The first time I meet Daniel Chen, it’s the fall of 2011, and he’s a freshman at American University. For my work there as a communications writer, I’ve invited him to my office to chat about being the first in his family to attend college. In a T-shirt and spiked black hair, he seems curious, if not anxious, about the interview.
Before I can start my recorder, Daniel — with earnestness that grabs my attention — says, “No one’s really asked me to talk about my life before.”
So, I do.
He cradles a cup of water in his hands at the wide conference room table. He pours out words in bursts. “Back at home, I wasn’t very close with my family because they were always working,” he says. “Because of the language barrier and time, I’ve been loosely connected to them.”
At first mention of the language barrier, it doesn’t strike me what he’s actually saying. It’s an almost foreign concept: his having real trouble just talking with his parents. But it’s the heart of his story, a story about the isolating power of a lost mother tongue and an education spent retrieving it.
Daniel was born in Brooklyn to Chinese immigrant parents. When he was a toddler, his parents sent him to China to live with his grandparents as the young couple tried to settle into stable working conditions stateside. Neither his grandparents nor his parents spoke any English and — to this day — they still really don’t. So, by the time Daniel returned to the United States at age 4, he had been brought up with Shanghainese, a dialect spoken around Shanghai.
Returning to the States would change everything.
Once in Brooklyn’s public school system, Daniel found himself in an English-only situation. He struggled to keep up in class, learning English all day. Meanwhile, his parents worked days, nights and weekends, leaving Daniel either with relatives or at home alone. His English got better, and without the presence of his parents, the Shanghainese eroded.
“When I was in fourth grade, my parents ... gave me a tax form to translate,” he recalls. “I didn’t know how to say anything [in Shanghainese]. That was the start. It wasn’t even something hard. It was just like, ‘You owe this money at a certain date,’ and I just couldn’t translate it.”
After that, Daniel says he shut his parents out. Unfortunately, it wasn’t that hard to do. He hardly saw them. They worked six, seven days a week. The family had dinner together one night a week.
“I just really didn’t communicate,” he says. “So, everything was up to their interpretation of how they saw it. If I got a bad grade and had a legitimate reason for it, I would just be like, ‘Take it as it is,’ because I didn’t want to translate or explain. I knew I couldn’t.”
Attempts at conversation or even simple questions turned into frustrating moments that could end with Daniel’s stomping off. At parent-teacher conferences, Mrs. Chen merely smiled and nodded, not understanding.
As Daniel became an angsty teenager, things got even worse. Looking for distance from his family, he saw the barrier as a positive. That perception spiraled into a vicious cycle, where attempts at communication devolved into white lies filling in for the words he didn’t know.
“ ‘It’s my friend’s birthday.’ I would say that every time I went outside, basically,” he recalls.
The less he spoke to his family, the less Chinese he could learn. He realized one day that he essentially didn’t know his parents at all and vice versa. Daniel now counts himself part of a quiet generation of young Americans trying to reconnect with their parents and culture through the one bond they lost as children: language.
“That’s why I really wanted to learn Chinese,” he says. “I feel disconnected from all of my family because of that language barrier.”
It’s the reason he has come to American University.
According to linguistic anthropologist Linda Light, what Daniel has experienced isn’t unusual; it’s called first-language attrition. Children are vulnerable to it.
“Through human development, the brain is quite plastic in a child. It’s basically constructed to learn language and culture,” she says. “Then the brain becomes a little less plastic around 8 or 9, but it’s still easier for that child to pick up a language than if you waited till after puberty to start.”
That time before puberty is what linguists call the “critical period.” Interactions between the left and right brain hemispheres are most fluid and, therefore, most conducive to learning language. Around puberty, those interactions slow and continue to slow when left unused through adulthood. That’s why — as a country — we’re so bad at foreign languages, Light tells me: because many U.S. schools don’t offer a second language till high school, when it’s too little, too late.
In Daniel’s case, his brain absorbed Shanghainese before being plunged almost exclusively into English through the critical period.
First-language loss occurs almost across the board by immigrants’ third generation, Light says. That is, Daniel’s children would most commonly be the ones experiencing this issue, with Daniel as a bilingual father. Factors such as home life, the concentration of an immigrant community and the length of time away from a native-speaking environment determine the rate at which first-language attrition occurs. But Light blames one overriding cause in U.S. immigrant children.
“The largest factor that I can see is the attitude here of Americans. ... They think of [immigrants] maintaining their language and culture as being un-American,” she says.
That attitude seeps into the dynamics between children even in elementary school, where what children want most is to fit in, she says.
This is where Daniel’s story finds itself at a crucial moment in American history. On the one hand, the English-only movement promotes its cause of English as the sole language of the United States. In March, Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) resubmitted to Congress the Language Unity Act of 2013 to make English the nation’s official language and require standardized English tests for naturalization candidates. On the other hand, Republican Florida Sen. Marco Rubio’s rebuttal in Spanish to the president’s State of the Union address this year was the first of its kind given directly to a non-English-speaking population in the country. Similarly, Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia voiced his support of immigration legislation in June through the first Senate floor speech by a sitting senator given entirely in Spanish.
As of 2007, the U.S. Census Bureau reports that about 1 in 5 Americans speaks a language other than English at home, and of that group about 4.5 million don’t speak English at all. Daniel’s quest for identity takes place here, caught between these two groups, just as the nation itself grapples with its linguistic identity.
A year and a half after our first meeting, Daniel and I stroll through the American University campus. The new home of the School of Communication is being gutted, a fresh interior and façade in the works.
Since we last met, a lot has happened for Daniel. He is taking intermediate Mandarin — not all that close to Shanghainese, but it’s available. And he spent a summer interning in China. He tells me the trip helped him feel “more Chinese” and opened communication with his mom. During a several-week stay at home after the internship, through broken conversation, he learned about her youth in a fishing village near Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution. She even showed him a picture of her as a teenager, holding what Daniel understood to be Mao’s “Little Red Book.”
“Until recently, I didn’t really ask about where they came from. When they came to America, they had nothing,” Daniel says of his parents. “They told me how they came in the 1980s and started talking about stuff, and there was just some vocabulary that I couldn’t understand.”
His mother, Xiao Juan, and father, Ajun, arrived in 1986 from Zhoushan, an island town. The two had left their studies before high school to work in the seafood industry. They came with no money, no English and little education. His father started as a dishwasher in a Chinese restaurant, while his mother worked in a textile factory.
“Growing up, I didn’t really understand what my parents did. ... I was embarrassed to ask or to care because, even as a kid, I knew my situation,” he says. “I was low-income. We were on food stamps. Growing up poor, you want to be as unattached to your family as possible sometimes. ... It’s just a way to cope.”
Washington clinical psychologist Keum-Hyeong Choi has worked with Asian American identity issues for 10 years. She sees Daniel’s feelings on poverty as a core struggle for many immigrant children.
“Their goal or ideal is to not be like their parents,” she says. “It’s conflicting with their ideal sense of self. Some have very strong reactions to accents, whether it’s Chinese or their parents’.”
Again, it all comes back to young kids wanting to fit in, as Light echoes Choi.
“They see how other kids live and compare it with their own, and they associate that language, culture and that older generation, their parents’ generation, as something negative for them,” Light explains.
Here’s the tragic part: Moving to the United States and the hard work by Daniel’s parents to free themselves from poverty, these are the very things that have built this barrier within the family. And it’s not only that the harder they worked, the less time they spent with him; it’s that they willingly made themselves poor, leaving comparatively comfortable lives in China, for the son who would ultimately ignore them for doing so.
Daniel is not alone in his former feelings. In 2011, the U.S. Census Bureau applied to official data its new poverty measures to get a more accurate picture of the nation’s impoverished. The results revealed striking poverty rates of 16.9 and 28 percent among Asian Americans and Hispanics, respectively, from official figures of 12.3 and 25.4 percent — compared to a slight 9.9 to 11 percent bump for non-Hispanic whites.
“The fact is that non-speakers of English are pretty much usually poor. That’s the status of immigrants here,” Light says with empathy in her voice. “That’s their job ... to do the gut work of our country and not be very well off.”
English is a clear indicator of status and — surprisingly — can even be an indicator of the distance within families. With this in mind, Daniel’s story comes down to one thing: time — time as a result of money, of financial stability. With money, with time, Daniel might have had the connection with his parents that he’s searching for.
The elevated subway platform of Brooklyn’s Lorimer Street station overlooks high-rise apartments framed by the Manhattan skyline. Hasidic Jews in traditional garb wander the quiet streets beneath the trestles. Though the area is now middle class and sandwiched between the hipster havens of Bushwick and Williamsburg, subtle signs of the neighborhood’s rougher past linger. Faded graffiti on a brick building says, “My street gang is #1!”
With glasses and long, dark hair, Bing Ying Hu meets me with a smile and walks us toward the Lindsay Park Housing Corporation, where her cousin Daniel grew up. After she moved from China at age 12, Bing and her parents lived two floors above the Chens.In fact, they still do. Now, aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents and even old neighbors from China all live within walking distance.
As I’m trying to explain the purpose of my visit, we run into Daniel’s father coming out of an elevator. He shakes my hand absently as Bing explains in Chinese that I’m here to interview his wife. He nods and smiles, hurrying away to work. In the elevator, Bing tells me how he employs a number of people in the neighborhood with his restaurant and drives them there every day. Incredibly, over the years he rose from dishwasher to waiter to cook to chef to now co-owner of his own restaurant in Livingston, N.J., about an hour away. It’s the classic, now almost mythic, American dream.
Daniel’s mom waits in the doorway several floors up. “Hi, I’m Daniel’s mommy. Nice to meet you,” she says with a big smile, genuine giggles and a tiny hand that waves me inside. “Welcome to my home. Next time, you come again.” Her English is labored, and it’s likely she thought over our first words.
She offers me a fresh set of slippers and a bottle of water at the door before we take a seat on the living room’s leather sectional. We sit in front of a large flat-screen television and sturdy glass coffee table.
Mrs. Chen’s feet dangle above the shimmering faux hardwood floor. Her short, dark hair shivers as she giggles more, asking — through Bing — if I’ve had breakfast. By the end of our interview, she’ll have offered chocolates, more water, coffee, breakfast again, lunch, a red envelope full of money (a Chinese New Year tradition for guests), a place to stay for the night as well as at any point in the future, the red envelope again, and her family’s company if I ever travel to China. She’ll even tell me how good a person she thinks I am.
All this in an hour.
Sitting with her, it’s hard to imagine how — with enough time together — Daniel wouldn’t have maintained his Chinese when he was younger.
She considers how much she thinks Daniel could understand when they spoke during his childhood. “If he asked for what he wanted to eat, he could express himself,” she says through Bing, “but if it were academic-related, we were not able to help him.”
I ask Mrs. Chen if there was any guidance she wanted to give him when he was a child but couldn’t because of the barrier, and she responds with the same realization that Daniel must have come to in order to pursue Chinese — that everything she’s ever done has been for him.
“Since he couldn’t understand complicated stuff, I just told him not to cause troubles, not to get into arguments with others. Overall, I just wanted him to be a good person,” she says. “I just want him to be a useful person. All my hope is kind of on him.”
Since Daniel was young, she has gone between jobs such as one at the garment factory and janitorial work. Now she spends the night shift cleaning a Madison Square Garden office building. She likes the work for one main reason: “Not too much English.”
She’s glad, all smiles really, to see Daniel at a university and learning Chinese. Before he started college, she took him back to China to re-meet relatives and inspire connection with his roots. Clearly, the investment is paying off. Even so, she’s afraid she doesn’t have a family history rich enough to live up to the effort he’s putting into this. To her, they’re a typical Chinese family. And “I still feel we don’t have that much time together,” she says. “Now I have more time, but he’s away.”
Mrs. Chen heads to her bedroom for a photo album, and I turn to Bing. Now a Chinese-language instructor at New York’s Hunter College, she often acted as an interpreter between Daniel and his parents. She has seen him go from a withdrawn child to a now involved and determined young man.
“We also have students that are like Daniel, who are Chinese but don’t necessarily speak Chinese,” she says. “A lot of times, they feel now is the time to reconnect with their culture and their heritage.”
When Mrs. Chen returns with the album of Daniel as a child, I ask if she has any pictures of herself from China, specifically the one Daniel mentioned of her holding Mao’s “Little Red Book.”
A puzzled look comes over her face. She has no recollection of the book. “He probably misunderstood,” she says.
Daniel downs a foot-long sub between words during our last interview. Through my office window, the campus and its residence halls glimmer in the night like big-city tenements.
He has his New Practical Chinese Reader open on my desk. He scans a passage. “It’s about a celebration, like a Chinese celebration or something ... a festival,” he says. “Oh, no, it’s about exercising in the park. Yeah.”
He wears a red, white and blue beaded bracelet. It has his initials and a wish for good fortune in Chinese characters. His white T-shirt states in block letters: “Business objective will be to overcome poverty or one or more problems ...”
He reads the exercise aloud, and his words are fluid, though his pseudo-surfer accent colors some phrases. When he’s finished, I ask him about milestones in his life that he couldn’t explain to his parents.
When Daniel wanted to go to prom, he had to call Bing down to explain it to his parents. Though they happily paid his way, they didn’t really understand what prom was.
“With things like graduation and prom, it was a moment in my life,” he says. “I didn’t associate it that my parents had put me there.
“I never saw my family as something interesting until I met my family in China. That kind of shocked me and made me realize I should get to know my mom and dad because I didn’t really know anything about them,” he says. “You don’t really know yourself until you know your family.”
Daniel is now minoring in Chinese language with a major in international relations and a focus on U.S. and Chinese relations. For all his work with the language so far, he says he’s only 10 percent along the way to achieving his goal of fluency and truly knowing his family. Even now, Daniel still can’t explain to his father what he’s studying. He just says he wants to be a lawyer because it’s one word he knows. With his family being primarily speakers of Shanghainese, his Mandarin classes are of little help, but they’re better than nothing.
Daniel finishes his sandwich. Even with the desire to know his roots, know his family, in the end his quest comes down to a need to say one thing, one statement. I imagine the scores of other young people like Daniel in classrooms and language labs across the nation, reading aloud, practicing dialogues, studying — that they all have the same mission, the same desire to achieve the best form of one phrase.
After all his parents’ hard work and sacrifices for him, he just wants to say, “Thank you.”
“She doesn’t understand how I feel toward her, even though I tell her, ‘I appreciate it. It’s amazing you’ve gotten this far.’ Since I can’t speak that great, I use the wrong adjectives. ‘You did very good.’ That’s not the most compelling thing you could say to your mom,” he says. “Later on, I’m going to have that conversation. I’m just trying to find what to say.”
Patrick Marion Bradley is the Web communications coordinator for the Office of Campus Life at American University and is working on a MFA in creative writing there.