably shaped the story itself.

Realizing my limitations in Chinese, I began taking heritage Mandarin classes at Duke during my sophomore year. I had been steadily becoming more interested in the history and geopolitics of East Asia, once I realized that there was an entire world of people other than my father who found the stuff fascinating. Chinese could be my ticket to an international career of travel and glamour, I thought.

Over the next two years, I worked on and off on my Chinese language skills, taking four classes (far beyond the language requirement) at an advanced level. Some days, I admit I played hooky, forgot to do my homework, or intentionally took classes pass/fail rather than for a letter grade. Learning Chinese took serious motivation, but I naturally discovered reasons, chief among them simple curiosity, for continuing my studies. 

Today, my Chinese is much better: some would say near fluent, in fact. I now live in Beijing. Much of my work requires me to speak, read, and write in Chinese. With my East Asian looks and language skills, I can easily pass as native, a useful advantage for a journalist working abroad. Yet as my Chinese has gotten better, I have not become closer to my Chinese roots as I thought I would, but rather the opposite. I float between groups of people—Americans, Chinese, Europeans—speaking their language but never quite one of them. Placeless.

Speaking Chinese now can sometimes feel like play-acting, a practice of mimicking the accents and phrasings of others. Since taking Chinese at Duke, I’ve spoken Chinese with a “standardized” Beijing accent, rather than with the Southern accent of my parents. I elect to speak in only English to them now, even as I have become more fluent in Chinese, because neither the Chinese of my girlhood nor the Chinese I use professionally feels like an authentic extension of myself—yet.

A few weeks ago in a fit of nostalgia, I listened to an old recording from a 2014 interview I taped with two Taiwanese journalists. By then, I had been learning Chinese for about a year and had just started feeling confident conversing with native speakers. There are traces of the tension between my old Chinese and new Chinese in the audio, moments where I have to pause or speak more slowly as I say familiar words with the still-unfamiliar Beijing pronunciation I was learning at Duke. I think about the little Chinese girl in my home videos and the Duke junior in the recording, imagining what it might be like if they conversed with one another. The two Emilys once again speaking the same language, but I doubt they would recognize one another.

Feng ’15 is currently a reporting intern with the Beijing bureau of The New York Times.