For the past three weeks, I have been on an annual trip my family takes to Taiwan, where my parents grew up and where many of my relatives still live. It’s a magical place to me. It was there, through the humid air of my grandmother’s apartment that I heard the stories that inspired my thesis project. During the trip, I took a bit of a break from the main work of my thesis project, but I had my ears wide open for stories and even began to experiment a little on the interview procedure with some of my relatives. More on that later. I brought a few postcards a few souvenirs from Taiwan to remind me of the magic of the place, but here are a few of the things I really wish I could’ve brought with me.
Since finishing the linguistics textbook, I have embarked on a great hunt through the literature surrounding code-switching, bilingualism, language socialization, immigration studies, and oral histories. I’ve been ransacking libraries and combing through bibliographies to follow the trails of key readings and scholars. As I did this I come to the realization (again) that the more I read, the more I know what I don’t know and the more I understand the scope of how much more reading I will have to do. Every source I finish reading points to at least four more crucial texts I have to read that I didn’t even know about before. It reminds me of this Chinese fable my mother told me when I was small. I’d like to apologize ahead of time for any gross inaccuracies and invented details or plot points that occur in this retelling of the fable. To be fair, the last time I heard the story was a long time ago and it was in a different language. So here is the story:
Once upon a time, there was a frog who lived in a well. He had everything he ever wanted in his well. I guess for a frog, that would be flies to eat and water to swim in. I’m not too sure what else a frog might want. Anyhow he also knew everything about that well, knew which angle to sit at to bask in the sun and which rocks to jump on to climb up the sides of the well. He even learned to predict the weather based on looking at the clouds that he could see in the little slice of sky above his well. He was very happy and he thought he had the most fabulous lifestyle ever. He was pretty sure that he knew everything there was to know about the world.
One day, a sea turtle encountered his well. (I have no idea what a sea turtle was doing that could have led him to the frog’s well. Maybe the sea turtle was a traveling engineer who was investigating well construction in different areas of the world.) The frog told the sea turtle, “Yo, I know everything there is to know about the world. I know everything about water, and about walls, and about the sun and the sky.” The turtle was very wise and old and cool, as turtles tend to be (see Finding Nemo for evidence), and he had traveled around the whole world. The turtle took the frog out to see the ocean, the great wall of china, the desert, and the sunset on a beautiful beach. And the frog’s mind was blown by how much of the world he didn’t even know he didn’t know about.
I feel like that frog every time I read more.
Over the past two weeks, I have gone through a crash course in linguistics. I read and studied a 600 page textbook in order to root myself firmly in the basics. If you’ve ever embarked on a self-taught a course in two weeks before, you will understand that it takes a massive amount of focus to accomplish. On the first few days, I was going strong. The information was new and interesting, and I was thrilled whenever I got practice problems right. Each paragraph took only one reading to absorb. Then as the days went on, I began to dread seeing the grayish blue cover of the textbook. The weight of the pages in my hands felt insurmountable, and definitions and concepts began to run together into a muddy mess in my mind. I would read the same paragraph over and over again and feel oh-so-tempted to take a nap or grab my laptop and let my brain melt into goo as I scrolled through Facebook.
On one of these dreary days, my housemate returned from New York and excitedly showed me an un-missable bargain at a nearby yoga studio. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, but she assured me that thirty dollars for thirty days of yoga classes was a very good deal and that I would thank her later for it. It was just as well that I didn’t know what I was getting myself into because not only was it 9 am yoga, it was 9 am hot yoga. I felt sad and sweaty and sore afterwards, and I was very sure that I didn’t care about how much value I was missing out on, I would never go back. But the next morning I decided to give it one more try, and instead of letting my mind feel miserable about the sweat and the heat and the impossibleness of bending my body and balancing on one foot all at once, I forced myself to focus on the muscles I was supposed to be using, focus on a point to keep my balance. And I found that once I was able to find focus, I barely noticed how hot and sweaty it was, I stopped falling over and feeling frustrated.
I managed to apply this new-found focus to my linguistics readings and found that I was able to chug through more chapters more efficiently and remember everything more clearly.
So in the end, I did thank my housemate for great bargain on yoga classes.
To explain what the heart of my project is, I commissioned a drawing from my sister.
I am the child of immigrants: I grew up speaking first Chinese and then English, I grew up listening to stories that ranged from fantastical to depressing to inspiring to thrilling to terrifying to silly to thinly-cloaked-guilt-trips. Grandparents and aunts and parents all painted these stories in both English and Chinese, some of them mixing the two, while other used only one or the other.
My goal is to understand how immigrant families who speak two languages use the two languages to tell family stories, and how the use of languages and the purpose of the stories are related to each other and also to the identity formation of school-aged children in the families. Through my experience working with English as a Second Language (ESL) students at Allderdice High School and Brashear High School this semester, I’ve developed a special interest in how this applies to the English learning of ESL students and the maintenance and further development of their heritage languages.
I’m going to be spending the summer partially burying myself in books, to understand the theory around bilinguals and code-switching and family storytelling and immigrant identity building. This may not sound that enticing, but actually I cannot wait to curl up with some books and fill my mind with these topics.
The rest of my summer will be spent developing contacts with immigrant families in Pittsburgh, and developing the ways I’ll be observing and interviewing them about their language use and family storytelling. Hopefully I will be able to get some interviews and observations done over the summer as well. In any case, I will be updating this blog with my activities and discoveries, and I know (from having done research before) that they will be twisty and turny and unexpected, but always enlightening and interesting and worthwhile.