Navigating Education as a Chinese-Trinidadian
“I took off our language and wore my English, like a mask, so that others would see my face, and therefore yours.”
Ocean Vuong, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous
The power of education means that the child of an immigrant mother, illiterate in English, can achieve a degree in English Literature and graduate the valedictorian of her faculty. My story is the story of many. West of the Atlantic 一 in the New World, the Americas 一 are thousands of children navigating the hegemony of English, a language that may not be spoken at home, a language they may not share with their parents. It is in this ‘outside’ language that school assignments may become lost 一 lessons half-understood by children, and home-work in script parents cannot decipher. I remember asking Joe, who used to cut our grass, to help me with vocabulary words from the Nelson’s West Indian Readers in kindergarten. It was the time of corporal punishment in schools and I feared the sting of the ruler burning into my palm for being unable to enunciate these precious syllables. I eventually ended up in a remedial English class in my first year of primary school.
One of my first experiences of being aware of my Otherness was when a boy held a white colour pencil against my arm and declared that it was the colour of my skin.
“Yuh skin like dis colour pencil!” he exclaimed, his own skin the colour of cocoa.
We were sat around the low, communal tables found in all kindergartens, on equally low chairs designed for bodies still growing every day. I was confused; my skin was not white. I picked up the beige colouring pencil and pleaded my case. This feeling of difference would only intensify over the years; I would shed my childhood innocence and absorb the concepts of race, colour, and ethnicity in its place. I was used to being the only yellow body in a room. At times, I thought that my undergraduate professors remembered my name easily, not because it was a simple name 一 two syllables, four letters, L-I-L-Y 一 but because it was always easy to remember the anomaly. How could you forget the name to the face that stuck out like baby hair around the nape of your neck?
I have navigated my life thus far with the acute awareness that I both look and sound different; that no matter what space I might exist in 一 whether it’s in the Caribbean, in China, or in the United States 一 I’m exotic. A DNA test would likely say that I’m 100% Han Chinese, my parents both immigrants from Guangdong province. Yet, when I open my mouth, you can only hear the rises and dips of a Trinidadian accent. You hear the voice of someone raised on a small speck of an island off the coast of Venezuela, born to the ocean, matured by the sun. It has shaped how I’ve interacted with the world, and how it has interacted with me.
This essay comes in two parts; my educational experiences in Trinidad and Tobago, and my educational experiences in the United States as a graduate student.
Part I: Trinidad and Tobago
Let’s first begin with context. What does it mean to be Chinese-Trinidadian?
To be a minority is to be both highly visible and invisible simultaneously. When I was 10-years-old, I went on a four-day sleepover at my friend’s grandmother’s house in a rural part of southern Trinidad (the constituency of former Prime Minister Kamla Persad-Bissessar, to be exact). I was the first Chinese person some of the neighbourhood children had ever seen. This was not an isolated incident. By many Trinbagonians, I hold the titles of “first Asian friend”, “first Asian girlfriend”, “first Chinese girl I ever fucked”, “one of two Chinese friends growing up”, and “the Chinese person in my class”. Chinese-Trinbagonians make up less than 1% of the entire country’s population of 1.4 million people. That’s 0.00005% of the entire population of the world. And despite this tiny intersection of people on this planet who exist as both Chinese and Trinbagonian, we exist as part of the third biggest diaspora in the world. China is a country with approximately 1.4 billion people on its land and over 10 million emigrants around the globe. Depending on where you are, you may either blend into the sea of other migrant bodies 一 maybe Canal Street or Vancouver 一 or your fairer hue will draw stares of curiosity, amusement or hostility 一 like in Trinidad.
And yet with all this physical visibility, my voice is often invisible. I am seen, but I am not heard 一 or rather, it seems people prefer not to listen to me. Thus, while I was often the only Asian-passing person in my class, my opinions, needs and challenges were often ignored. I carry the burden of being in the middle of a racial war between Trinbagonians of African and Indian descent, the two ethnic majorities. Together we are the scions of a system that has been replicated elsewhere across the globe 一 the British empire leaving a trail of ‘divide and conquer’ through the West Indies, Kenya, India, and other places where people drive on the left side of the road and wear uniforms to school.
Asians bring to the West a kind of cultural passivity we further internalize and perpetuate 一because that is what the West expects from us. More importantly, that is what they want from us. We hide behind the protective shield of ‘middleman’; striving for whiteness, looking down upon other non-whites, and offering up our silence in exchange for upward social mobility. Birthed from capitalism, colonialism lives in our bodies and we enact violence against our fellow countryfolk who found themselves here by ship as well.
Nonetheless, some of us speak. We speak our microagressions into the world. We speak about the group of men who stick their bodies outside their cars so they could scream ‘ching chong’ at us. We speak about our primary school classmates who bully us for our ‘smelly lunches’. We watch our words drown in the tension between the majorities, sinking to the bottom, no match for the thrashing waves where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean Sea.
It’s a precarious place to be both seen and unseen.
To be Chinese-Trinidadian is to be both highly visible and invisible simultaneously.
What does it mean to be Chinese-Trinidadian and navigate education?
Parent-teacher meetings are pointless. Or, they are, at least, pointless when the parent and the teacher speak in different languages. My parents were always working (like most immigrants) and parent-teacher meetings were not a valuable use of a workday. Consequently they didn’t come, and in turn, teachers thought it was concerning that my parents didn’t show up. How could I explain that, as non-native English speakers, they felt that their time was being wasted? I remember standing there at five-years-old with my mother and my teacher towering over me, as I shrunk smaller and smaller under their gazes. My teacher instructed me to translate, but I froze. Embarrassment and anxiety seized my body. How do I translate these things? They were things we never talked about at home; another lexicon that my parents and I did not share 一 words that were not about eating, bathing or going to bed.
‘Communication Gap’ became a motif that stalked my primary school education. I struggled to write on the thick lines of our copybooks, did poorly on spelling tests, and ultimately, had to stay back at the end of the school day to do additional remedial English classes, where I practised sounding out each letter of the alphabet. My other subjects suffered without a foundational language for knowledge to be mediated. Teachers never acknowledged that my cultural and linguistic differences may have been part of my initial literacy problems. It is something I myself did not become conscious of until much later in life 一 that in order for children to learn, they must be taught in a language and modality they understand. It is this fact that has motivated someone like Dr. Michel DeGraff to lead a project on creating online Haitian Creole language materials to teach STEM to students in Haiti. It is also why researchers now advocate for deaf children to be exposed to sign language from birth, and to receive their education in the same way.
‘Communication Gap’ persisted.
And to further problematize things, English 一 while the official language of Trinidad and Tobago and the language of schooling, government and business 一 is not the lingua franca. Thus, I found myself constantly wedged between English in school and Cantonese at home, with my Creole-lashing tongue. I acquired dat before I could spell ‘that’, ting before ‘thing’, and copula-less sentences, amongst other treasures of Trinidadian English Creole. Bacchanal. J’Ouvert. Mamaguy. Eh heh. We, island people, inherit Creole long before we ever touch English.
Throughout my schooling, meta-awareness of the complex linguistic repertoire I (and other Trinbagonian students) possessed evaded my parents, teachers, school administrators, and of course, myself. Compounded with the racially charged bullying I experienced both inside and outside of school, I made no efforts to fully acquire Cantonese as anything more than a heritage language. Instead, I unconsciously sought to master English 一 leaving my Law degree program after one semester to pursue one in English Literature, a degree that turned into a double major with Linguistics. Language had morphed from one of the demons of my childhood into a highly personal subject matter; one that I was driven to explore both creatively and scientifically.
And yet, even at university, linguistic violence persisted. Having been raised in the north-western part of the island, educated at prestigious Catholic schools, and reared by foreigners, I had been accused of not sounding Trinidadian at all.
It was in Phonology I, a foundational course on the sound systems of languages. A classmate said that I must have been ‘born abroad’ or ‘lived away for some time’ 一 my accent not a true Trini accent, not quite like hers with its characteristically basilectal features. I sounded too ‘proper’. Despite never having lived anywhere else but the island at the time of accusation, I was simply not Trinbagonian enough.
Experiences like this were how I unexpectedly ended up specializing in sign language linguistics by the end of my undergraduate career. It started one August break when a boyfriend at the time and I decided to learn Trinidadian and Tobago Sign Language (TTSL) from a D/deaf teacher (someone who would go on to become a research assistant and collaborator of mine). Soon, we found ourselves at Deaf Trinbagonian community events 一 a football game, a fundraiser 一 and little by little, we grew more aware of Deaf culture in Trinidad. On campus, I was inspired by one of my lecturers (my eventual thesis advisor and a continued mentor, collaborator and friend), who taught me the value of researching underrepresented languages, and the value of expanding our understanding of language beyond French, Japanese, American Sign Language and other languages associated with wealthy, industrialized nations. My own feelings of invisibility, compounded by my memories of floundering in the byzantine space of my dual identity, drew me to other groups marginalized by differences of language and rooted me in a desire to do work that served minoritized people. Are our languages not just as valid as English? Do we not deserve to learn in our own languages?
For a brief period of my life, my parents owned a restaurant on Tragarete Road. I worked there for a few Carnivals in a row, selling pows, wantons and Coca-Colas to drunk mas players who desperately needed fats and carbs to keep chipping in the heat, swaying to another guaranteed Road March by Machel Montano. It was the same restaurant where I watched a woman belittle my mother while I sat in my school uniform, angry at myself that I wasn’t brave enough to intervene, to protect her.
One Carnival, I had the pleasure of amusing two different groups of people in the span of 30 minutes alone. While my Phonology I classmate attempted to deny my Trinidadianness, other people were alternatively surprised to hear a sing-song accent escape my lips.
Group 1: Two Trinidadian rasta men, both greying at the roots, ready to buy beers and quench their thirst on a hot Carnival Monday. Working the front, I asked them what they wanted, my voice seemingly a surprise to them.
“She sounds like one of us.”
Group 2: Two American tourists (evident by their “r”s and cargo shorts); one white, the other Black. Working the front, I asked them what they wanted, my voice seemingly a surprise to them.
“I like the accent on her.”
They spoke of me in the third-person despite my presence one foot away 一 my accent a costume no different from those adorning the bodies of mas players, a form of entertainment, a story to tell their friends back in the temperate suburbs.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, my Trinidadian accent would only work against me once I was in the United States 一 further evidence that I clearly could not speak English; more ammunition for denying my existence and excluding my voice from academic discourse.
Part II: United States
When I moved to Connecticut for graduate school in 2016 一 three months before Donald Trump was elected 一 I was ushered into a new era of figuring out just how to exist in this world. On campus, I was easily lost among other Asian-passing peers, regardless of whether they were Asian-Americans or the international students from China and Korea who chain-smoked cigarettes outside of the library. There is a privilege in being physically unnoticed in this way, a condition that I was not familiar with when I attended my regional university for undergrad back home.
My accent confused people. An international advisor once asked me, “How?”
“How are you from Trinidad and Tobago?”
Reminiscent of the time a mall kiosk worker in Queens told me that I was Filipino and not in fact Trinidadian, I politely and briefly explained the long history of Chinese migration to Trinidad and Tobago since the 1800s. My appearance combined with my voice conjured cognitive dissonance in anyone who was not familiar with the demographics of Trinidad and Tobago (which, believe it or not, is most people).
My cohort of five included two other native English speakers, one American and one British. Oftentimes, they were considered the only English speakers of our cohort.
One incident in particular stands out. It was in Syntax I, a foundational (graduate) course on phrasal and sentential structure in languages. We were examining English data. My professor at the time, a renowned syntactician visiting from the University of Cambridge, turns toward my American colleague.
“Do you agree that this is grammatical in American English?”
He then turns toward our British classmate.
“Is this okay in our English?”
Nods. End of discussion.
He never turns toward me.
This was only the first instance. Later in the semester, I would accidentally receive part of an email from another professor who was cheekily joking to my cohort mate that I would be included in the discussion of English sentences ‘this time around’.
It was a harsh lesson in why academia is often referred to as the ‘Ivory Tower’. Before graduate school, I believed that I would be surrounded by intellectuals once I was immersed in my field (especially at an institution in the global North). Unfortunately I had made the false correlation that being an excellent researcher and academic also meant that one was sensitive to the nuances of race, ethnicity, gender, and geopolitics. My department, devoid of any Black faculty or students, was a stark contrast to the hyperdiverse reality of Trinidad and Tobago and my undergraduate experience. As a non-white woman from the Caribbean, I accepted that to be heard, I would have to speak a little louder than I usually did.
While I was grateful for all the people (professors and students alike) who attempted to ‘include’ me 一 my grammaticality judgments for English data, my thoughts, my opinions 一 those random incidences of alienation continued to unnerve me and forced me to reflect on the politics of academia, and education at large.
At every level, there are landmines and hurdles that, whether consciously or not, fortify the Ivory Tower from the advances of “certain people”. For instance, we see it in admission processes, where the idea that some Englishes are more valid than others is applied. Despite English being the official language of instruction of my Bachelor’s degree, I must take a standardized test to prove myself. Not only must I take this test (and do well), I must spend a significant amount of money to register. A similar paradigm exists in the professional sphere of education. When hiring an English as a Second/Foreign Language teacher, recruiters often prefer candidates who speak a variant of English from the U.S., U.K, Canada, Australia, or sometimes, South Africa. Speaking English as a Jamaican or Singaporean does not hold the privilege of consideration.
We can say that education, as an institution, is the great equalizer. Sadly, its bureaucracy has created barriers that have discouraged the very people it is meant to ‘raise up’ from ever entering the system. Along with the generally homogenous nature of the academy (i.e., white), academics of colour find themselves faced with greater challenges in achieving the same levels of success as their white counterparts. Its demoralizing effects compel many to leave their fields, further reinforcing the academy as a primarily white space, where a small section of the human population conducts research on people that usually look just like themselves, framed around ideologies and perspectives grounded in their singular identity.
Forced to reckon with my experiences of marginalization in higher education, I began reflecting on my own positionality as a hearing researcher with D/deaf and Hard of Hearing (HH) communities. Much like other fields, sign linguistics is dominated by researchers who are ‘outsiders’ to their populations of interest. While constantly aware of my role as a linguist and the honest intentions behind my work, doubt and unease clouded my conscience. Was I just another ‘white savior’ disguised as a fellow, marginalized person? Who am I to be conducting this research? Shouldn’t D/deaf and HH researchers be at the helm?
Colonialism reproduces itself in insidious ways. We see it in how we educate others, and in how we educate ourselves through research. The hierarchies and dichotomies we build 一 teacher/student, researcher/subject 一 are all intertwined in the larger system of ensuring that only some people have power and control in society. My decision to take on a lesser role in sign linguistics is in part a commitment to dismantling this system. Despite efforts, I was not well-integrated enough into the D/deaf and HH Trinbagonian community to feel sufficiently comfortable using their language as a data set to uncover language universals. My work is in part documentary and conservational; in another, highly theoretical… and not directly useful to a group of people still battling for basic rights and protections. Can we truly study majority languages like English the same we do of languages belonging to minoritized groups? Am I profiting off the resources of an under-researched population in the form of publications, conference presentations and accolades? For centuries, the global North has plundered the South for growing sugar and mining gold. Today, it does so in terms of cultural appropriation and academic parasitism 一 latching onto exotic peoples and topics for dissertation topics. At every stage of my formal education, I have contended with the inequalities of this system 一 either as an overlooked student or a conflicted researcher.
“How do you pronounce this word?”
My mother is pointing at the word “TikTok” on her touchscreen phone.
“I heard Trump wants to shut it down,” she says in Cantonese.
Teaching my mother how to spell or pronounce English words is not an uncommon experience. I send text messages on her and my father’s behalf. I handle phone calls for them, fill out government forms, remind them of the difference between Tuesday and Thursday, and pass onto them the knowledge I’ve gathered through formal education. Children of immigrants become teachers to their parents, brokering the world for them. It is an asset of education, I think, most people forget 一 that those fortunate enough to learn, are also blessed with the opportunity to teach those around them.
It’s 9PM. My mother is studying number words, handwritten by one of our employees. Thirty-five. Ninety. One thousand. I lay on my parents bed in our home that stood above our restaurant in Port-of-Spain; a different restaurant they owned when I was eight-years-old; the one we sold because crime and violence chased us out of the city. My sister and I used to sit at one of the dining tables, either playing or doing our schoolwork. We were ‘restaurant kids’, like the ones I continue to see now whenever I step into a local Chinese food place or buy arepas and empanadas at Taryn’s. It’s after school hours and they’re still in their uniforms, scribbling on pieces of paper and being scolded by their parents to quiet down. I see myself in them. Have they heard customers spew racist phrases to their parents as well? Are they doing okay in school? Will they grow up and feel the same pain as me?