13.11.2019 in Analysis
Language and Identity: What Does It Mean to Be a Chinese Person in American Community?

Language is one of the characteristics of human identity. I can use both English and Chinese as my native languages. I live in the USA now and I feel how this society affects me, changes me and interferes into my perception of the world and me. Any language opens a new world to a person making him or her develop a new identity since another cultural environment is opened. Experiencing different events and situations, people may perceive them in a different way. In case the nature of these events is inherent to specific cultural identity, human actions and thoughts are different. People would consciously or unconsciously switch to different language and behavior depending on situations. Being born in the USA and having immediately moved to China, having lived there for eighteen years and finally having returned to the USA again, I am confused with my identity feeling that I am losing it.

I was living in Hong Kong during the past eighteen years. Chinese is my first language, but I can easily use English. When I talk to my parents and friends, Chinese is the main language I use for communication. However, if there is a special occasion that requires me to speak English, I can speak fluently without any hesitations, using English for communication is not a problem. Most of the schools in Hong Kong use English as one of the languages for education. I remember many classes when we had to speak English, prepare reports, and do all the tasks in English. It has allowed me to have a very good command of English. That is why when I came to the United States a year and a half ago, it was easier for me to adapt to a new environment within a short period of time. I have assimilated to America’s lifestyle after a short while, probably because I had adopted similar lifestyle already when I was in Hong Kong. Although I do not think in American, at least I act like an American, and I like living in California more than where I lived in the past eighteen years. 


Adopting a second language takes time to get familiarized with, as well as to understand the appropriateness of using language, to express myself in different situations. I got my first job after a few months, in Cold Stone Creamery. As training is a mandatory process, the store manager taught me how to provide services including making cones and cakes. I believe that every company in the United States has a set of phrases that the employees should use. For example, “Hey! How are you doing today? We have a variety of ice cream made freshly daily! How can I help you today?” I wonder why Hong Kong does not have these kinds of questions to ask when the staff is dealing with customers. Chinese can think those questions to be too robotic. After I went through my training, I had quite a good start with this ice cream shop. One day, when I was dealing with a customer, she told me what she wants and I said “okay, no problem!” The manager then approached me and told me not to say “okay” but “yes sure” with customers, I had then realized that “okay” is an inappropriate word to use when accepting customers’ requests. After that day, I have never used that word to reply customers again. Such an experience had taught me a lesson that I have to learn when to use a different language style that is suitable for a different situation. Cultural identity in this example has played its role. I do know the language but sometimes I do not know how to use those words. The situation has shown me that some words may sound inappropriate for some situations and this case has become possible only because I am not an American born. 

I have been living in California for two years already and I began to feel blurry about my identity. Should I consider myself as an American or a Chinese? As my father studied in UC Berkeley and travelled a lot to the United States, he had transfused a lot of information about the United States to me. For example, American do not like to speak after work about work, while my parents usually felt good when they were contacted about business after working hours. My father usually came earlier at business meetings when he was in China, while Americans prefer to come strictly on time and become irritated when they see someone to come early. Therefore, I have adopted both lifestyles when I was young, but I never feel both places as my home. I understood some valuable behavioral customs of Americans from childhood which made this culture closer to me.

Expressing myself in English does not bothers me, but I face obstacles when I have to express ideas in academic language. The main difference between US and Chinese education is that in China I mainly received teacher’s instructions and did not spend much in front of the class. The US system of education requires from me constant speaking in front of the class. I used to study with my Chinese classmates and I know that they never doubted my knowledge of Chinese. Everything is different now in the USA. In English class, when I have to voice out my ideas in front of the class and most of my classmates are native speakers, I become really nervous and I struggle for thousand times with the ideas in my mind. I cannot fully express my ideas since I am stressed, words and sentences are at the tip of my tongue and I just don’t know what to say at that moment. Finally, I finish with something like “yea” and sit down very quietly since I feel awful about what I have just said. People certainly need courage when speaking in another language that they are not familiar with it from childhood, since they are not confident enough to do so, and my experience has just proved that. I feel more comfortable when I use non-academic language to communicate with people, since I can express myself with many slangs and words that are not even appropriate to use in public speeches. 

Problems in using English academic language do not prove that I am purely Chinese without being of American identity. This statement just shows that I lack academic knowledge in English since my basic education I received in China. I have many doubts in my cultural identity, but at the same time I do feel my belonging to both American and Chinese cultural identities. I am changing and I feel how these changes affect my vision of the world, my understanding if human nature and perception of myself. Now I wonder whether I am stuck in the middle of both cultures. For example, I travel back and forth between both places frequently, that is why I have adopted both cultures and speak fluently both languages. I believe that I am adopting enculturation, an issue which anthropologists and sociologists used to define a process whereby individuals learn their group’s culture, through experience, observation and instruction. When people in the United States asked me whether I am from Hong Kong or America, I hesitate to answer. This question does not only make me confused, I explained that I was literally born in the United States, but I grew up in Hong Kong. They are usually shocked for a little with my answer, since they think I have perfect American English accent. I used to think that my own identity is getting lost, while I am switching from one language to another, but I believe that I am just getting another identity.

There are diverse cultures and stereotypes from different cultures in the society, from education and families. Every community, a cultural group has its own values, beliefs, and ways of living. Language is essential to cultural identity since it bridges different communities to share their values, beliefs and customs. Every language has its uniqueness, and same as a culture does. Language represents culture in a certain way. Cultural heritage and identity cannot exist without language. People cannot share their values and bonds and establish a sense of belonging within the community because of the same reason. Language and culture also shape the way public perceives the world. That is why language can be powerfully persuasive and influential. No matter you are a bilingual, trilingual, or learning multiple languages, there is no rule restricting you that you must lose your own identity in case to gain another cultural identity. To be successful in using multiple languages, we have to establish mobility between languages, so we can move on to the next level.

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