From coffee beans to caramel

Cal in Color

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While I was growing up, my father was always a huge advocate for my brother and me preserving our native tongue. From this came the rule that we were to only speak Chinese at home because, after all, practice makes perfect.

Unfortunately, his adamance became a main source of conflict between my father and me as I got older. 

Often, I would return home from school, ecstatic to share with my parents something that had happened in my day. I’d excitedly ramble on in English, forgetting to make the transition from school to home. Every time, my father would calmly allow me to finish before saying, mandarin syllables tumbling smoothly off his tongue, “Say it in Chinese. We’re all Chinese here. Why would you use another language?”

I remember, in particular, hearing one of his spiels about the importance of speaking Chinese and being so frustrated that I yelled at him, “No one cares except for you! We live in America, and Chinese is useless!” 

I genuinely hated it then. 

English, to me, felt trendy, international. It slipped out of my mouth as smooth as caramel. Chinese was awkward, bulky, mundane, like chewing coffee beans.

The words must have stung, but my father didn’t say anything back, just remained silent until I grudgingly repeated myself in Chinese. 

“Trust me,” he said quietly afterward, “Chinese or not, the gift of language is one of the greatest in the world. Being fluent is something you should be proud of. Your culture is something you should be proud of.”

As the years went on, in acts of prepubescent rebellion, I began adamantly refusing to speak in Chinese. I made it clear to my parents that I would either speak English or not speak at all. It was only until the beginning of high school, when we stepped out of the airport in China, that I fully realized the extent of the damage I’d done to myself. 

There, as my relatives enveloped me in their embrace, the Chinese that came tumbling out of their mouths, like coffee beans once seeming so bulky and bitter, instantly felt rich and warm and familiar. But I found myself hardly speaking with them — not because I didn’t want to but because I couldn’t. 

From there, I resolved to allow the culture I’d abandoned to reenter my life. It started out small, but, before long, I was able to hold casual conversations, acknowledge holidays and traditions, teach my brother about the culture, once again. 

While hanging out with some friends here in Berkeley recently, I got a call from my mother. Unable to step out of the room at the time, I picked up the phone but lowered my voice as much as possible. I’m long past being ashamed of my Chinese, but I did still feel awkward speaking it around anyone outside of my family. 

I’ve rarely had the opportunity to use Chinese with anyone else, besides the occasional restaurant order, so speaking it in front of others felt too intimate. I was, ironically, embarrassed, not of having limited proficiency, but of being fluent in a language I didn’t consider beautiful, like French or Italian. 

After my five-minute conversation with my mother, I returned somewhat self-consciously to my friends on the other side of the room. To my surprise, I was welcomed back with deferential jealousy 

“Your Chinese is so pretty!” 

“I wish I could speak another language like that.”

A few weeks later, around Lunar New Year, while hanging out with another group of friends — many of whom were also Chinese — I stepped aside to make a quick call to my grandparents and wish them a happy new year. 

Returning to the group, I received similar comments as before, except this time, some of my friends also expressed how they wished their parents had forced them to use Chinese as mine had. Several expressed disappointment and regret for being unable to converse with their grandparents. Others are now taking beginning Chinese courses at UC Berkeley in hopes of recovering a part of the heritage they’d lost. 

Hearing these comments surprised me. For years, my Chinese was something I couldn’t even be proud of, much less something I’d imagine others respecting or envying. 

I realized, however, that I’d always admired my peers who could speak other languages, something especially prominent here in Berkeley, where I’ve met more people of different cultures than ever before. 

Whether my reluctance to speak Chinese was a lasting grudge against my father or a form of internalized racism and self-consciousness, I’m not sure. What I do know now is that, like he always told me, the gift of language is one of the greatest in the world. I am lucky to have grown up in an environment conducive to multilingualism.

My Chinese still isn’t as good as it could’ve been had I not gone through my period of defiance, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and the negative mindset I’ve remediated. And the words that had become foreign, that felt like coffee beans in my mouth, they’ve started flowing more smoothly now, too — not quite the consistency of caramel yet, but I’m getting there. 

Manya Zhao writes the Friday column on being a person of color at UC Berkeley. Contact her at [email protected]