Read along. “I pledge allegiance to the Flag of the United States of America and to the Republic for which it stands, one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” You may have just recited the pledge, but assuming that you are a product of the American education system, you probably have done so without actually reading along. From what I have observed during morning announcements in public schools, everyone memorized the pledge. Each of my classmates used to mumble the script in a synchronized, yet robotic tone. Not me, though. I mean, I stood up and put my hand on my chest like everyone else, but my mouth never moved to say the Pledge of Allegiance. As a result, I still cannot recite it to this day.
I got by with not saying the pledge for many years, until my fourth-grade teacher caught me one morning and tried to make me recite the pledge on my own. He first enticed me with the prize of our classroom currency. Five dollars, ten dollars, twenty dollars. I was not moved by the money; even as a fourth grader, I had a strong ego that would not allow me to give in, let alone during a situation regarding my national pride. As a result of my stubbornness, the teacher lost his patience and penalized me with “silent lunch.” In my elementary school, “silent lunch” was a public exhibition of the ill-behaved kids, designed to shame the one who caused trouble. Troubled kids must sit at wobbly desks with dents and metal ruler carvings of “You suck.” The desks are placed strategically in the dark, shady corner by the entrance so everyone walking by can conveniently communicate their disdainful looks. The commercial-sized trash cans stand sturdily and uncomfortably close, as if to remind students of their worth. Milk and PB&J are carelessly tossed on brown trays. During my exhibition, I initially lowered my head, not wanting my friends to recognize me and think I was the bad kid who got in trouble. However, as I reflected on the situation, I grew proud of myself for defending my pride despite the penalty.
I did not eat anything at school that day; instead, I removed the plastic wrapping from the PB&J and tore up the crust of the sandwich—tearing because I needed to displace anger and only the crust because I did not want jam on my fingers. The teacher—either from kind concern or dire need to control—approached the shady corner I sat in and said something to the effect of “Wendy, quit playing and eat your lunch.”
Haha, you call this lunch? Never provoke or suppress the freedom of a fourth-grader who just learned the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Dictator. I have the freedom of speech, and you can’t make me say the pledge if I don’t want to.
As a kid with sky-high ego and a smoking rage, I acted out my instinct: I picked up my tray, walked straight past him with my head held high, and dumped my lunch into the trash can as a sign of defiance. From that day on, I lost my job as the classroom paper-filer and errand-runner, but I did not care. I preferred to lose my titles than work for a tyrannical, jingoistic teacher who had no respect for my background.
I belong to a group called ABCs—American-Born Chinese—a group of second-generation immigrants whose parents immigrated to America ten, twenty, or maybe thirty years ago from China. Despite my identity as an American-Born, I am immensely Chinese. This is probably the result of the exclusively Chinese environment my parents created for me in my childhood. I grew up speaking Chinese, watching Chinese cartoons, reading Chinese books, and eating Chinese foods. To further preserve my Chinese roots, my parents banned English in the home and sent me to Chinese school every Saturday. This is the foundation of my Chinese identity, which eventually led to the Pledge of Allegiance incident.
In my early years, I was so connected to my Chinese roots that I did not learn the English language until my first-grade ESOL classes. I knew some simple words, such as apple and banana, but I was far from fluent. In addition to not understanding what anybody was saying, I also had difficulty adjusting to American tastes. Lunch was nauseating. Why do Americans like the stinky, moldy stench of cheese? I ate the slightly less stinky pizza crust in silence. The cafeteria also served “orange chicken with fried rice” on rare occasions. As Chinese as that may sound, it was nothing like what I ate at home. Overly sweet sauce haphazardly mixed with greasy, fried chicken bits, all stacked on top of some mushy rice is definitely not what my parents cooked. Authentic fried rice is made with leftover white rice; the overnight fridge dwell allows the rice to harden and not wither into a pudding when getting fried. Not to mention that orange chicken is not even remotely Chinese. Chinese people do not just fry up diced chicken breast and drench it in syrupy soy sauce. ESOL classes and the cafeteria’s staunch faith in cheese and Panda Express-inspired food drowned me in a dominant American culture.
I eventually got over the stench of cheese and became fluent in English. However, I still rarely spoke at school. It was not because I was not confident in my English-speaking ability, but rather because all my classmates would exclaim, “Wendy just talked!!!!!” I always hated their reaction, as they seemed like they never expected me to learn English. For this reason, I learned to glue my mouth shut and was labeled, perhaps even self-labeled, as the silent kid in my elementary school career.
Relative to my English, my Chinese was much better. As an ABC, I knew how to speak Mandarin, understand the Fuzhou dialect, and read both simplified and traditional characters. I have never met other ABCs that can communicate on the same level as me. In my seventh-grade math class, we had a new student: a math genius who just immigrated from China and did not speak English at all. My math teacher put him in between me and another Chinese girl, asking us to translate for him.
“Get out your textbook.” Or, “Homework is due next Monday.”
As the teacher moved from announcing logistics to teaching content, I experienced increasing difficulty in translating. I could not translate English words like “isosceles triangle” or “denominator” into Chinese. The most I could squeeze out was “the kind of triangle that looks like an ice cream cone” or “the number to the right of a slash.” It was then that I realized that I was unfit for the job; I failed as a translator because of my limited exposure to mathematical terms in Chinese.
As I grew up and attained more English vocabulary, my control over the English language advanced far ahead of my parents’; consequently, I received the task of translating for them. I gradually grew accustomed to immediately translating for my parents whenever I heard English spoken to them in public. When we go to any non-Chinese restaurant, which is rare, I ask my parents which sub-categories of food they want, and read those parts of the menu to them in Chinese. I perform the daunting task of ordering food regardless of whether we order “chicken alfredo” or “bouillabaisse,” and I ask for napkins and checks while my parents stare admiringly at me. A similar situation occurs almost every day; whenever English-speaking society made contact with my parents through English, I always found myself standing in the middle, serving as a translator.
My parents speak “broken English,” a form of English that instantly marginalizes people, shoving them out from opportunities toward the brim of American society. One night, my family gathered at a Korean barbecue restaurant. Dark lighting, loud music, piquant aroma of meat mixed in with the smell of charcoal, seats full, customers drunk, waiters agitated. There, I heard my mom, for the first time, speak English with a confident tone. The waiter provided poor service, ignored our orders, and tossed plates across the table rather than setting them down quietly.
His behavior infuriated my mom, who, at last, asked for the manager. With her deficient English she said, “I come here happy to eat dinner…everybody so happy. He *tossing hand motion* the this one *points to the plate* and BONG BING BANG! He I don’t know why. *frowns* I no happy!”
Following her speech, I organized my mom’s thoughts and said, “We came here to celebrate my mom’s birthday, but the waiter gave us a really bad attitude, ignored our request to change tables because the grill didn’t work, and tossed plates at us.”
“I no coming here no more. He cannot,” she continued.
“You have lost our business with you. My mom said that your food is awesome, but she cannot tolerate bad service,” I explained.
I understood what my mom wanted to express, but I always felt the need to correct her in fear that others will not be able to understand her broken English. To me, her form of English is one that only her closest family members would understand, but not everyone else.
Despite my parents’ admiration of my English-speaking ability, I never told them that their daughter’s English is limited too, as I only encounter English at school and in public facilities. A few years ago, my dad was admitted to the emergency room in Los Angeles. My mom called me, explained the situation in a panic, and asked me to translate. As I spoke to the doctor, I grew increasingly less confident in my limited English vocabulary, as the doctor would say things like embolism, agnosia, and dysarthria. I sat at my desk, listening closely to the doctor, while at the same time looking up each word I did not recognize.
“At this time, we are not sure what caused him to be unconscious. We will have to arrange a CT scan to see if he has a stroke.”
When the doctor finished each sentence, I quickly looked up each instance of medical jargon, Google-translated them into Chinese, and explained the conditions in simplified terms to my mom. Those days were extremely stressful for me; in addition to my worry for my dad, I also feared those phone calls from the doctors—who spoke only with words from their medical textbook—and feared having to translate “胃镜” into English on the spot. (I later learned that “胃镜” is “gastroscopy.”)
As I grew older, my parents stopped sending me to Chinese school and began to incorporate English vocabulary into our home. Since then, we started speaking our own invented pidgin, Chinglish; thinking back on it, I now realize that Chinglish benefits both my parents and me. Chinglish helps me retain my Chinese-speaking abilities and allows my parents to acquire more English vocabulary. This change is reflected at the dinner table. My family still exclusively eats Chinese food, but we occasionally serve dessert: a deep dish with a chocolate chip cookie, three scoops of vanilla ice cream, and chocolate syrup drizzled on top. After I gloss my mouth with chocolate, I might say, “Hey, mom, ni ke yi gei wo napkin ma?”
“No problem,” she replies.
The kind of bilingual education my parents provided me is a form many immigrant families adopt. At home, I was taught how to speak Chinese, to make Chinese foods, to read Chinese books, and to respect Chinese cultural values. On the other hand, in school, I learned to speak English, to be a creative thinker, and to tolerate the pungent smell of cheese. To this day, I have not yet mastered either language, nor do I eat coagulated pig blood or macaroni and cheese. I do not have the same dietary habits as my parents, yet I also do not align with American eating patterns. Although I don’t have dual citizenship, I do have a dual identity. Chinese represents my life as the daughter of immigrant parents, while English represents my identity as a U.S. citizen. Phrases such as “duì niú tán qín,” which literally means to play lute to a cow, only exist in my Chinese vocabulary, and I add fish sauce to everything I eat. On the other hand, I cannot write in Chinese and words and phrases like PowerPoint and home sweet home only exist in my English vocabulary. I also order pizza with extra cheese. I have come to the conclusion that I can only master different parts of English and Chinese language and culture, as they represent my two distinct, yet fusing lives. The fusion, initiated by the collision of my parallel backgrounds, births new categories of food and a new language. External fusion concocts foods like sushirrito, rice burger, and pad thai tacos through integrating elements of various culinary traditions. Internal fusion births Chinglish; by piecing together the areas of English and Chinese which I have mastered, I have become proficient in Chinglish, a language that bridges my two identities.