A Chinaman's Chance (5 page)

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
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There's a third language, which I call “public private”: the language of home when used outside the home. I heard lots of public private Chinese at parties my parents hosted for their fellow immigrants from Taiwan, at gatherings of my uncles and aunts, or at picnics or festivals with the Chinese community. In the company of friends and relatives—of peers—my mother and father spoke a kind of Chinese that was a touch more stagy, more playfully exaggerated or rhetorical than home speech. They weren't outright acting; they just injected a dose of winking theatricality—
you agree with me! How could
do that?—
with the affect of public speech. It was all the more private, more inside, for the pretense.


One of the great debates in linguistics centers on the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. The idea, developed by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf and popularized in the 1950s, posits that the structure of a language limits and even determines how speakers of that language think. So if a language has many words for X, then native speakers of that language will see the world disproportionately in terms of X. (Thus the well-known myth that Eskimos have a hundred different words for snow.)

Modern-day critics, like cognitive scientist Steven Pinker, have mocked the hypothesis as circular reasoning and reject its so-called linguistic determinism. Like Noam Chomsky before him, Pinker asserts that there is a universal human wiring for thought that
language or culture and is wholly independent of both: we all see many different kinds of snow, gray and slushy or pure and hard or wispy and fleeting; it's just a matter of how we describe it. The debate over Sapir-Whorf has been heated, even polemical, in the way of academic debates, with no decisive evidence on either side.

From a lay perspective, it seems reality lies between the two positions—indeed, must be a combination of them. You don't have to subscribe to the notion that culture wholly determines cognition (even Whorf didn't go that far) to recognize that the names people give things influence how they see things. (See, for instance, “pro-life” versus “anti-choice.”) You can imagine that humans at birth share a universal wiring for what Pinker calls “mentalese,” a prelanguage mode of making sense of the world, while still acknowledging that once born a universal human is raised in a particular place, time, and cultural context—and that the practices of that culture, not least its language, can indeed shape how the baby grows up thinking. From this position, it's possible to say that Chinese people aren't
that is, genetically and biologically—predisposed to emphasize relationships and context more than Europeans; but that when Chinese people are raised in a typically Chinese cultural environment, speaking and hearing Chinese, they do take on such values, and when they aren't, they don't.

That space of possibility is what the Michigan psychologist Richard Nisbett has explored. His work examines
How Asians and Westerners Think Differently
 . . .
and Why
, the subtitle of his 2003 book
The Geography of Thought.
Challenges pop up immediately, of course. What, exactly, is an “Asian” or a “Westerner”? Is there truly anything meaningful to be learned about such broad, even essentializing, comparisons? But read his research more closely, and interesting patterns emerge. Nisbett and his colleagues gave word triplets (panda, monkey, banana) to Chinese college students in China and European American college students in the United States. The students were asked to say which two in each set were most closely related. The Chinese students tended to create clusters based on relationship (monkey, banana), whereas the white American students created clusters based on taxonomical category (panda, monkey).

Nisbett then used a finer-toothed comb. He ran the test with ethnic Chinese students who were bilingual. Some, from China and Taiwan, were native Chinese speakers who had learned English later in life. Some, from Hong Kong and Singapore, had learned English relatively early. It turns out the second group, with earlier and more exposure to English, was more likely to gravitate toward taxonomy groupings than the first group—but that when compared with white American students, the second group was more likely to gravitate toward
groupings. It turns out there is a continuum of Whorfian influence, an implied principle of relativity: how Chinese you seem in thought and habit depends in part on whom you're next to. Which, for this native speaker of English exposed to Chinese early on, raised a question: Is “Chinese American” a relationship or a category?


When we were children, most of my cousins could speak Chinese much more fluently than I did. This was discomfiting. Within my adolescent heart were two warring impulses. Impulse 1: I wanted to fit in with my own relatives and avoid the pitying glance of an aunt or uncle as I answered their Chinese questions in English. Impulse 2: I wanted to dampen this shame with the thought that none of my cousins could match me for integration into the American mainstream. Which may have been true. But now I wonder: Does claiming Americanness truly compensate for losing Chineseness?


From the Greeks to the American pragmatists, Western philosophers have pondered the meaning of ideas like “the good.” But as we learn in Perry Link's
An Anatomy of Chinese
, it's cumbersome to create a Chinese phrase that conveys “the good”—or, for that matter, any concept that makes an adjective a noun, including most English words that end with “ness.” Happiness. Bigness. Whiteness. This “nessness,” as I call it, is a condition that Chinese semantics and syntax simply do not contemplate. “There is the whiteness of the horse or the whiteness of the snow in ancient Chinese philosophy,” writes Nisbett, “but not whiteness as an abstract, detachable concept that can be applied to almost anything.”


If to be
“useless”—was a sin during my youth, to
dong shi
was divine
. Dong shi
: “to understand things.” What things, specifically? How to be thoughtful. How to be polite. How to have discretion. How not to make others look or feel bad. How to be appropriate. This was a matter of inductive learning. There was no guidebook. It was a matter, too, of negative reinforcement. I learned via scoldings.
Ni tai bu dong shi!
“You are
not thoughtful/polite/discreet/attuned/appropriate!” My crime might have been asking Dad to take me to the mall when he was clearly tired after dialysis. Or saying something that inadvertently offended a guest. Or standing by dumbly as someone else offered to clear the table. I noticed that most often it was other, more socially mature Chinese kids my age whom my parents praised as
dong shi.
Rarely did a white friend, no matter how polite, earn the designation.


In Chinese, the placement of a single word can collapse time. Verbs are typically put into past tense when followed by the article
But if you insert the word
, which means “fast” or “quick,” ahead of the verb that's followed by
then the sentence no longer signifies completed action; it now signifies impending action. Thus:

Wo chi.
I eat.

Wo chi le.
I ate/have eaten.

Wo kuai chi le.
I'm just about to eat.

Wo xue.
I learn.

Wo xue le.
I learned/have learned.

Wo kuai xue le.
I'm just about to learn.

Put a hint of speed in front of the past to signal that change is imminent.


When I got to college, I decided to take Level 1 Chinese. The idea was to go back to the beginning and retrace the steps that had brought me to a child's level of patchwork proficiency. Of course, I had an advantage over classmates who'd never heard, much less tried to say, the four tones of Mandarin. But this advantage of exposure actually made things harder for me at first, in the way that someone who has been an amateur, untrained athlete can suddenly lose his ability when under proper coaching he's forced to spell out his tacit knowledge, pay explicit attention to movements, and unlearn bad habits.

After an initial phase of self-consciousness, though, I found it enormously satisfying to learn precisely why certain rhythms and sentence constructions had always felt “right” and certain others just hadn't. There was a hidden logic behind it all. My textbooks spelled it out at a level of detail that might have been mind-numbing to some—there were whole chapters on when to use
and for which of many purposes—but for me was thrilling. For the first time, I heard clearly what my relatives had been saying—that is, I understood the rules that governed their speech, rules I'd noticed but hadn't systematized and couldn't replicate in my own speech. Now I could. I could converse with my grandmothers, no sheepish apology required. In certain moments, I could muster or at least mimic some of the mock-stagy confidence of the joshing between my father and his friends. Even though my vocabulary remained limited, I started speaking Chinese
as if
I were fluent—as if I'd gone back in time and given myself years of fluency.

Then, after doing four semesters and completing Level 2, I stopped. I felt I had enough to get by. I could do everyday conversation now. I wasn't interested in being able to read the Chinese newspaper or talk politics or history in Chinese. I had become interested in talking politics and history in
. Diplomacy, strategy, European great power rivalries, military history, American political history: this is what I wanted to fill my credit hours and my brain with. So I did. That brief moment, when I could glimpse being more than passable at Chinese, passed.


Spoken Standard Chinese
, volume 1, by Parker Po-Fei Huang and Hugh M. Stimson:

The experiential verbal suffix -guo
. This suffix indicates that the actions of the verb to which it is suffixed happened at least once in the past. It differs from the past tense verbal suffix
guo (–guo
) in always carrying the neutral tone and in never occurring with the sentence particle
that means “action completed in the past.” . . .

ni dao Ouzhou ‘quguo meiyou?
Have you ever been to Europe?

wo mei quguo.
No, I haven't.

ni chiguo Zhongguo fan ma?
Have you ever eaten Chinese food?

wo chiguo. Women chang chi
Yes, I have.We often eat

Zhongguo fan.
Chinese food.

In short: the same suffix
(literally, “pass by”) can be used in two subtly different contexts, one to signify something that happened, the other to signify an experience that's been had. How wide is this gap between “It happened” and “I have had this experience”?


One of my great regrets is that my father never knew I was a speechwriter for an American president. I think he would have felt a specific kind of pride. He wouldn't have been boastful; that wasn't his way. He would have been gratified as a fellow wordsmith. Though Chao-hua Liu was never officially in the word business, he was nonetheless a master. His ear—his instinct for killer ways to make a point, both logically and musically—was nearly as good in English as it was in Chinese. He would have been proud that my command of my native language had given me this opportunity. He would also have discerned, I like to think, how a lifetime of being steeped in my second language—a tongue of poetic conventions, implied meanings, freighted terseness—had shaped my instrument.

By far the most consequential speeches I wrote for President Clinton were for the 1994 commemoration of the fiftieth anniversary of D-Day and the Allied invasion of Normandy. Here was a Gen X son of Chinese immigrants crafting words for the first baby boomer president and a son of the South, as he thanked the GI generation and the father he never knew. At his remarks at the American military cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer, facing rows of aged veterans of the Longest Day, President Clinton spoke for seven minutes. I mouthed the words as they came out of his mouth. And when I saw those tough old men in the front row quaver as they tried but failed to stem the tide of tears, I too began to cry. Like a child.

Oh, they may walk with a little less spring in their step, and their ranks are growing thinner. But let us never forget: When they were young, these men saved the world. . . .

For just as freedom has a price, it also has a purpose, and its name is progress. . . .

Our parents did that and more; we must do nothing less. They struggled in war so that we might strive in peace.

Lines like these did not follow the five- or seven-beat cadence of
They were crafted in the idiom of this country, this language. They borrowed from the plain-speaking testimony of GIs, the classical parallelism and antitheticality of a Lincoln or a Kennedy, the idealistic folksiness of a Reagan. These were not Chinese rhythms. But what I had learned from Chinese was that rhythm itself has meaning—that rhythm
meaning, because a particular pattern of beats can evoke a particular place and time. What I had learned from Chinese was that when words leave the tongue just so, we can, if but for a moment, claim another's memory as our own.

A Guide to Punctuation


This is the standard grammatical form for describing an American of Chinese ethnicity. But that hyphen vexes me: it implies an interaction rather than a person. As in: “Chinese-American cooperation,” or “Chinese-American conflict,” or “Chinese-American commerce.” I am not merely an adjectival description of a transaction. I am a noun. I am a person.


I've always thought the slash would be a useful way for many first-generation immigrants to signify their state of mind: more harshly divided than the hyphenated form—interrupted, even. The slash signifies the bifurcated life of the person born and raised in one land who then births and raises children in another. It plays, when spoken, not as a single phrase but as two, separated by staccato silence: Chinese (slight pause). American (sigh).

Chinese, American

Here's a way to list identities as if on an application form (“Please indicate national cultures in which you are fluent or proficient”). This is for the cosmopolitan who truly does live in both countries and cultures (or more than two), and for whom identity feels like a wholly elective affair, a menu from which to choose and within which to delineate a sequence, a considered and implicit priority. You could imagine this being just the start of a list (Chinese, American, Jamaican, Dutch, Honduran . . . ).

Chinese (American)

This seems to be the right way to punctuate the person whose Americanness is an afterthought—either because she lives in a Chinatown enclave that only in its barely visible infrastructure is American and is otherwise saturated in Chineseness, or because she is so secure in her ability to navigate mainstream America that she can wear Chineseness like a jade adornment.

(Chinese) American

Inversely, this ought to be how very assimilated people are identified. Only passingly Chinese, trying hard to pass for not-at-all Chinese.




A mathematical notation worth pondering. Chineseness is the numerator, the thing ever to be divided, diluted; Americanness, the denominator, the base against which the other thing is compared, pressed, and brought down to size. The older I get, the more I realize this notation captures the intergenerational experience—the rate of change, as they say in calculus. Or decay.

Chinese American

This form of nonpunctuated punctuation is powerful, a thing of beauty. It consists of a modifier and the modified. That's it. “American” is the noun, preceded by the adjective depicting what kind, what style, what flavor, what shape of American: “Chinese.” No qualifications, provisos, footnotes, ambiguities. The only thing between the two halves is a tiny bit of white space.

BOOK: A Chinaman's Chance
9.4Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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