How Not Knowing Chinese Made Me Question My Identity

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I’m full Chinese, but the fact that I don’t know the language makes me question how Chinese I really am.

I’m third-generation Chinese-American.

Two of my grandparents only speak Cantonese. My parents’ language skills…are a little wobbly. Then–when me and my sister were born–our family didn’t teach us the language at all.

People frequently come up to me speaking Chinese. And I have to tell them that I don’t understand. Recently, though–a stranger confronted me. “Oh,” he said, “so you’re not Chinese?”

And it stuck with me.

I became more aware of incidents where I relied on other people to speak Chinese for me. From my mom translating what my grandma said, to my hapa friend ordering food for me in Chinatown. Without language–I feel like I’m missing something.

I recently asked my parents questions–about our family and the culture. Why did they come over from China? Why do we wear red during the holidays? Why do we eat moon cake and clean the house before Chinese New Year?

I still feel pressure to learn Chinese. But I’m filling that hole in my identity with the stories of my family.


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