I can’t recall a time I’ve ever written to you. It’s probably because the written word feels too serious. Yet I don’t think I could express my sentiments today any other way. After all, at my very core, I am culturally Chinese through and through.
There are some things we feel too heavily to audibly invoke. There are some spoken words I do not have.
For a few weeks now, I’ve replayed a conversation we had years ago in my head. To you, it was likely a passing blip in time, as inconsequential as a nod to a stranger. If I described it to you now, there’s little chance you’d have any recollection. But it’s weaved in and out of my consciousness of late, and recent events have made it impossible to ignore.
A few birthdays ago, I came home to see you. Like we do every year, the family waited until around 11 p.m., just after you closed the restaurant. You finally burst through the door in your oil-stained shirt, redolent of the scent of pork fried rice from hours behind the wok. There was cake, and candles and food. You, though tired, did what you always do: You mustered up all your energy and filled the house with your booming laughter.
A couple of shots of Jack in, you began to reminisce about how you spent your prime, roughing it in 1980s Chinatown. How you animatedly shouted Cantonese in the kitchens. How you refused to shut up, like a real Chinese person.
After all, at my very core, I am culturally Chinese through and through. There are some things we feel too heavily to audibly invoke.
But you were different now, you insisted. And you went on to describe how customers come into our joint, praising you for “not even sounding Chinese.” Your accent, stripped down from years in small-town America, had been muddled by the red, white and blue air. The beaming pride in your face as you said those words remains in my mind to this day, and I’ve hurt something fierce because of it ― mostly because I understand.
America, in all its glory, has not yet confronted its own hatred toward the very people who pushed the nation forward. Our tongues remain an audible sign of a past from another land. Accents have been twisted into cultural marks of shame, of foreignness that so many feel has no place from sea to shining sea.
As the late legend Toni Morrison wrote in the New Yorker: “All immigrants to the United States know (and knew) that if they want to become real, authentic Americans they must reduce their fealty to their native country and regard it as secondary, subordinate, in order to emphasize their whiteness.”
I cannot blame you for your perceived victory. The day when I was in third grade and you delivered food to my classroom, your accent prompted a hateful reaction from my classmates. I remember the kids who squawked at us. Imitation, the sincerest form of othering. How eager I was to swallow the remaining Chinese words in my vocabulary and scrub myself of ties to our motherland.
Then there were the prank calls to the restaurant, all spoken in tones of mockery, and the kids who’d run up to the door and contort their faces and make absurd noises.
But never mind them. Now the occupant of the highest office in the land has told some of America’s very own congresswomen to “go back” to their own countries because they dare to speak out while occupying nonwhite bodies. Republican support for Trump only rose after the incident. The president also recently demonized immigrants, linking immigration reform to gun control. During press conferences, the president has been known to mimic those with accents. Almost half of white Republicans are bothered by those speaking foreign languages around them.
If the words of our roots are uncomfortable for some, then our beautiful accents are weaponized to dehumanize us. They’re regularly chopped and screwed by those with little empathy. We’re reduced to a joke.
The irony, Papa, is that your accent — your sentences knit together by pure emotion and void of impeccable grammar – is one of the few things that has made me feel human. Your double negatives and confusion of R’s and L’s have provided me with solace when I felt a world away from home, navigating a life in which I’ve too often felt helpless and out of place. Every jab to my character or appearance from people who wrote me off as a too-tough Asian bitch, every crack in my heart from a hurtful relationship, felt just a bit more healed after hearing your imperfect English.
If the words of our roots are uncomfortable for some, then our beautiful accents are weaponized to dehumanize us.
I’m different now too, Papa. And I know now that they lied to us.
You were American the moment you melted into the thick New York City Chinatown night, finding refuge among our community of Fujianese in the alluring grit of our ethnic enclave. Every Canto word you shouted along Bowery, every bowl of fried rice you ate from Wo Hop, which you proceeded to cover in ketchup, (you’re wild, bruh), every bead of sweat that dripped down your neck as you worked toward the family you did not yet have but always dreamed of. That was American as fuck.
I’ve always hurt, knowing that those who do not look like us feel they have greater claim over this nation ― a country forged on the backs of those who never got their due, across plains and rivers and mountains and hilltops that were stolen from those who’ve endured insurmountable pain.
Papa, your accent has never been anything to hide from. The lilt on your tongue betrays your past. It’s a stubborn reminder of your first language, resplendent and lovely. Every misplaced word of English is a gateway to the stories you hold deep in your heart that come out with a few drinks too many. You’ve felt the ache of famine from the Cultural Revolution, the yearning for stability, the toil of establishing life on strange ground. You have stories that they could not begin to understand, words in a language that they’ll never know.
Your accent does not divorce you from your Americanness.
I love you to death. I love you the way I wish America loved us, the way America should love us.
I’ll see you soon for your birthday.