Language was the center of my constructed identity after I came to the United States at 20 years old. I was the only Chinese student in the small liberal arts program, and the only non-native speaker. And that was when I realized that no matter how smart or sophisticated you are, nothing counts if you couldn’t express it in English.It was frustrating how my intellect and personality got lost in translation just because I didn’t know certain vocabularies.
Now that I speak perfect English without an accent, people are often surprised to find that I was not born in the States. “No one would be able to tell from your English!” This kind, white Uber driver once said. And I answered: “I don’t know if it’s a good thing or bad thing.”
Why is English seen as “better” than the heritage language, especially for Asian immigrants? Nearly 40% of Asian second-generation immigrants don't speak their heritage language, while only 15% of Hispanic second-generation immigrants don't. When it comes to the third generation, merely 8% of Asian Americans speak their heritage language. Along with language, our cultural and ethnic identity is inevitably fading.
Mother Tongue was written to reflect on this gap in language and in culture, infused with my own experience interacting with my grandmother who doesn’t speak Mandarin and has been living with Alzheimer’s for more than 15 years. Growing up, I was never able to communicate with her verbally, yet I never doubted that she loved me dearly. And it was heartbreaking to witness the bond disappear due to the disease.
Just like how my grandmother loves me without a common language, I connect with people from different backgrounds with all means of communication. However, there is always a side of me that’s so deeply embedded in the cultural context, that could be lost in translation.
In Mother Tongue, I’d like to explore how to communicate the incommunicable, and celebrate the beauty of the Chinese language through imagery, poetry and music. These elements will come together as a sewing thread in this non-classical narrative, and immerse the audience with memory, love and grief.
Mother Tongue is a film about acceptance. The acceptance of being different, and the acceptance of one’s reinvented self and chosen heritage. As Asian immigrant artists, we always have to seek acceptance from our family, our peers, and the “mainstream" society. However, the strength of acceptance comes from within. And the making of Mother Tongue allowed us to find our voice and accept ourselves unapologetically.
We brought together Asian filmmakers and artists from all over the world: Mainland China, Taiwan, India, Malaysia, Korea, and the US. Each one of us carries a unique perspective in the immigrant experience, yet still share the same root and bond in the Asian culture. It was a magical process to work with such a diverse pan-Asian group. No matter how many kilometers or generations apart, the collective memories, symbols, legend and history are still deeply embedded in our artistic nutritions.
Mother Tongue features Asian aesthetics in its design, cinematography, and music. Together, the cast and crew drew the instinct in our blood, and combined it with references from ancient poetry, paintings and songs to create an authentic Asian cinematic experience.
Through making this film by Asians, of Asians, and for Asians, the creation of Mother Tongue completely strips the Western gaze. The film is no simple imitation of the Asian immigrant experience, but a proud manifestation of a wholesome Asian identity in the American context. And ultimately, we achieve acceptance of our individual artistry, as well as our collective cultural unity.