living in language limbo: mandarin self consciousness

An illustrated personal essay I wrote in 2020 on my struggles with speaking Mandarin when I'm back in Taiwan

living in language limbo: mandarin self consciousness

(Written and originally posted in 2020 on old blog)

It’s been 7 years since I’ve lived in Taipei. Since then I’ve come home between the time span of 2 weeks to 6 weeks. Each time, it is the same experience, landing in the airport and feeling worried that I will actually have to talk to someone in Mandarin. Luckily, I can just use the electronic entry when I land, which is great because I don’t have to talk to anybody.

This time, 2020, I had the same concerns coming back. There’s something about physically blending in but also being hyper aware that my language ability for Mandarin is just not the same level as those around me. What if I am able to have a basic conversation but can’t understand them once they ask me for details about my health history? I don’t even know how to say coronavirus in Mandarin. Can I just say COVID-19? Will they understand me?

Being self conscious about my language abilities is not just pertaining to navigating the airport, but is also relevant to my experience in normal daily activities here in Taiwan. From ordering food to buying something at the cashier to going for a haircut to people asking me about my dog, I find myself stumbling… heart beating loud and fast, head spinning, anxiety spiking, all the time just while trying to maintain a basic conversation with a fellow Mandarin-speaking person.

The truth is, I am and have been ashamed at myself for as long as I can remember about my lack of fluency, but I’ve also been especially rebellious and rejecting from becoming more fluent in the language. There is some kind of internal hatred I have towards Mandarin — maybe because it’s the language used to shame me most, the language I’ve heard most shouting and fighting than I have in English, that there is an inherent rejection towards learning the language better.

Illustrated character with broken mandarin speech bubbles
All illustrations in this post done by me

Maybe it’s also from the negative experience I had with actually learning the language. The kind of experience where you’re forced to or you’re shamed or punished if you don’t learn it well. Learning this language entailed writing the same characters for 10 times, 20 times. I imagine my 6 year old self, continuously erasing, re-writing the same word over and over again, only to get scolded by my teacher or my mom. “That’s not square enough!” “What are you writing!” “Your strokes are wrong! It’s not in that order!” “This is your native tongue, how are you so bad at this!”

Why would I feel any sort of interest in learning this language?

It’s actually quite deceptive to have a conversation with me in Mandarin. I don’t have much of a foreign accent. When you hear me speak Mandarin, I sound like I am from Taiwan and learned Mandarin here. I pronounce things like how other Taiwanese people do. I know the 4 (5) tones well and know what words need what tone. I can use pinyin to type these words out quick and use bopomofo to type these words out slow and when the character suggestions pop up, I know which ones to select.

It’s not until the conversation starts getting more complex or specialized, let’s say, at the dentist or at the bank or getting shoes repaired, that you can notice I start stumbling and hesitating. I mumble the word in English and then that’s when people are like “oh, you’re a foreigner?”

The truth is, I never learned Mandarin in Taiwan. Sure, it was the language I was born into and my parents and family spoke to each other while I was an infant. It must be my first language, but I have no memory of it. I started speaking English soon too because I grew up in South Africa. Mandarin was a language I learned after school for a couple hours each day. I took classes with the other Taiwanese immigrants in the town and we learned essentially what local kids in Taiwan were learning. We read the same textbooks and rehearsed the same words, or so I thought. I did this until I was 10 years old.

Bopomofo mandarin alphabet Taiwanese curriculum

Most of my homework at night was not to do with my regular school, which was in English, but most of my homework was from Mandarin school. I absolutely hated doing Mandarin homework. It required a ton of memorization, and a ton of writing. And for what??? To recite it in class, stumble, and get a low grade? Then to get scolded at home too?

I recall distinctly that anytime I was scolded for my school work, I would slowly tear at my dictionary pages until I ripped the pages apart. I was so angry at this language, the expectations my parents had, at what I was being forced to do everyday, only the ripping of paper could give me a sense of satisfaction. I thought in English, I dreamed in English, I played with my imaginary friends in English, why the heck did I need Mandarin in my life? The dictionary was torn to pieces and I had to tape the pages back together because I still needed the dictionary.

When I was 10 years old, we moved back to Taiwan and I enrolled in the local American school. All classes were in English and then there was Mandarin class where we would focus on learning Mandarin. I’m mentioning this because enrolling in local Taiwanese school meant you would study all kind of subjects in Mandarin, but I have only ever studied the subject “Mandarin” in Mandarin.

At the American school in Taiwan, I was suddenly placed in the most advanced level of Mandarin which was probably equivalent to local Taiwanese school 2nd grade. In South Africa, my afternoon classes had caught me up to 5th grade level. Very quickly, I found myself not using Mandarin or studying Mandarin much. I only used it to speak to my family or in Mandarin class. Learning 2nd grade Mandarin which was a couple years behind what I already knew also stunted my learning. I just didn’t care for it anymore.

Mandarin skills illustration 25 year old and 8 year old

I had to continue taking Mandarin for the next couple of years in middle school and high school. My mom also made me start doing Mandarin mathematics workbooks during the summers. I stared at the triangles and circles and Pythagorean theorem and problems in hatred. I was already reluctant to work on these questions in English, why did I have to do them in Mandarin? They made no sense to me, I didn’t get much support, and honestly did not see the point in learning geometry in Mandarin.

I know my mom only wanted the best for me, which was to build my Mandarin skill. But all I did when working on these workbooks was struggle, which is especially tough being a rebellious middle schooler who preferred to be buried in a novel or at the movies. My hatred, or rather, apathy towards the language grew. My parents continued to emphasize the importance of this language. My dad was a broken record “China’s economy is booming, you need to know this language to get a good job!” I couldn’t care less. I wanted nothing to do with China in my future career.

I think it was since those days that I had given up on the language. I would go to bookstores to solely find the English section and pick books out to read or buy. I was content with knowing enough Mandarin to navigate public transport, order food, speak to my family, get a basic understanding what the news is about… that’s it. 8 years passed by in Taipei, living like that, my Mandarin stunted at the same level as a Taiwanese elementary school kid. It helped that I lived in a residential area with a lot of expats and diasporic kids, so I could get away with sneaking in English here and there.

It’s not until leaving that I now experience the consequences of my conscious decision to stop improving my Mandarin skills. I continue to feel awkward having conversations with neighbors, cashiers, waiters, hair stylists, taxi drivers, and even my own family members.

Anytime it’s time to meet with the whole family and they ask me what internship or job I’m doing right now, or what classes I’m taking, I have nothing to say but silence or I turn to my mom to translate. If they were to ask me what I do as my job right now, I am not able to explain it in any way.

It takes me at least a week to adjust anytime I come back from abroad to Taiwan. Anytime I walk outside I am automatically fearful and defensive. I am an imposter. How can I be Taiwanese, there’s no way I’m Taiwanese. No one will believe me, no one will accept me, no one believes me. Yes, I look the part, but I am not the part.

Illustration of a Taiwanese drinks menu

There is a sense of shame that is intensified as someone who actually spent time growing up here and have family members who live here. I think it would be a different story if I was a Taiwanese American who grew up in the US and came to Taipei to visit or to live for a year or two and “rediscover my roots”. I would probably come here and openly acknowledge my background as a foreigner and my lack of familiarity with the culture and place. People might receive me more openly and not judge the fact that I am unfamiliar with Taiwan. But maybe they would still judge me anyway… Maybe it’s all in my head.

Instead, I have to openly admit to growing up here, spending 8 years here, my family living here, and still not knowing how to read certain words on the menu and struggling to understand what the doctor is telling me at my appointment. People look at me like I’m a strange being, maybe they’re just curious, but I start to shrivel up in front of their stare, becoming smaller and smaller, just wanting to disappear out of sight so people can stop questioning what it is that I am. I assume they think I am a spoiled westernized kid who thinks my ability to speak English and being “American” is superior. I wish I could articulate that I don’t believe that, but maybe I’m just a hypocrite.




“What would you like to order?”

(I want to eat what that person at the other table is eating but I don’t know what it’s called so…)

*finger points at menu photo* “Can I have this please?”

“Ah so you want the blahblahblah, that’ll be 150NT please”

*fumble for money and change* feeling comforted by the fact that at least I am familiar with the currency.




“You’re here for a health check up? Please fill out the form”

*Glares at the gibberish on the paper, picking out recognizable characters here and there*

Okay, so I can write my name. And my birthday year, do I put the ROC year or not? And my address, what’s my address…

*Gibberish – health problems? Substance use? In the last week… alcohol? Gibberish jumble mumble, yes or no?*

Uhhhhhhhh…. I’m just going to guess.




“What do you do for your job?”

“Uhh… Lawyer… Computer… Uhhh!”




“Hello, this is Animals Taiwan how can I help you?”

(Foster, how do you say foster)

“I’d like to see if I can have a cat, but like not adopt, but short term, but I can return, like a cat that needs a home but for a few months”




“How would you like your hair cut?”

“Um.. short! By my chin. But not too short! And also…bangs (in english)” *points to photo*


A document of characters I recognize and characters I don't recognize

The above are just snippets of what my Mandarin sounds like. It’s likely I’m also not giving myself enough credit because there are times when I can hold a conversation and actually talk to people. Like I can answer the questions my hair stylist asks and I can ask them basic questions and get to know them a bit. But it’s just basic conversation. Once words come out in clumps of 2 or 4 characters, I find myself trying to translate it to English and perking my ear closer and mumbling “huh?” Before they slow down and explain it to me.

I’ve been back in Taipei for 5 weeks now and I have accomplished some things, but there are other things that continue to raise my heart beat. I’m proud of the fact that I called and figured out everything needed to get my drivers license and did it all on my own, with some help from my brother who did it before me. I was able to get my hair cut, bleached, dyed, and navigated that. I was able to order an art festival ticket online and pick it up at the local 711, something I’ve never done before. I’ve been able to have conversations with neighbors when walking my dog and they ask questions about his legs and why he’s in a wheelchair. I’ve been able to get a new SIM card and fill out the forms they need.

Struggle with Mandarin during daily life

The thing about living in diaspora and in limbo, is that I speak the language of physical navigation pretty well. I know my neighborhood and the alleys around my family’s apartment very well and can time my dog’s walks for 20 minutes and know where to poke in and out. I know exactly where the closest 711 is as well as the nearest cosmetic store. I know what restaurants have been around for the last 10 years and which have not been. I don’t need to read the text of a food jar or know how to pronounce it to know what I am buying. It’s not language, but rather a familiarity that is deeper than language. This expands into the fact that I am physically comfortable exploring Taiwan, because I do feel at home here. It’s until I have to open my mouth, when that illusion of home shatters. When I am in the U.S., I experience the opposite. I can understand all that is being spoken, but physically I feel out of place.

I often think about the cons of not taking my fluency in Mandarin to the next level – I don’t know what the politics of people my age in Taiwan are. I don’t know what social organizing is going on on a day by day basis. I don’t know what is trending in Taiwanese or Chinese literature. I don’t know what local art and media people are consuming. I don’t know what I would be thinking about or caring about if I was 25 years old born and raised in Taipei. I don’t think I can follow a yoga class with my eyes closed. I can’t order food well if it’s a menu without photos. When shopping for groceries, I’m still constantly looking for English words or familiar characters. I’m using Google Translate here and there to help me, but I am too scared to play the pronunciation out loud when I’m riding the subway. I am hyperconscious that I probably read and talk like a 10 year old.

I continue to struggle navigating an identity where I’m viewed as a person from here, no questions asked, but I only see myself as an outsider, as not belonging, as never able to belong.

I’m okay with it, I’m comfortable with it. I know that in order to advance into the next level of fluency, I need to make peace with my past with this language. I’m not there yet, and that’s okay. And if I never make it there, I just need to be okay with the fast heart beats and combatting my fear of being seen as inadequate or foreign.