Learning to Cherish Trilingualism

By Mary Guillen

Growing up speaking Mandarin, Spanish and English is something I took for granted. It was not something I was proud of (much less boasted about) because most of my classmates were not racially mixed and they saw it as being odd or strange.

Before starting school, I never thought anything of it. But one day in first grade my friend commented on how weird it was that my parents were from such different countries. That was the beginning of a long period during which I often tried to hide my mixed heritage from my peers because I wanted to blend in.

My mother was born in Shanghai, China, and at the age of 19 came to San Francisco during the Cultural Revolution to attend Lincoln University. She later transferred to San Francisco State to finish her degree. My father, born in Esteli, Nicaragua, had left the political chaos of his homeland during the 1980s to move to California. First he went to Los Angeles, and later to San Francisco. He had a series of self-employed jobs and eventually ended up working in real estate.

My parents met through a mutual acquaintance a few years after my mother had immigrated to the U.S. Once married, my mother joined my father in his real estate business. After having their first child, my father started his own company selling herbal medicine with my mother as co-president. They imported herbs from China but their customers were Spanish speaking and, through her interactions with them, my mother learned Spanish. At home, however, my parents spoke mostly English to each other which is why we five children all learned English very young.

As an adult I can now see that the one of the main reasons that my siblings and I became fluent in two other languages was because we spent so much time with our grandparents. From the time I was 3 years old until I was 10, there was always at least one grandparent living in our home with us. My Chinese grandmother gave us lessons in Mandarin and always insisted that we spoke with her in Chinese. If we wanted a cookie or treat, she and my grandfather would tell us to say it in Chinese before they gave it to us. My mother would speak to them in Mandarin, so I would hear it on a daily basis. My mother usually spoke Mandarin to us, and we would respond in either Mandarin or English. I also had Chinese cousins, but they spoke mostly Cantonese to their parents so we spoke English with them.

My Nicaraguan grandparents lived in Virginia most of the year, but they would come out individually to live with us for months at a time, which exposed us to Spanish at a young age. When they would visit, my father would speak to them in Spanish. Since they babysat us and always spoke Spanish to us, we naturally picked it up. While my Nicaraguan grandmother would visit, she helped a lot in the kitchen and showed my mother many Nicaraguan recipes that my mom still uses today. From those early years, when we learned Spanish from our grandparents, my father started to speak to us in Spanish. Sometimes we responded in Spanish and sometimes in English.

Now I look back and think of the large family gatherings for holidays and parties that included grandparents from both sides and cousins on my mother’s side. The food on the table was Chinese, Nicaraguan and California cuisine. The rooms swirled with conversations in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin and English. How strange it might have looked to one of my school friends if she had stopped to visit!

All of these childhood events that made me trilingual were commonplace to me until I was able to appreciate them, which didn’t happen until high school. Throughout elementary school I suppressed my non-English languages for fear of being ridiculed. There were countless times when my peers would make fun of me for being Chinese. They imposed Chinese stereotypes on me and made no attempt to learn more about my mixed heritage. During those years, when people asked me to speak in another language, I always refused because I was shy and afraid to say things wrong.

In retrospect, I realize this embarrassment held me back from exploring my heritage to the fullest and seeing the advantage I had from being trilingual. In high school, I came out of my shell more and took up Mandarin and Spanish as my foreign language classes. Being able to shine in those classes was instrumental in turning around my perception of myself. My peers saw my heritage as cool and unique, which helped me gain pride from it rather than suppressing it. I participated in Mandarin speech contests and events put on by the Mandarin program and explored my Latina heritage in the Spanish program.

Now that I am older and realize that I live in a society where most people speak one language, or two at most, I truly see how fortunate I am to inherently speak three languages. I cherish my irreplaceable upbringing and take every opportunity to speak my native languages.

Mary Guillen was born and raised in San Francisco. She is a senior at the University of California, Davis, majoring in fashion design. Her plans for the future include traveling to China and Latin America to learn more about design trends in urban centers.

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