about learning languages and racism
today I’m feeling particularly down (actually this whole week) and I think talking about one of my worst memories, which cycles over and over again in my head always in moments like these, might make me feel better.
so I’m Han Chinese, and I speak Mandarin. I immigrated to the states when I was young.
of course I was always made fun of for not pronouncing words correctly; it’s still irksome to me (might be triggering even, since sometimes this destroys my mood/turns me off completely) when people correct my English to this day. I can’t help it.
so in 3rd grade I had a white teacher I really loved. thinking back on all my teachers I had she was one of the best. reflecting back on this thus makes me especially upset.
we had to call our parents to ask for permission for something, might have been for a field trip. that detail is fuzzy. but what isn’t fuzzy but rather crystal clear and sharp is that when I was calling my mom and speaking in Mandarin, the whole class had turned quiet to stare at me.
then everyone (a class w/majority white kids), and I mean everyone, including my teacher, burst out into laughter.
and out of nervousness and humilitation I peed my pants. ran to the bathroom and stayed there pretty much all day.
and this was back when I was living in poverty and I didn’t want to tell my mom that I had wet my pants because I felt like such a big baby but that meant I couldn’t wash my pants because laundry day wasn’t coming up and I didn’t have many pants to wear so I had to rewear those pants.
next day I come back and kids said “sorry for making you upset, it’s just you sounded funny.”
my natural home tongue language sounds funny but my english also sounds funny. and the implications of what this means will stay with me.
no matter what, this is what I always remember when people, especially white people because most POC I know are trying to regain their own languages or studying a romance language (and quite frankly POC don’t act like this towards me), are so excited and demand me to perform my language for them or when they want me to practice speaking Mandarin with them or when they detail all their hard work in learning Mandarin for business or whatever.
this is so common: my culture is both despised or demonized yet exoticized for consumption while the people who are part of it are treated like circus freaks.
so white folks:
we POC spend a lot of time either consciously or unconsciously rejecting our languages to be more like you, because of this racist systemic bullying, while you’re here making a lot more money than a lot of us and spending it to decorate your resume with “new” languages and going to “foreign” countries as a backdrop to *your* learning experience. i know white people who go to china yearly and/or speak better Mandarin than me when I can’t even afford to go back to visit my own family more than once every 7-8 or so years and it really kills me a little bit when I hear these things.
not to mention how “cool” it is that white people can speak Mandarin but it’s *expected* of me otherwise I’m not really “chinese enough”/”lol you are a banana yellow outside white inside.” Yet I’m “too chinese” when I do practice parts of my culture and my language. whatever the situation demands, whiteness twists.
and recently, i’ve tried to consider this deeply when I’m learning Spanish because I live in Arizona and I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a visibly Latin@ teacher here, teaching a bunch of privileged kids your own language when they are barely making an effort/using it without any consideration of its worth and when you yourself are penalized and suffering from white supremacy for existing as Latin@ and speaking Spanish. I just can’t and I’m just so deeply angry/sorry.
so just…when you’re learning a “new” language white folks (remember, new to who?), you need to understand that this is what POC who already speak these languages face and how intimately language and culture and race tie together.
The bolded is everything I’ve been trying to say forever. I wrote THIS blog post two years ago about the new trend in white people speaking Spanish and becoming Spanish teachers and how this constitutes a form of cultural appropriation and I got called every name in the book because how dare I stop white people from learning Spanish when it’s a white language to begin with etc etc etc and I was juts STUNNED at the level of ignorance and privilege they displayed. One of my earliest memories is my dad scolding me for speaking Sinhala and telling me to speak English, so when I see white folks adding ‘exotic’ languages to their resume like beads and then getting praise for ‘being well rounded’ I’m like HELLO POC have been well rounded forever, we’re STILL better rounded than most white people but I guess the things we do like codeswitching and synthesizing cultures doesn’t count because of our brown skin.
I could go on and on about this.
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