Vanessa Tsang Shiliwala was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but feels more like a first-generation Taiwanese and Chinese immigrant. She spent much of her childhood proofreading her parents’ emails, or helping her mother when she did not have the words to communicate with a teacher or client.
“I identify as first-generation because I felt very close to the struggle of an immigrant,” she said.
Shiliwala’s mother is from Yilan County, Taiwan and her father was born in Harbin, China, but he moved with his family to Hong Kong during the Cultural Revolution. While her mother spoke Taiwanese and Mandarin and her father spoke Cantonese and Mandarin, Shiliwala feels her heritage language is Chinglish — a combination of Mandarin and English.
“That’s what I grew up with and my parents, especially earlier on when I was younger, they would communicate to me in Chinese but also English, and I would kind of respond back in a mixture,” Shiliwala said. “It’s, I guess, my most natural sense of communication.”
Shiliwala’s linguistic background speaks to the complexity and diversity of the Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) experience — especially in the Midwest, the region home to the lowest percentage of the U.S.’s AAPI population.
First and later generations of AAPI individuals grow up with a wide variety of fluency, hearing but not always speaking their cultural language along with English. While some may be fluent in their heritage language, others may only know enough to hold basic conversations. Still, for a complex set of reasons, some may not speak their heritage language at all.
Among immigrant populations, U.S. Asians tend to have a relatively high fluency in English. According to the Pew Research Center, as of 2019, 72% of all U.S. Asians were “proficient” in English — meaning they spoke only English or spoke it very well. Nearly two-thirds of U.S.-born Asians speak only English at home while most first-generation immigrants speak a language other than English at home.
According to Mike Iverson, a lecturer of second language studies at Indiana University Bloomington, people who grow up with two or more languages tend to have unbalanced exposure to one language or another.
“In a perfectly balanced scenario, they’d get 50 percent of their exposure in both languages but that’s still going to be less than they would get if they were in a monolingual environment,” Iverson said. “Usually, one of those languages is the language of the larger society and then the other language might not be, and we could consider that a heritage language.”
As a child, Shiliwala went to a Chinese school that was part of a Chinese Christian church program where she learned the Bopomofo and Pinyin phonetic systems and how to write a few characters. She spent time with her grandfather practicing calligraphy and attended Chinese camp in the summer.
But aside from language learning in the classroom, Shiliwala said being in an environment where she could interact with, speak and listen to other Mandarin speakers was like an informal education. Whenever she goes to visit her family in Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong, Shiliwala feels she becomes more fluent in Mandarin within a few days as though through osmosis.
Sarah Gao, a Midstory fellow and a Master of Science in Biology student at the University of San Francisco, is a first-generation Chinese American. Born in Naperville, Illinois to parents who immigrated from China, Gao can converse in Mandarin at a basic level. Notably, Gao said that she learned to speak “1950s-Mao-Zedong-era” Chinese.
“I can listen and speak Chinese, but it’s the Chinese that [my parents] had when they left China post-Cultural Revolution. So it’s a little stuck in time,” Gao said. “A lot of the things — like the slang that I use and the way I can describe things — is basically filtered through the lens of my parents’ speaking styles.”
She grew up with her parents speaking to her in Mandarin but she mainly used English. When she was in elementary school, her parents enrolled her and her older sister in a local Chinese school, which she disliked. Her mother also tried to teach her Mandarin by reading books with her and having her write down unfamiliar words. But reading and writing in Mandarin were difficult, and it was daunting to speak Mandarin outside of the safe space of her home.
“It can be very challenging to keep up practice with anyone else besides my parents, and so it’s hard to get real-world practice and expand my vocabulary,” Gao said. “I try to speak Chinese as much as possible with my family just to kind of keep up practicing it, but you know it’s pretty halting and can be very broken.”
Gao formally learned French through school, and noted the difference between the way Mandarin and Western languages like French are perceived in the Midwest. While Asian culture was regarded as not cool, French and other languages were romanticized and more attractive to learn.
“There are always these reminders that Chinese culture was weird or different,” Gao said. “It just felt like a very partitioned world that you could share with other Chinese or Asian friends but was largely, in the mainstream, not cool, not talked about and kind of suppressed.”
Heritage language-learning experiences vary not only across generations, but also across regions and dialects. Chinese, for example, has over a billion native speakers worldwide, but also comprises hundreds of distinct dialects.
Patrick Chen, a high school freshman born and raised in Bowling Green, Ohio, is a second-generation Chinese American like Gao, but he speaks Teochew, a Chinese dialect named after the region his parents immigrated from.
“I actually didn’t really learn with my dialect,” he said. “My parents grew up speaking it, and my siblings as well, so just being in that household environment I gradually learned the language.”
The biggest struggle for Chen was learning metaphors and idioms — common in everyday use in Chinese language and dialects — which are as much a cultural phenomenon as a linguistic one. Nevertheless, he feels it’s “pretty much like a second language” to him, and that he doesn’t need to think too much when using it.
But Chen said most people expect him to be able to understand Mandarin, and that it’s awkward when friends expect him to read random Asian characters or translate Mandarin Chinese. Particularly in places with lower levels of education and less demographic diversity, Asian Americans tend to be viewed as a foreign, monolithic entity when, in reality, there is a range of diverse languages and cultures that fall under that term. Chen noted many people don’t know about the cultural discrepancies in different regions in China and think that Chinese culture is just one culture with one language.
“For many white folks or people who are not understanding of the nuances of Asian languages, it all sounds the same to them. But what I interpret that is, ‘Your language is not important enough for me to have deciphered the difference,’ and that also is a very painful message,” Shiliwala said.
While Chen, Gao and Shiliwala learned their heritage languages via informal and formal ways and despite social obstacles, other immigrant families insisted their children focus on English in the hope that they would have better experiences of integration into American society.
Aside from several household phrases that she has picked up, Sarah Stamey does not speak a lot of Korean; her parents, who spoke Korean to each other but English to her, didn’t think it was practical to learn, and didn’t want their children to speak English with an accent. A second-generation Korean American from Toledo, Ohio, she now works as a Program Associate at Indiana University Bloomington’s Asian Culture Center.
“They didn’t really explain it when we were that little, but as we got into high school, they just kept saying, ‘Why would you need to learn Korean? You’re in America, […] we’re not moving back to Korea,’” she said.
Growing up in Midwestern America, Stamey remembers that language always seemed to be a sore spot; some people would say they couldn’t understand her father’s English even though it was fluent — his English wasn’t “good enough.” On the flip side, during her college years, people were surprised at her English fluency — it was “too good” for an immigrant.
“I would always get the microaggression like, ‘Wow, your English is so good,’ like, ‘Did you go to an international school?’ And I was like, ‘Oh. I grew up here,’” Stamey said.
Although Stamey understands why her parents encouraged them to speak English, she wishes that her parents had taught her how to speak Korean so that she could better connect to her roots.
“I do think a lot was lost because, for a couple years, my grandmother lived with us and I couldn’t communicate with her […] I could never have a conversation with her, which is really sad,” Stamey said.
While language is not the only way to connect to a culture, to many, it is one of the most important. And a lack of language fluency can sometimes complicate a sense of a holistic cultural identity. Stamey empathizes with a joke from comedian Ali Wong:
“She’s like, ‘Sometimes I feel like I’m playing a character, like I’m a white person playing an Asian person because I don’t know anything.’ That’s sometimes how I feel. And the things that do make me feel Korean — it’s very hard to describe.”
This sense of displacement between appearance and identity is a common theme among Asian Americans.
“I think that just the natural inclination is kind of a sense of loss, right? Each generation is going to be a little bit less fluent than the previous,” Shiliwala said.
Wanting to remediate the feeling of inauthenticity — that one is merely acting or connected only superficially to one’s heritage — might happen later in life, or even be developed in the next generation.
For instance, Stamey learned Spanish and German in high school and college, but has recently been trying to learn “some of the basics” in Korean. She is also considering having her daughter learn Korean; similarly, Shiliwala is teaching Mandarin to her two daughters.
According to Iverson, keeping children engaged in the language in any way and ensuring that they continue to speak the language can help them use it when they become adults. And having second and third generations learn a heritage language helps them with the cultural nuances, experiences and expected fluency that come with being racially Asian in America.
While there are many ways to pass on a culture beyond just language, having a diverse and multifaceted linguistic and cultural identity is something Shiliwala, Gao, Chen and Stamey all appreciate for giving them perspective others might not have.
“When [you are] presented with information,” Gao said, “You look for things in your brain to find patterns and draw connections and make that kind of network of ideas. And so if you just have one background to draw from, you’re gonna have a more limited understanding or a less flexible understanding. Whereas if you have more contexts to draw from, you can […] understand it more deeply or be able to form more complex associations and thoughts.”
And, of course, even without complete fluency, just being connected to another language provides a treasured window into the culture behind it.
“I think awareness is one of those undersold strengths of having multiple-language fluency. So even though I may not be fluent or even know beyond just a few words or phrases in Cantonese or Taiwanese, I know the sound,” Shiliwala said.
She recalls being in Hong Kong and overhearing old ladies good-naturedly bargaining over fish on boats, and out of the cacophony of sounds identifying the phrase gao cuo! (or “You’ve got to be kidding me!”).
“In Hong Kong, bargaining is a big part of Asian culture,” she said. “And I just cracked up when I heard that and I was just like, I love it — I just love that I was able to hear that and enjoy it…and I think just having that portal into Cantonese and to understand it was a piece of heritage was a really special moment for me.”