The songs we are left with

I wonder what it feels like to make a home in a land where the words you dream in are never recognized in the waking world around you. When the tones and inflections that have evolved for centuries- passed along on mothers' tongues as far back as the continent itself are cut off abruptly.  Much like setting off for a road trip and the radio suddenly switches to a new station, unrecognizable but sufficient.

From where I stand, my monolingual reality is pretty simple. I'm third generation, I often explain to others, so my parents barely speak Chinese themselves (though, to be fair, my mom's is like a million times better than my dad's. no offense dad) (ack, to be fair again, my mom once translated the apostle paul to pineapple bun for our bilingual service) Again, my parents barely speak Chinese themselves. And I have often put myself in my grandparent's shoes to consider this reality- that it was preferable or even necessary to effectively erase the Toisan from my family in order for them to be American enough, assimilate-able enough, White enough. This reality meant that for the 18 years I lived with my grandmother, our chit chats were to fix remote controls and to wear warm jackets. It was the insistent cry that American progress could not have 5 distinct tones, just long and short vowels.   This linguistic ultimatum leaves me without words these days. 

I'm grateful, in a lamenting way, for the deep and sacrificial love that sustained my grandparents as their children dropped out of Chinese school one by one. They had no actual choice, really, and they knew that every generation gives up something. But it trickles down to me and now my feelings are changing because can I just say that that's not okay? Because for every family that tried to pass down their native language, their children were placed in ESL classes and were never expected to perform as well as those who had chosen to forget. For every time my parents felt shamefully desperate to draw the line between themselves and the immigrants,  owning their American-Born-ness and holding at arms length their Fresh-Off-the-Boat-ness. And because I was so proud, so ignorantly pleased, with my white washed words until I realized they left me and my future children indefinitely deprived of tones, the 5 distinct tones that meant the most to me. 

And it trickles into our worship. Along the way, when did we make a choice to buy into a form of evangelicalism that required we prove we were American enough, assimilate-able enough, White enough? See, we arrived at a time when our survival required our forgetfulness and our silence. We carried no freedom songs, no gospel hums, no familiar instruments. And as we took the stage, our hymnals, projector transparencies, and CCLI Power Points could not specifically express the work of God in our stories, but embodied our ernest desire to play like, sound like, worship like Americans. The familiarity of songs like Shout to the Lord, Power of Your Love, and Not Be Shaken* are, in many ways, the Asian American worship voice- they represent a simultaneous desire to be known by God and by our country. Without articulating our own voice, these songs represent the sickness of a model minority curse as it has found its way into our pews.

That being said, I get it- this is where I am now- a monolingual Chinese American who can author this blog post in a language I'll teach to my daughters some day. I just want to remember, before I continue a legacy of forced forgetfulness, that there was a moment in my family's story where we held both languages together and in it was wrapped the stories and promises for a coming day. And after exclusion acts, and yellow peril, and oriental fetishes and ching chong cho, these were the songs we were left with.

 

*Russell Jeung// Faithful Generations: Race and New Asian American Churches

 My auntie Susie, Popo, and Auntie Rose in front of Francisco Middle School. Wow I don't think I have ever or will ever look as fly as my grandmother. 

My auntie Susie, Popo, and Auntie Rose in front of Francisco Middle School. Wow I don't think I have ever or will ever look as fly as my grandmother.