Savory Noodles, Delusional Frogs, and Familial Dreams: A Reflection on the First-Gen

A lesson on finding self and family as a first-gen child, told through stories of my memories, and reflections on them.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

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By Annie Li

It’s nine p.m., and I’m sitting with my friend at our go-to late-night noodle spot, getting ready to order. We go for our usual, 泡菜肥牛米线 [Beef with Kimchi Rice Noodle Soup], but tonight, I feel a little hungrier than usual. I flip to the back of the menu and scan over the options. I stumble upon the 香拌鸡胗 —marinated chicken…— wait, what’s that last word? I run my eyes over the character again and again, but I just can’t figure out what it says. I glance over at the waiter awkwardly waiting to take my order, and with a sigh of disappointment, I read out our choices in English, feeling embarrassment rise within me for not being able to read the order out in Mandarin. 

Although I laugh a little after this happens, I can’t help but wish I knew my native tongue better. Mandarin was my first language. Before I could utter a word of English, I was reciting poems in Mandarin at age two, something my parents constantly remind me of now that I’ve forgotten most of them. After entering the American education system, I was no longer able to hold onto that fluency. Years flashed by, and as I learned how to distinguish between “read”, “read”, and “red”, I simultaneously lost recognition of the characters that made up my name and the signs of the mom-and-pop shops I had grown up with. Saturday Mandarin classes weren’t enough: two to three hours of schooling a week couldn’t combat the Americanization of my lifestyle. 

So, even after all the aunties and uncles I’ve never met in-person praise me for speaking “such good Mandarin” every time Lunar New Year rolls around, and I greet them with a “祝你生体健康,年年有余” [wishing you health and prosperity], I can’t help but focus on the implied “for an American” part that follows. Seeing them through the WeChat video call screen on my dad’s phone only amplifies the disconnect. On holidays meant to be celebrated with dozens of extended family gathered around large tables and big meals, I am separated from my relatives by a centimeter-thick metal box that represents an ocean between us. My half-developed Mandarin (a.k.a. the ABC [American-Born Chinese] Syndrome where you can only speak but not read/write) symbolizes a greater separation that divides my family; like through a glass barrier, we can see each other, but our connection feels severed.

Yet, as I grow older, I realize that not all hope is lost—like an invisible string, I will always be pulled back to my roots. Even without a perfect understanding of each other through the right words and strokes of characters, I walk through life daily as the product of the virtues, traditions, and memories my family has instilled within me. As a kid, my eyes lit up not at the sight of barbeque wings on a menu, but 薑蔥炒蟹 [ginger scallion crab]; I remembered how cool my dad looked the first time he prepared them for my birthday, skillfully moving the pot amid the towers of flames that would shoot up. To this day, 薑蔥炒蟹 continues to sit at the top of my food list, and a must-have whenever I bring my friends to my go-to restaurants. As a kid, I fell asleep in my mother’s arms not to Disney fairytales but Chinese idioms—stories of monkeys fishing for the moon, an archer shooting down suns, a talking (and slightly delusional) frog met with the reality of the world beyond him. Though I no longer remember the words of the “Frog in the Well” fable, I embody the never-ending determination to broaden my horizons that it taught me in my life. Though I no longer remember the victories of the mythical heroes that filled my childhood imagination, I find peace in the fantastical worlds I became familiar with through them, and the pursuit of the seemingly impossible that they taught me. The bonds that tie a family transcend spoken language, and my family is bound by the spirit that drives each of us. 

With this in mind, although I hope to improve my fluency with practice going forward, I’ve come to recognize that neither my linguistic skills nor my remixed traditions growing up in America define my place in my family. Whenever I bring my friends food-hopping in Flushing, sharing the comfort foods I have grown up eating with my parents at the dinner table, I am proud to wear the smile my family has always taught me to carry. Behind it lies a legacy of unity, optimism, and humor that my family has embodied generation after generation—a symbol of who we are, unbreakable by any material boundary. 

To all the first-generation kids out there, broken native language skills included, your flaws are not emblems of familial disconnect or your inferiority/inauthenticity within your family; they are marks of the treasured role you play as the culmination of traditions, virtues, and dreams of those before you. You are the child of hopes and wishes, those written on lanterns and cast under the stars—cherish them by embodying who you are, every step of the way.