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Encore: A daughter's journey to reclaim her heritage language

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

More than 1 billion people in the world speak Mandarin Chinese, and NPR's Emily Kwong wants to join that group.

EMILY KWONG, BYLINE: OK, how do you say this?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Speaking Mandarin Chinese).

E KWONG: (Speaking Mandarin Chinese).

KELLY: Emily is Chinese American on her father's side. Last year, at age 30, she began to learn Chinese for the very first time and unpacked why she is so determined to learn it in the first place. Here's Emily in conversation with her dad.

E KWONG: So yeah, this is a conversation I've actually wanted to have with you for a long time.

CHRISTOPHER KWONG: Good.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: That is an understatement. I've wanted to ask my dad about our language for a lifetime.

C KWONG: My name is Christopher Kwong. I'm 62. I was born in New York City.

E KWONG: Growing up, Dad remembers tagging alongside his grandmothers as they did the shopping in Chinatown...

(SOUNDBITE OF MARKET AMBIENCE)

C KWONG: I just went into fish markets, meat markets, vegetable markets.

E KWONG: ...Surrounded by people conversing and bartering and going about their day in Chinese.

C KWONG: It was the only thing I understood. In a world of non-Chinese when I was outside, it was anxiety and confusion and not knowing what was really being said and just clinging a little harder. But when you hear your native language, it's a reminder of, you're safe.

E KWONG: But here's the thing. My father stopped speaking Mandarin when he was 5 years old. He was in kindergarten and really struggling to communicate with his teacher, with his classmates, using the little English that he knew. And his parents, my grandparents, didn't want him to fall behind in school.

C KWONG: I was then given, you know, orders to start speaking English for my own emotional and social survival, so I didn't hear Chinese again.

E KWONG: The transition to English was difficult. My dad struggled with the vowels. He says his mom, my grandma Hui, spent hours drilling him, and he didn't feel like he had a choice.

C KWONG: I realized I had to engage in a different world, a world of English, so, you know, I should just be pragmatic, let go and go with English.

E KWONG: Yeah. That's a big decision for a little kid to make, you know?

C KWONG: Well, my need for, I felt - for survival was greater than my hurt.

E KWONG: Yeah. When you say need for survival, what do you mean?

C KWONG: Meaning to integrate into society - you have to integrate, otherwise you're, you know, going to be really in a terrible place.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: I get what my dad is saying, but assimilation has a cost. Gaining a foothold in America meant losing the first language my dad's ever known.

AMELIA TSENG: When you lose your language, it's almost a form of violence if it's taken from you, right?

E KWONG: Amelia Tseng is a sociolinguist at American University, someone who studies how languages shift across immigrant generations.

TSENG: You know, we're a very multilingual country and always have been, but we are - have not historically been supportive of other languages, either through sort of active suppression or through just sort of a lack of interest in supporting them.

E KWONG: Amelia says that lack of support is rooted in things like nationalism and xenophobia. It has caused some linguists to call the U.S. a language graveyard.

(Speaking Mandarin Chinese).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Speaking Mandarin Chinese).

E KWONG: (Speaking Mandarin Chinese).

So that's why I'm learning Chinese.

Zai.

At least trying to.

Oh. No, I got this. Zai - hold on.

And I've decided that any shame I might feel about imperfect pronunciation, fumbles with grammar is nothing compared to the shame I felt about not knowing the language at all; the shame I feel as my older relatives rattle off dim sum dishes and I stare down the menu pictures, feeling like a fraud within my own identity, missing something I never had in the first place. Meanwhile, my dad isn't as sentimental about this as I am.

When I say something like, wo ai ni - I love you - do you internalize that sentence? If I were to say, Dad, I love you, in English...

C KWONG: In English, of course, it resonates. Chinese - it's like I register Emily is learning Chinese.

E KWONG: Maybe if I get better at the pronunciation, one day, it will, like...

C KWONG: Our words will always be English, Emily. I was hoping the Chinese for you is just to give yourself that opportunity to embrace your other racial half.

E KWONG: I mean, my birth certificate says I'm white, even though my father was standing right there in the delivery room. And this erasure of him, of who I fully am and the language of his family, really hurts. It's left me with a feeling that I'm not Chinese enough.

Amelia says there's a word for what I'm feeling - racial imposter syndrome. And moving through it requires flexibility, self-compassion and reimagining what it means to be Chinese in America - our identities as something dynamic, not a box you check on a form.

TSENG: Part of how we create it is through language - the languages we speak, who we talk to but also how we talk about ourselves and other people.

E KWONG: Learning a language is like building a bridge. And sometimes, that bridge connects you to your identity.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUI: Yes, I think there's more eggs.

E KWONG: Some of my earliest memories are of my dad's mom, my grandma Hui, trying to teach me Chinese in the years before she and my grandfather died.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Wow.

E KWONG: Home movies are proof. I can hear both languages being spoken interchangeably. And I find it kind of beautiful that my grandmother - the same person who taught my father English so he could survive - in her last years was teaching me Chinese so it could survive within me.

(CROSSTALK)

E KWONG: It feels like a language that's ours. It belongs to our family, and I can engage with it if I want to and as much as I want to.

C KWONG: That is who we are, so we have to cling or retain or perhaps relearn what we are. So I think, you know, this is a journey of exploration for you, and this is so you can tie back to where you came from.

E KWONG: That means a lot to hear you say that.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

E KWONG: (Speaking Mandarin Chinese). I am Chinese American, even if I'll never be perfectly fluent in Chinese. It's taken me 30 years to say that sentence, and I just wish my grandmother was alive to hear it.

Emily Kwong, NPR News.

KELLY: Emily is a host and reporter for NPR's Short Wave podcast. This story was part of the Where We Come From series - stories from immigrant communities of color. The series was created and produced by Anjuli Sastry Krbechek. And you can find more audio and video episodes of the series, including a video of Emily's journey to learn Chinese, on our website npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.