An Open Letter To Asian-American Writer Yiyun Li

Embracing Asian American Multilingualism

Written collaboratively by Lena Li and Rene Tsukawaki

<em>Artwork by Carina Cerruto, artist and student at Waseda University</em>
Artwork by Carina Cerruto, artist and student at Waseda University

On Monday, February 27th, award-winning writer Yiyun Li visited Cornell University, at the invitation of The Cornell Contemporary China Initiative Lecture Series, to speak about her work and read from her essay published on The New Yorker: “To Speak Is to Blunder but I Venture." As members of a marginalized group in our society, we looked forward to attending this lecture by an Asian American speaker. However, we were disappointed by the overarching message that Yiyun Li wanted to share: ‘sometimes it is necessary to abandon one’s native language and take up a foreign one in order to flourish as a writer in the latter.’ The strict binary distinction, or a ‘wall’ so to speak, between ‘native’ and ‘foreign’ languages and identities that Li maintains, is symptomatic of a persistent and recurrent problem in the discourse around Asian-American and other “hyphen” American identities: our ability to speak languages other than English is often used to question the authenticity of our ‘American-ness’.

Li makes an assumption throughout her works and her lecture at Cornell, that all people are born with a singular “mother tongue”, and that to acquire and write in another one successfully, they must forfeit their ‘native’ languages first. We would like to first clarify that we do recognize that Li has consistently reiterated that her decision to renounce her native language was a strictly personal choice. However, we believe that her “Asian American story” effectively fortifies this ‘wall’ between English and “ethnic languages” that we are working to dismantle, and there is a different one that urgently needs to be told and heard presently.

There are many people in the U.S. that identify with two or more cultures, especially within the Asian American demographic. Thus, Li’s sentiment that perpetuates the idea of “either or” identities – the concept that one can only be Asian or American and not both simultaneously in the same space – is highly problematic. We must emphasize the importance of recognizing that this pluralism among Asian Americans is not a pick-and-choose situation; to deny either part is to deny the entire whole. This is especially the case for those of us whom were brought up bilingual or even multilingual. One language is not more ‘native’ than the other, and we certainly do not consider one to be ‘foreign’. For a bilingual person to claim both languages as their mother tongue and consider each an integral part of their identity is only natural.

Li’s narrative of abandoning her mother tongue is one that completely disregards Asian American multilingualism and how that complicates the Asian American experience overall. This was shown most evidently when she answered a student’s question during the Q&A session, “what language do you speak at home?” with the following: “I speak English at home with my kids, because they are American.” The implication here is clear: to be American, one must speak English, and only English. Thus, Li’s assertions do not leave room for the concept of having more than one ‘mother tongue’ in America, room that many Asian Americans are desperately fighting for. This is a struggle that Asian American youths’ first-generation immigrant parents often don’t fully comprehend, especially if the latter grew up speaking only one language.

Li shared that ‘by becoming an orphan to one’s mother tongue, one becomes an orphan to one’s Motherland as well’. This is illustrative of the ideology of monolingualism that asserts that: a) there are distinct languages, each of which has clearly defined boundaries, and b) every person only has one mother tongue which is then tied to a single certain national territory. The first assertion is false, as it is not uncommon for one linguistic family to have branches of different languages and dialects: a most relevant example is the “Chinese” language. The Chinese language includes Beijing-oriented Mandarin, Hong-Kong-oriented Cantonese, and further includes a large number of ‘dialects’ that are politically not recognized as languages, but considered to be so by members of ethno-cultural groups that use them.

The second assertion, that every person only has one mother tongue which is then tied to one particular national territory, is also false. It is first proved false by the living realities of many Asian Americans, who may or may not have more than one mother tongue, who then also may or may not identify more than one country as a “Motherland”. Furthermore, drawing on the previous example, the “Chinese” language does not have a singular, one-directional relationship with “China the Motherland”. The Chinese language family has multiple languages: Cantonese, Taiwanese, Fujianese, Wu, and all the different dialects of Mandarin (that are discouraged in the Chinese education system), not to mention all the ethnic minority (non-Chinese) languages such as Tibetan, Mongolian, Bai, and etc., that are found within the borders of China. Thus, Chinese is a language family bound together by a common script, and not by one singular definable ‘mother tongue’. Moreover, the Chinese language is also used commonly in countries that are not China, such as Taiwan, Singapore, and Malaysia. The relationship between a ‘mother tongue’ and a ‘Motherland’ is a far more complex one than what Li claims it to be, and although she admitted that both were loaded words, she failed to recognize the dangers of equating one with another.

In addition, while Li explains her disassociation from the ‘Chinese’ language to be one of choice, many Asian American children were never given the choice of “abandoning” a mother tongue for the purpose of “adopting” a foreign, second language. Instead, it is often the case that the abandonment was forced, a decision affected by external societal pressures that reinforced the misconstrued concept that it was a necessary step to prove their complete assimilation into the American society. Some Asian Americans felt cheated out of their heritage because their parents only spoke English to them; some despised having to go to a Chinese language school on the weekends, while others appreciated those classes: the point being, that many of them did not have a say as children over what kind of relationship they were to have with their mother tongues. So while it may have been heartbreaking for Li to abandon her “mother tongue” in favor of English, her decision was effectively a liberating one, for it was not forced upon her as a child, nor as an adult. For her, it was not a matter of external pressures to assimilate but of a self-perpetuated erasure of the ethnic aspects of her Asian American identity as a first-generation immigrant, albeit an erasure that was perhaps motivated by her desire to dissociate herself from the former life she lived in China. Again, we recognize that Li has simply found her own relationship with her languages, but her implicit valorization of monolingualism in her essay and lecture is damaging towards many Asian Americans who have related to the world through multiple languages and desire to continue to do so.

Finally, we would like to close with the following anecdote: “when my mother apologizes to me, she apologizes by saying ‘sorry’ with an intentional Sichuanese accent. Literally the English word “sorry," said with Sichuanese tonalities, and expressed in text using random Chinese characters that exact the sounds of the word. It is a hybrid of the Asian and American aspects in our household. We specifically forgo using the Sichuanese-Mandarin word for “sorry” and the American pronunciation of “sorry” for this hybrid word, as it expresses a sentiment the former two cannot.” This hybrid language was born to fill the missing parts that act as a bridge between the dualities of language and identities that exist in many Asian Americans’ lives. There needn’t be a wall if people were more open to the idea of integrating different components of identities into a greater and better whole. The beauty of being Asian-American, or a “hyphen” American, is in its duality or plurality. There is no ‘native’ versus ‘foreign’ language narrative here – only a celebration of the multifaceted identities of Americans, and of what it means to be Asian American.

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