Both sides of the hyphen

“You guys didn’t do as well on this midterm as I’d hoped—well, I always hope someone will get a perfect grade…”

My midterm lay abandoned to one side—not a perfect grade by far, but I’d planned on taking this course Cr/D since the beginning of the semester anyway. I paged lazily through my notebook, tuning the professor out.

“Even the Chinese heritage students didn’t do so well, but you know, it’s harder for our three non-heritage students anyway, so to tell the truth, I gave them five extra points on the exam. Some of the mistakes people made were really strange, I’m not sure how you came up with this…”

He continued, pointing out misused phrases in fill-in-the-blank questions. I was now afraid to look up. None of the other students seemed to have noticed the fact that the professor just said he’d adjusted the grades based on race.

This isn’t the first time I’ve had a professor explicitly favor non-heritage language learners in a Chinese class at Yale, and I suspect it won’t be the last. My professor’s perception is this: non-heritage students are plucky and courageous for confronting the daunting prospect of studying Mandarin Chinese, whereas heritage students in the class are just there to get the language requirement done.

I can see where my professor is coming from—Chinese can be intimidating to learn and grants few mercies to those who take it on as a second language. However, the assumption that the study of Chinese literature comes instinctively to heritage speakers is faulty and dangerous, a symptom of the larger phenomenon of the negation of Chinese-American identity.

Chinese-Americans occupy a liminal space on the battlefield of ethnicity, identity, and nationalism because they are ignored by both sides of the hyphen: China and Chinese nationals don’t consider Chinese-Americans to be a distinct or different group. To them, Chinese-Americans are simply Chinese people who happen to live in the United States, a distant land where the One Child Policy doesn’t exist and everyone has cars. Chinese-Americans can return to the homeland at any time; thus, they are still functionally Chinese. Meanwhile, from the American side, Chinese-Americans are still fresh off the boat, forever alien, and can be neatly summed up by stale archetypes presented in Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. And really, that’s all you need to know about the Chinese-American narrative: the angst of not fitting in, the eventual coming-to-terms with one’s heritage, perhaps returning with the motherland or learning the  government-sanctioned Mandarin language in order to tearfully connect with estranged tiger parents. After Chinese-Americans embrace the exotic side of their doubled identity, their stories end. Presumably, nothing of note happens once their cultural dissonance is resolved.

Whether the Chinese-American voice is an oppressed one or simply just quieter than others, the fact remains that it is continually overlooked and ignored. We see this in Hollywood, where production studios and distribution companies, faced with declining audience numbers in the states, fiercely court the lucrative Chinese market. Kung Fu Panda 3 (2016) reanimated the mouths of characters to reflect the oral shape of Mandarin dialogue for release in China; The Great Wall (2017) shamelessly drew on Chinese star power in casting Lu Han and Andy Lau while recruiting Zhang Yimou to direct. Disney, in its upcoming live-action remake of Mulan (2018), is going over the heads of Chinese-American actresses and straight to China to cast the titular role, English-speaking abilities be damned.

Chinese-Americans are outraged. Chinese-Americans are also being ignored, because their voices aren’t loud enough, aren’t strong enough, aren’t numerous enough to be factored into decisions being made by the global powers on either side of the hyphens.

But systemic whitewashing and casual racism in Hollywood is sadly no longer newsworthy; in fact, it’s part and parcel of the regular state of affairs, especially when we’re so racist to ourselves. I’ve lost track of the number of times that I have been told by a professor of Chinese that I am less impressive or less important than my non-Chinese-American peers; I smile and nod when another language instructor gushes over the progress of her non-heritage, non-Chinese-American students over lunch at the Chinese language table. I am not noticed. That is fine. I am not important. That is fine. I am not worthy of consideration because I, as a heritage language speaker, have an innate advantage when it comes to studying this language—as if I don’t also impose English grammar structures onto Chinese sentences by accident. As if I don’t also mispronounce words or miss cultural references. As if I don’t also have difficulty learning Mandarin Chinese because English is, in fact, my primary language.

Is it a wonder, then, why Chinese-Americans throw themselves more toward one side of the hyphen than the other? Why some say proudly, “I don’t know any Chinese, but I do know French?” Until the Yale Chinese department recognizes the existence and uniqueness of a Chinese-American identity, it will be impossible to assess heritage students on their own merit. And until professors stop calculating my worth as a student by the color of my skin, there is no way I can feel at home studying a language that is supposedly my own.

Leave a Reply