… when I tell people that I wasn’t born here, and that I came here to go to college, they’re consistently surprised, “What? But your English is so good!” like it’s completely unnatural that I can string my words together cohesively and not say “Engrish”.
I won’t lie. I have always prided myself on my “good English”. It is a skill that I have mastered on my own and therefore I believe I have earned the right to be proud of it. You know, the same way you’d be proud of your ability to speak, say, French just like the natives. Many many years ago, while I was working on my dissertation which focused on Asian Americans (both American-born and immigrants of Asian descent), I noticed and was troubled by the gap created by the (in)ability to command “good English”. Those who cannot communicate well in English are perceived as foreign, bizarre, lacking in humanity. People tend to write them off as “There is little, if not nothing, in common between us”. Stupid even. (Talking louder and slower. You know what I mean…)
<<Digression: Of course, interestingly, the above does not seem to apply to someone who speaks only French, or German. Or Spanish, depending on what the person looks like.>>
Against my advisor’s strong protest, I insisted on ending my dissertation with a rather personal essay because I believe in presenting a story from as many valid perspectives as possible, especially by people who somehow cannot “speak for themselves”, even if doing so might have negated some of the theorization I was trying to accomplish through my thesis. Since it’s been eating me alive how only 5 people have read my dissertation which represented 5 years of my life, I am going to share an abridged version of the last chapter of my dissertation here on this soapbox (aka my blog). After all, recycling is good for the earth.
The field for one’s ethnographic study is full of ‘surprises’ and ‘exceptions.’ Every time I theorized a statement or a performative moment, something else would come up that threw my analysis off balance. My theories and analyses cannot account for all individual occurrences. There is always the ‘unexpected’ that makes me think more, that makes me care more. Such is the story of Zhang, a Chinese musician who works frequently with the local theatres.
Zhang came from Mainland China. He had been studying and working in Beijing for almost forty years before he came to the United States in 1993. Zhang has to work at five jobs just to make ends meet. Other than the occasional gigs for performance and composing, he also works at a Chinese restaurant for six hours every day, and he works as a masseur/accupressurist. When Zhang was hired to perform at dinner parties and in Chinese restaurants, by the Chinese standard, it was a fall from grace. He was the master musician in China, and now in the United States he has to peddle his music in front of dinner guests who pay no attention to his existence, let alone his art.
Zhang has tremendous difficulty adjusting to life here because he knows little English, and he has neither the time nor energy to learn a foreign language. He told me that when he gets a job offer, he asks people to send him information in writing. He then looks up new words in the dictionary and only in this way does he know when and where he is supposed to show up and what, to perform. The day before the performance, he has to drive to the place, like a drill, to make sure he knows the directions. When he works with the local theatres, he needs an interpreter to help him understand what their needs are and what the performance is about. People have neither the time nor the funds to translate the whole script for him. A lot of times he has to go home and look up most of the words in the script one by one. He told me he has never had an actual conversation with people in those theatres he works with because he can’t.
“Then why don’t you go back?” I could imagine people asking him. So I did, and he explained,
“The material life is not as good for me in this country because I was provided with an apartment and a nice salary when I was in China, as ‘First Class Composer.’ In contrast, I have to work several jobs here just to pay my rent. I can’t function normally here because I don’t have an adequate command of English. I can’t even answer the phone myself… But what makes me stay is the liberation I feel here. The freedom to create music in my own way. Nobody can tell me what to do or what not to do.”
Zhang, like many artists, would like to believe in the universality of art. He needs to believe his artistic creation can be shared by all people, and his art can bridge the differences and bring out the commonalities between people. However, this kind of theorization does not help Zhang’s situation. The discrepancy between his belief and his reality in the United States is painfully obvious.
The language barrier looms large.
Learning English somehow has become the primary goal of Zhang’s life in the United States, a goal he does not expect to achieve because he has to work most of the time in order to survive. With his limited English, he can find work that pays only the minimum wage. A vicious cycle was started as soon as he landed here.
Zhang surmises his own predicament, “I am crippled because I don’t understand English. There is no way I can get out of this bind with my limited command of English.”
It is curious how little has been theorized about the English language as an important factor in building “Asian American” communities/identities and, at the same time, marginalizing the non-English speaking population. There are practical and urgent issues of immigrant subjectivity regarding language skills and economic class. Just because they do not speak English does not mean their subjectivities do not exist. Nevertheless, the boundaries set up by language barriers are real and difficult to cross despite all the talks of figurative boundary-crossing. It was luck that I happen to be a native Chinese speaker, that I could talk to Zhang and, as much as I dislike this term, ‘speak for’ him.
Towards the end of our interview, I asked Zhang the question I ask every one of my interviewees: “Where is home? Is it here in the United States or is it China?” Zhang was greatly affected by this question. The tears welled up in his eyes. I was stunned. I was not prepared to deal with this situation. A great sense of guilt overwhelmed me. Here I was, in a noisy and crowded Chinese restaurant, facing a 60-year-old Chinese man in tears. I made him cry. I felt as though I had made my father cry in public.
“I am sorry.” I did not know what else to say. “I am sorry.” My voice sounded helpless. Impotent. There is nothing I could do. And there I was, with a perfect “ethnographic” subject — one with a heart-wrenching story. One who is obviously a victim of national boundaries and political upheaval and cultural alienation and economic inequality. One who cannot speak for himself in the United States. I did not know what to do but say over and over again, “I am sorry.”
Wiping his eyes, Zhang said, “It’s not your fault. It’s just that nobody has ever asked me this question all these years when I am here. Home? Exactly. Where is home for me? I think I was brought here by Fate. Fate made me come here and stay… I don’t have friends here. I don’t have anybody that I can talk ‘heart to heart.’ In China, I have buddies. Here, nobody.”
When scholars analyze and document hardships that immigrants have to go through, they forget to mention loneliness. Right after I turned off my tape recorder, Zhang sighed and said, “You know, I have been here for so long and nobody has ever bothered to ask me that question. THAT is America.” He fell into a silence.