Truly Free?

By Jaslene, IT Director & Creative Corner Co-Director

“Come on, Meimei,” my mom said in Mandarin, “we’re going to Trader Joe’s.” We were walking through the plaza parking lot when a white woman loudly shouted, “speak English!” at us. Sadly, this wasn’t the first or last time we—my family and the AANHPI community—have faced this and other forms of discrimination. Many do not recognize the prevalence of xenophobia and racism toward the AANHPI community until they witness it firsthand, like how I did.

As a Taiwanese American girl with immigrant parents, I grew up with one foot rooted in my heritage and the other in my American upbringing. I would speak Chinese with my parents at home but strictly spoke English outside of the house. As a young child, I learned that speaking Mandarin was discouraged in public. Until I understood the context of our political climate, I accepted this as a societal norm without question.

My family had a French acquaintance who was proud of speaking her native language loudly in public claiming, “Americans found it hot,” yet when my mother exchanged a few Mandarin words in public, we were met with a hateful insult, which begs the question: how can two equally “foreign” languages in a predominantly English-speaking country be view upon so differently? Clearly, the answer lies in bias toward the languages’ country of origin; French is seen as an elegant and educated language from Europe, while Chinese and other Asian languages are viewed as alien, strange, and even ugly.

Chinese, like many other East Asian languages, have elegant pictographic characters—every written word is a piece of art. For example, 加油, jiāyóu, is made of simple shapes that form a complex message that cannot be easily translated into English. It is an exclamation showing one’s support for the person they are cheering for. My knowledge of Chinese words provides multiple facets of expression and communication.

By maintaining our native tongues, we celebrate our culture and keep a part of our identities that can be lost in American life. Culture organizes our experiences, as it can bring a sense of community through shared history and traditions. Asian Americans like me are granted the gift of bilingualism, allowing me to see the world through more than one lens; my bilingualism should be celebrated, not looked down upon.

America’s values are built on freedom and equality, but many people are unaccepting of our country’s growing diversity. In this “free” country, people lost their freedom to speak their native tongues without being discriminated against, insulted, or even beaten. We are not free to celebrate our heritage, free to be Asian American, free to express our identities. Instead, we are oppressed for using non-“American” languages, spat at for our proud Asian descent, losing a part of ourselves and our community for conformity. What kind of “free” country do we live in if we are not truly free to be ourselves?

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