Moving Through the Loneliness of Writing My Memoir

I finished the first draft of my memoir a few months ago and am revising now, hooray! So why don’t I feel spectacular?

Because this memoir writing is often lonely and painful. Yes, writing is a solitary act, but solitude is not what I’m referring to. I’m talking about the loneliness that comes from writing my lived experience.

A few weeks ago, I had a call with my dad about my memoir-in-progress (and yes, Dad still calls me every day):

“Nei5 se2 hou2 bun2 syu1 mei6 a?” Dad asked. I understood why he was asking this: I resigned from teaching last summer, have been writing full-time while leading workshops for high school students and adults, and told Dad I would ‘work’ again when I was done with a ‘good-enough’ draft of the book.

“Mei6 a!” I responded and laughed. Did he know—did anyone know—how long it took to write a book? “Nei5 jau5 mou5 se2 go3 bun2 syu1 a?” Had he ever written a book? I had finished the first draft, and Dad thought that meant I was done, but revisions and rewrites are needed before I dare show the book even to my husband, let alone a stranger.

“Ngo5 dim2 sik1 duk6 syu1 a?” Dad replied, belittling himself. Yes, I had never seen him pick up a book and read. But that didn’t mean he didn’t know how to read a book: I know how he scours through the Chinese newspaper every day.

Still, I know my parents won’t ever read my book, at least in the form I wrote it in if translated.

My parents don’t speak English, and English is the only language I am fluent in.

To share our conversation above, I used jyut6 ping3, a Cantonese romanization and tonal pronunciation system used for English speakers, because I can’t read many Chinese characters. Dad and Mom can’t read jyutping, and they can’t read this writing.

In speaking with fellow storytellers, readers, writers, activists, friends, and community members about my childhood experience, there’s always shock and surprise among monolingual speakers (i.e. English-only speakers) on how I am not fluent in my parents’ Chinese languages of Cantonese and Toisan. Here are the most common questions well-meaning people ask:

  1. How did that happen? I want to ask back, what language is our school system in? What language do I need to speak to survive in America? English. And what were my immigrant parents focused on when they arrived to America and had us three kids? Survival. My parents didn’t need to learn English in Chinatown or at their workplaces, but they pushed us to learn English. They needed us to do bare-bones translations at appointments, of mail, and, yes, even our own parent-teacher conferences. But they were too tired from work, or some cultural silences and taboos had to be kept to speak much Chinese to us. Then, at school, when I did attempt to speak my Cantonese and Toisan, the kids made fun of my tones because, news alert, the tones you use when pronouncing the words change the meaning. AHH! So I was not incentivized to speak my Chinese languages.
  2. So how fluent are you actually in Cantonese and Toisan? Yes, it’s not like I don’t know any Cantonese or Toisan. But my vocabulary is lacking. I don’t understand even the kids’ shows on TVB (believe me, I’ve tried). Some people ask what my Cantonese level is: I think it’s around the level of a first- or second-grader in Hong Kong. I dare say, everyone who’s multilingual, like my friend Michele Carlo who did a November show with me on this topic, would not be surprised. My English as a New Language teacher training taught me that we all have varying levels of fluency in our languages. We also have differing levels of receptive language (reading and listening) and expressive language (speaking and writing). So many kids who grew up with me in Chinatown would not call themselves fluent in their parents’ languages, and their parents don’t know English. Michele isn’t fluent in Spanish, either.
  3. So how do you communicate with your parents? You have to communicate with them somehow. My parents and I talk with each other, but we can only speak in basic conversational language when talking to one another: food, work, sleep, relationships, etc. Now there are dictionary apps and resources I use to translate on the fly if needed, which did not exist when I was growing up. But we rarely have long or deep conversations.

I realized in this writing process that I’ve never been able to dream of a different kind of linguistic relationship with my parents. I have an active and lifelong mental block on what I can and cannot say to my parents. I can’t even verbalize all the questions I want to ask them; my body, mind, and heart won’t take the disappointment of not being able to understand their responses (if they were to share) and being let down again. I wish I could push this mental block away like Toph would, but a lifetime of longing is not easily remedied.

Unsurprisingly, I chose to spend a decade in special education classrooms in predominantly immigrant neighborhoods, specifically Sunset Park, Brooklyn, and Little Village, Chicago, where many of the students are also not fluent (yet!) in their parents’ heritage languages. I wanted to encourage my students to embrace their multilingualism and multiculturalism in ways I would have benefited from at their age.

To master a language is to practice it and to speak it. And if we’re not speaking and practicing, we lose that language.

In three years of seriously working on this memoir, I have found only one book-length memoir chronicling the experience of a kid of the immigrant diaspora unable to speak with their parents fluently in the same language. (Please, if you know of one, share! I have asked dozens of memoirists and writers, to no avail.) Julie Sedivy’s “Memory Speaks,” published in 2021, is about an author’s attempt to connect to their home heritage. Sedivy’s “barely functioning Czech” and her father’s poor English, combined with cultural clashes, led to their eventual distance from one another. When Sedivy’s father passes, Sedivy loses her closest tie to her Czech heritage and is eager to reclaim it. Reading this book felt like a balm, especially from an academic describing childhood language acquisition and the idea that not all is lost.

There are essays online about this experience for sure, but other than Sedivy’s book, I’ve found nothing book-length that gets at the cultural bereavement of that parental heritage language loss. Yes, there are memoirs like Kat Chow’s “Seeing Ghosts,” or Michelle Zauner’s “Crying in H Mart,” where it is outwardly stated that their characters don’t speak their heritage languages fluently. But they also can navigate their distances in other languages (usually English) to get the fuller story I cannot. (BUT: my friend Grace Loh Prasad will publish one on her heritage language loss next year!)

There are other memoirs using heritage languages in their arcs, though. It seems to be more common for children and their grandparents to suffer heritage language divides, like Rajiv Mohabir, the author of the beautiful multilingual hybrid memoir “Antiman.” Mohabir writes about being alienated and attempting to connect with his Aji through heritage languages.

There’s an infuriating assumption made when people read about a character’s non-English language on the page: that they’re fluent in that language. On Friday, I asked Mohabir, “Your experience learning Hindi in Varanasi implies to a reader that you’re fluent in Hindi now. Are you?” Mohabir emphatically shook his head and laugh-said no! He knows, as I do, that language doesn’t work so easily.

“Writing about this language gap with my parents is lonely and painful,” I told Mohabir.

He nodded and tilted his head back. “Thank you for saying that.” I got teary-eyed at the recognition and validation.

Rajiv Mohabir and Annie Tan, holding Mohabir’s book “Antiman,” at the AAARI Asian American Studies Symposium, May 12th, 2023

I think Martha Alderson wrote the lonely feeling I have best:

“when you’re in the flow [of writing], loneliness is not what you’re feeling. 

Loneliness comes when you’re uncertain and insecure about what you’re doing. You doubt yourself and feel alone, separate and different from the flow of humanity around you. Isolated, the words refuse to come.

Loneliness often comes from the absence of affection and stems from sadness which is the loss of control over a source of love or attention. In other words, you want something and you feel you can’t have it.”

-Martha Alderson, “The Lonely Writer,” January 22, 2016

My linguistic gap with my parents has created a loneliness I’ve felt powerless to traverse. I moved home to New York to be closer to them, and we do have longer conversations now. But there’s a feeling that I’ll never fully break through or reach the kind of relationship I want with them.

Today would have been Vincent Chin’s 68th birthday. I learned through a book by Paula Yoo that Vincent, my cousin, wanted to be a writer, but Lily Chin, his mother and my great-auntie, wanted him to do something more practical with his life.

It is also Vincent Chin, who was murdered in 1982, that I am uplifting in my memoir, as it is his story, in English, that brought me closer to the family history I could not learn in Chinese. It is his story and my great-auntie Lily’s courage that started a historic Asian American movement. And which gave me and so many others the courage to speak.

When I began working on this memoir full-time in September, I cried every week, sometimes a few times a week, because I never fully processed this linguistic part of my lived experience. Just this week, I had a big cry with my husband; the pressure to get this experience right in my memoir is often unbearable.

But I have done this work before, and I can do it again.

I cried, too, over not knowing my cousin’s story, and spent decades looking for my family history. I cried when family members told me to stop looking, to stop talking about Vincent. Kid me would never have dreamed that I would understand the story of my cousin Vincent Chin, or about my great-auntie Lily Chin who shared Vincent’s story over and over again. I would never have dreamed I could talk about the case openly with relatives; though many still don’t want me to speak about Vincent publicly, I feel it’s our duty as family members to keep his legacy alive. I never dreamed I would speak publicly on behalf of our family (and that I would have to).

Maybe I am doing the not-practical thing, as great-auntie Lily said to Vincent, by writing this memoir. But as a friend told me, I’ve imagined a world with my writing in it and made it possible for that to happen, which is a feat in itself. It is a blessing right now to have the savings, support, and my husband’s health insurance to support this task. I am building my writing community: I just spent a month at my first writing residency at the Vermont Studio Center, was waitlisted for the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference, and will attend the Tin House Summer Workshop in Portland in July! And though I’m away from the classroom for now, writing this memoir is very much still educating.

I must consistently remind myself in this work that I am not alone. It frustrates me that I don’t have many examples for guidance. But as memoirists Chanel Miller and Stephanie Foo said on Monday, we have to focus on that 16-year-old and others who need our book.

I know I’m the only person who can write this memoir, and I know that it will make a difference.

As Toni Morrison said, “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

And I hope my future agent and editors keep the title I want for my book:

“Learning to Speak: A Daughter’s Journey Toward Languages, Activism, & Legacy.”

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Erica Silva (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

Published by Annie Tan

Annie Tan: Teacher, Activist, Storyteller.

One thought on “Moving Through the Loneliness of Writing My Memoir

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: