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Code-Switching Was a Survival Tactic for Me in School

10 minute read
Chin is a cofounder of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City, and has gone on to write for network television before transitioning to social-justice documentaries. Chin has received awards from ABC/Disney Television, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and more. He is the author of Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant: A Memoir

Before letting me get on the big yellow bus for the first time, my mom shared with me her mantra for school as well as life: “Work hard. Be quiet. Obey your elders.”

She also gave me a little white takeaway bag from Chung’s, our family restaurant, to give to my teacher. It contained some of our best treats: fortune cookies, oolong tea, a pair of pink chopsticks. My mom may have believed in meritocracy, but she wasn’t above a little bribery too.

With gift bag in hand, I ran through the halls of Brace-Lederle, the elementary school closest to our home near Eight Mile Road in Southfield, Michigan—a suburb of Detroit. I had one goal in mind: making new friends. In Chinatown, where our restaurant was located, there were other kids to play with, but I was the youngest in that gang. I wanted friends my own size. In school, my brothers Craig and Chris had each made friends with another set of Asian brothers, the Chos. I wanted my own Cho brother.

By the time I found my homeroom, which was all the way at the very end of the hall, it was full. My eyes bounced around as I admired the blue-green globe, the American flag, and the hamster in the tank by the window. I took in the two dozen unfamiliar faces. I started to sweat. No one looked like a Cho. In fact, there weren’t any Asians at all—no Chinese, no Filipinos, no Indians. Just Black and white bodies. This was definitely not Chinatown.

I grew up around Detroit, a famously divided city, so race came up often.

On the playground every day, the boys jockeyed for control of the courts, chanting, “Fight, fight between a Black and white.” Unsure which side to choose and hoping we could all play together, I’d give a half-hearted “Go get ’em.” Both sides considered my neutrality un-acceptable; they taunted me with bars of “Ching-Chong Chinaman” and fake karate chops. Playing the role of Switzerland only turned me into Swiss cheese.

To avoid further conflicts, I sometimes stayed inside with my teacher, Mrs. Ringeiser. The curvy blonde with Farrah Fawcett hair made for pleasant company. After she called me “Mr. Chin,” she officially became my first straight crush. Like a puppy dog, I ran around pushing in the chairs and watering the plants for her, the same chores I did at Chung’s. I thought the love was mutual. But one day, things changed. I realized she had no use for me at all.

During class, Mrs. Ringeiser liked to toss out questions, then scan the room for responses. My mom’s advice to “be quiet” stuck in my head. But my teacher lavished praise on the other students for correct answers, and I wanted to get in on the action too. I started raising my hand and shouting out the answers. I felt guilty for not listening to my mom, but the high of getting mad respect from my teacher and the other students was addictive. It was the kind of attention I didn’t always get at home or at the restaurant.

At the end of the second or third week, Mrs. Ringeiser called my name. At first, my fingers tingled. I expected to be praised for my quick trigger hand, but then I noticed the other kids giving me strange looks. Mrs. Ringeiser pointed to a middle-aged redhead waiting by the door. “Please go with Mrs. Morrison.”

My stomach dropped. There were 30-odd students in the class; why was I being singled out? I knew from watching Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom that certain doom followed for any stragglers separated from the pack. I thought to myself, Don’t get up, as the other voice in my head—the one that sounded like my mom’s—echoed even louder: Obey your elders.

Mrs. Morrison led me down the hall to a square room not much bigger than a broom closet. The air felt stale. No windows. No plants. Only a few posters were affixed to the wall, some of them illustrations of animals and others trumpeting the 26 letters of the alphabet. It felt like a punishment. Maybe I should’ve listened to my mom and stayed quiet.

Mrs. Morrison grinned, exposing her teeth. They were big and white, like the Big Bad Wolf ’s. “We just want to hear you say a few things.”

My chin drew back. Was there something funny about the way I spoke? I knew my Chinese sucked, but no one had ever said anything bad about my English. In fact, the other kids in Chinatown—who came from all over Asia—were jealous of my perfect American accent. They said I sounded just like the kids on The Brady Bunch. I was practically Bobby!

For the next hour, I sat in the room acting like a circus seal with its snout angled in the air. As she pointed to the posters taped to the wall, I called out the answers: “Tractor!” “Rabbit!” “Carrots!”

After school, as usual, my mom brought me and my brothers down to the restaurant so she could help with the dinner rush. She’d never warmed to the restaurant life—for her, it was more of a means to an end—but her shift was only a few short hours, and if she was lucky, there might be enough players to get in a round or two of mahjong.

Before beginning our studies, we had to refuel. My mom considered food an essential study aid, and thanks to our well-stocked kitchen, we had over a hundred items to choose from. Since I was feeling a bit down, I needed a pick-me-up. That meant something sweet and sour. Red tomatoes, green peppers, yellow pineapple—a mix of the luckiest colors—surrounded the protein of my choice: chicken, pork, or shrimp.

This time, I picked all of the above.

When I was mid-snack, my mind drifted back to school. What flaw had my teacher detected? Was it the Hoiping accent from my grandparents, the Cantonese from our cooks, the Black slang from our delivery guy, the Hindi and Tagalog from the other kids in Chinatown, the Portuguese from our cook from Brazil, or even the French-Canadian from the CBC, the station across the river that broadcast Ernest et Bart?

When my mom caught me licking the last drops of gooey sauce off the tray, she grabbed the metal container. “What’s wrong? Did something happen at school?”

“No. I’m fine.” That was the first time I recall lying to my mom. It didn’t feel good, but I had no choice. It had been so embarrassing to be pulled out of class like that. I couldn’t tell her how I was really feeling. In my defense, my response wasn’t completely fake; it was more like a half-truth—I chose what parts to leave out, a skill I became pretty good at as I got older.

“You need help with schoolwork?”

Without revealing too much, I nodded.

Diplomas were rare in our house. My mom had dropped out of high school; my dad had gone to community college for only a few semesters; my grandpa stopped going to school after eighth grade, and my grandma got only as far as fifth. But as “ABCs”—Asian Buddhist Confucians, a culture where studying led to godliness—they pressured us kids to focus on our ABCs and 123s. My mom supplemented my schoolwork with extra lessons written on the back of our paper place mats, the ones with the twelve beasts of the Chinese zodiac. (I was a monkey—clever and creative.) After completing the problems, we’d go over the answers, correcting any mistakes. These study sessions are some of my best childhood memories. They represented a rare chance for mother and son to bond, our common language being math.

The next day in school, I returned to my quiet ways. I sat at my desk. I felt like a spy, observing how the words fell from my teacher’s mouth. Under my breath, I repeated her inflections and rhythms.

After a week of trips to the Island of Misfit Toys, my exile ended. When the time came for me to leave, my teacher said I could stay with the class. But my victory felt hollow. The incident reinforced the isolation I’d encountered that first day, when I hadn’t seen any faces that looked like mine.

Though I continued to be self-conscious about the way I spoke, slowing down to ensure I was pronouncing everything correctly, I felt relieved to be fitting in. Years later, I learned that what I was doing was called code-switching—consciously speaking and acting differently depending on the background of the people around me—but at that age, it was called survival.

Read More: How to Take Your Voice Seriously

A few weeks into the new school year, my teacher, Mrs. Berney, an attractive white woman who wore too much blue eye shadow, summoned me to the front of the class. My heart pounded hard. What was wrong? Did my speech sound funny again?

Mrs. Berney called a few more names from the attendance roll and sent us to several empty desks stationed in the front corner of the room. As the four of us inched over there, I wondered if I could talk my way out of this, offer some plausible explanation of how I spoke, until I realized that our quartet consisted of the students who turned in homework on time and scored highest on the exams.

In fact, Mrs. Berney announced that we were being put on an accelerated track. What an ego boost. My mom never called me or my brothers gifted or talented. In fact, she would say we were no better than any other students. She wasn’t trying to be mean—at least I hope not. I think what she was trying to say to us was that we could do whatever we wanted as long as we put in the effort.

I had put in the effort, and now victory was mine!

I couldn’t wait to get home and brag to my mom. For the reward, which she always gave with good grades, I had a big choice to make: Jell-O or chocolate pudding. I couldn’t decide.

As I’d suspected, the news made my mom beam. She patted me on the back for a job well done. “I told you math is better. Numbers don’t lie. If you get the right answer, the teacher cannot tell you that you’re wrong.”

I nodded, acknowledging my mom’s wisdom. We went inside, hand in hand. Chocolate pudding sounded great.

Excerpted from EVERYTHING I LEARNED, I LEARNED IN A CHINESE RESTAURANT by Curtis Chin. Copyright © 2023 by Curtis Chin. Used with permission of Little, Brown and Company. New York, NY. All rights reserved.

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