On Being Bilingual

May 3, 2010

I am bilingual.

Technically I am bi-and-a-half-lingual, because I also comprehend Taiwanese and speak minimally. I’m not really that smart and I’m not especially gifted with languages (trust me, two years of high school French and I can barely count to 10 proves the point). However, various factors and circumstances during my growing up years combined to produce the perfect breeding ground for the bilingual me. Born and raised into a Taiwanese family where Mandarin/Taiwanese were both spoken, I had a solid base of those two languages and learned to read Chinese characters before I started school. Learned English at 10 in total immersion environment in Australia, I made the cutoff age for children’s amazing capacity to learn a second language with a native accent. Then I finished the rest of my school years in an English based International school in a Chinese community.

I am blessed, I know this. Being bilingual has given me opportunities and insight into culture and worldview that I would otherwise not have access to. But existing in this privileged exclusive state can sometimes be lonely. Well meaning Chinese acquaintances and friends compliment my Chinese language ability when what I hear them saying is: “your Chinese is really good…for a foreigner.” Americans assume, due to my near Native accent, that I am Asian American, which of course neglects my entire growing up years in Taiwan. While most people applaud my chameleon like ability to blend into the culture/language of the group I am with, what they don’t see is a pathetic, desperate longing to be “one of them”.

Along with the privilege of being bilingual comes choices in all areas of life. What do I do for entertainment? I could turn on the TV and watch Taiwanese variety shows or news, or I could put in an episode of Lost. What do I do as a Mom? I could demand strict authority and Chinese expectations of manners, or I could emphasize having fun as Western Moms would choose. So many of these choices are conscious but I realize much much more are subconscious. At the beginning of my marriage I would sleep-talk in Chinese because that part of who I was stowed away in my subconscious while I dated and married my American husband.

The further along I go in my life journey as a third culture person, the more I am able to integrate these different parts of myself into a whole person. It’s sort of like two melodies working to sync into a harmony. When I am in harmony, I thrive in my bilingual/bicultural-ness. I serve in translation, I help others shed light into a culture which is foreign to them, I help bring diversity into my community. And then there are moments of discord, when the harmony sounds more like my actual ability to harmonize: terribly off-key. Those are the moments when I feel the pangs of loneliness, the spiral of confusion that I feel sucked into, and the irrational and immature desire to just be a normal monocultural person.

Okay, now I’m going to switch into my Chinese pragmatic mode and say: “stop thinking so much and go do the dishes.”