“Confronted by a course that negated their culture, many failed to master the skills they sought. Others succeeded by developing a second skin. Leaving their own customs, habits, and skills behind, they participated in school and in the world by adapting themselves to fit the existing order. The acquisition of literacy left them not in control of their social context, but controlled by it.”
This reminds me the scene when some animals or insects replacing their skin. Some animals have to cast off (exuviate) their skins in order to adapt to the surrounding environment. It is their instinctual reaction. It is questionable whether people who are living in the bilingual environment also undergo the process of skin-replacing.
The first thought tells me that it really happens, though unconsciously. Think of myself, when I first stepped into the new environment of America, the first thing coming into my mind is how to adapt to as soon as possible. More than often, we may put aside our own language and culture and replace it with the new ones. But it seems not as simple as replacing the old skin with a new one.
It makes me retrospect my own experience.
I was born and grew up in Yanbian, and Korean is my mother tongue. When I was still young, my father expected me to enroll a Korean school since my two brothers had already gone to Chinese school. They always spoke Chinese at home, so I was deeply submerged in Chinese. I began to speak Chinese and made friends with Chinese. As a result, our home almost turned into a Chinese, too, which made many of my father’s colleagues retreat from knocking when they heard Chinese at the door. Though they mentioned it to my father as a joke, my father could not let it go casually. Finally he found a good idea, that is, to put the task of reversing the family language back to Korean onto my shoulders. But it was not easy to fight against my stubbornness. All kinds of soft and hard tricks of mine finally won over him and consequently it was predictable what language my family adhered to. This has been the biggest pity of my father who himself was a graduate of Korean Department of Yanbian University.
After going to Chinese school, I didn’t feel any uneasiness to adapt to the Chinese environment of the school, while at home my parent still clang to the language and culture of Korean. I never realized that I was starting to alienate from Korean gradually. I could not recall from which day my mother commented on my dressings of Chinese style, and one day when I was showing her the dance we had been rehearsing at school, she teased me that I was dancing in the typical rigid Chinese way, while I had been well-known for my beautiful Korean dance when I was in the kindergarten. And my memory fails me on the day when people began to make fun of my awkward Korean. I would say “the knife was fast” (which is the way the knife is described in Chinese), instead of saying it sharp, and I would mention my father’s belly without using a honorific, which was considered impolite to say anything connected with an elderly. People would laugh when I was speaking Korean while I myself was totally at a loss. Few people in the school regarded me as a Korean. When I was in the elementary school, we would always meet some students from Korean school on our way home, and my classmates would curse them as “Korean sticks”, which was of course humiliating words to Korean. They totally forgot there was a “Korean stick” in their own team.
After I went to college and stepped into the society, I was greatly benefited from my excellent Chinese. Then was it the time for me to admit that I had already changed into the Chinese skin and felt proud of it, just like a butterfly who had just changed from a pupa (chrysalis) by casting off its skin? However, I couldn’t. People around me might forget I was a Korean, but I myself had a keen sense that my Korean skin was tightly attached to my flesh, which could never be torn down. In my opinion, I had never cast off my Korean skin. As a matter of fact, I had got another skin outside my Korean skin to adapt to the external environment. The two skins were glued to each other too tightly to separate. If Chinese was my overcoat, Korean was the inside cover of that coat. If I took off the coat, I would take off both.
I think in most immigrant families of America, the children who are living in the bilingual or multilingual environment will never peel down the skins of their mother tongues and replace them with English skin. Instead, outside the skin of their mother tongue, there will appear a new skin to adapt to the new living environment. The external English skin may make them ignore the internal skin of their mother tongue, but they are more than aware of the existence that skin.
Korean is still my mother tongue, which I will and can never throw away. Now I can speak more languages, like English, Japanese. And in the sociolinguistic classroom of American university, I will feel at ease to make examples out of Chinese, Korean, Japanese or English, and the surprised eyes shed by other students on me make me proud of my multiple skins. However, what I have more clearly realized is that whatever skins I have, they are all the skins tightly attached to me and never to be cast off.