Language: Bridges and Walls

9 October 2022

Language rules us all, language brings us together, and language can bind us. Words are what we use to communicate and relate to one another. Language is the basis of culture. At the same time, when we don’t share a common language, it is the force that divides us.

On office days, I like to go around the bakeries in China Town to get pastries for breakfast. I always try to order in Chinese. It was a little awkward at first but I’m getting better at it.

Most of the locals in China Town are originally from Canton or Hong Kong. I don’t really speak Cantonese but I know phrases. I have my dim sum Cantonese and I know a few of the other foods too. So, my first time ordering in China Town, I ordered in Cantonese-ish Mandarin. I said something along the lines of: “一個叉烧包” but the “一個” part was in Mandarin and the “叉烧包” was in Cantonese so the lady just kinda looked at me like WTF. When it came time to pay, she said the price in Cantonese which I didn’t pick up on at all, so I just gave her $5 and hopped for the best. Now-a-days, I just order in Mandarin. I still get tripped up time to time because I’m more used to saying certain words in Cantonese but I’m getting better.

At another bakery, the lady at the counter greeted me in English, but I was determined to practice. She kinda gave me the “what?” look but I got that transaction more cleanly.

I’m practicing Chinese again. Last year, with my primary language exchange partner (my Mom) gone, I got rusty but I’m building it back up.

About a month ago, I went to a club with my best friends girl friend. It’s an interesting experience, hanging out with my friend’s girl friend (whose also my friend) one on one but that’s a story for another time. I had to check in my bag so I was talking to the coat check lady and she surprised me by chatting me up in Mandarin. She was from Hong Kong and was learning Mandarin, so she would take any opportunity to practice. After that, any time I would go down stairs for the bathroom, I’d come and talk to her a bit.

At the end of the night, she opened up to me and told me that her brother had recently died from an over-dose. I really wonder what made her feel comfortable enough to share that with me. We were only strangers that shared a language in common. Perhaps language is enough to feel a bond with someone else, especially in a foreign land.

In contrast, language also blocks me from bonding with my grandmother. She speaks Cantonese; I can’t speak much Cantonese. We try to talk in Mandarin with sprinkled Cantonese words but in my 24 years, I still haven’t had a meaningful conversation with her. Sometimes I wonder what stories she might have that I’ve never heard before. At one point, I heavily considered studying in Hong Kong for a summer to learn Cantonese but that fell through.

I did study in Taipei for a summer to learn Mandarin. Living in Taipei is a little bizarre for me. I look like a local but the way I dress gives away my American heritage. I can get by okay with speaking but my literacy is terrible.

Speaking Chinese or Spanish makes me really self conscious. It was nerve wracking the first time I ordered in Chinese at those China Town bakeries. From time to time, I consider ordering in Spanish at a Taco truck but I stop myself because I feel like I’ll embarrass myself. At least I look the part when I speak Chinese. I feel like the Mexican cashier will just smile and reply in English.

I wonder if it’s demeaning to speak someones native language to them in the States. To me, it feels like I’m treating them as if they don’t speak English.

The English language is one of the many ways that minorities and immigrants experience discrimination in the US. There is an episode of Planet Money called “Forging Taiwan’s Silicon Shield” that talks about how Taiwanese Electrical Engineers felt that they could never move into managerial roles in the States because their English wasn’t good enough. To get that opportunity to move up, they had to move back to Taiwan to participate in the semiconductor boom.

My mom sometimes voices the same concerns of losing opportunity due to a language barrier. She’s thought about getting a PhD before. I’ve encouraged her too, I think she’s fully capable of it, but she won’t. She says her English isn’t good enough. It’s unfortunate that she’d deny herself the opportunity but that’s her reality.

I suppose that’s how I feel in Taiwan. I can get by but I feel limited in what I can and can’t do. I wanted to go to concerts in Taipei but my Chinese isn’t good enough to figure out showtimes and ticket purchases. I want to rent an apartment but I’d never be able to read the whole lease agreement. I want to make friends and meet locals but my Chinese isn’t good enough to have meaningful conversations. That’s probably all in my head though. If I can befriend the coat check lady at the club, I should be able to do all that and more.