On Getting Disoriented

“I asked my new tutor if a Chinese person naturally spoke Chinese better than an American ever could. He said the shapes of the mouth, tongue, and lips of each race were best suited to its particular language, as were the ears that conducted words into the brain. I asked him why he thought I could speak Chinese. He said that I studied well and had exercised my mouth to such a degree that I could move my tongue differently.”

The Valley of Amazement, Amy Tan

I open this post with a quote from Amy Tan’s latest novel, because as I read these words on a beach in Virginia, I sat up in shock. Tan writes from the perspective of a young girl, Violet, in early twentieth century China who at this moment in the narrative is deeply concerned about being mistaken for being Chinese. Immediately after the passage I cited above, Violet continues on to catalogue her features–fair skin, brown hair, and green eyes–in order to disavow being Chinese, despite being able to speak the language. Violet later finds out that she is in fact half Chinese and half American; however, this passage highlights the linguistic politics inherent in national or ethnic identity. Further, this passage highlights the corporeality that is implicated within language practice and acquisition.

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