Why Asian American generations don’t understand each other

Language shapes culture. I’ve also heard it said that language and culture are intricately connected. Another dimension of that came to light recently as I listened to this NPR TED podcast episode, Does The Subjunctive Have A Dark Side? [transcript] – where a portion of a TEDx talk delivered by a 2nd-gen Vietnamese-American explained how the absence of a subjunctive mood with verbs in Vietnamese (and by inference, Asian languages), resulted in a huge difference in how they experienced life, for himself and his 1st-gen Vietnamese dad.

I had to find the full talk and here it is. Watch that TEDxDirigo talk Grammar, Identity, and the Dark Side of the Subjunctive by Phuc Tran::

The video is worth watching in its entirety. (For those that read faster than they listen, the full transcript of Phuc Tran’s talk is posted at racialicous.) I’ve excerpted keen insights below (and emphasis added are mine):

… I remember talking to my dad about the subjunctive, and because he wasn’t a native English speaker, he didn’t understand all the nuances of the subjunctive. “Listen, Dad. You can say something like ‘If it hadn’t rained, we would have gone to the beach.’” And his response? “That’s a stupid thing to say. Why are you talking about something that didn’t happen?”

… The subjunctive mood allows us to look into the future and see multiple, highly nuanced possibilities with just a little sprinkling of could’s, would’s and might’s.

… I didn’t know it then, but I was pondering things that my parents couldn’t ponder at all because of the English subjunctive.

… So what happens if a language doesn’t have the subjunctive? What if a language can’t express the idea of something that could have happened? And what if that language were Vietnamese? For my father, there were no alternate realities… There was just what happened and what didn’t happen. There were no sustained moments of contemplating what could have been for him because Vietnamese didn’t allow it.

… For my parents’ survival, however, this lack of the subjunctive was fundamental to their resiliency. They were able to provide for me and my brother, able to find the strength to do what needed to be done in part because they didn’t expend psychic energy on what could have been.

… There I was, hovering between two very different worlds: Vietnamese with its stark indicative, and English with its mirage of the subjunctive.

… The subjunctive helped me envision what I could be; it allowed me to be creative and to entertain crazy visions of “what if.” But as I unpacked all those possibilities, I also fell prey to the dark side of the subjunctive, the idea of “should have.” The idea of what “should have” didn’t improve my present or my future–it clouded my ability to see what actually was because I was fixated on what wasn’t.

… The subjunctive allows us to innovate, but it also allows us to become mired in regret. The indicative does not allow us to imagine at all, but it does allow us to talk about ourselves and our experience in real terms…

Can you relate? For decades I’ve worked at bridging communications between first-generation and second-generation Asian Americans, attempting to better connect with my own parents, as well as for my work with ethnic Asian churches. Not only are language and culture tightly connected together, so also is my personal identity with them, and all of that shape how I see the world and experience life.

As it is with any cross-cultural comparisons and contrasts, the temptation is to pick what’s better and what’s worse in each culture. Don’t fall for that. Different cultures are just that, they’re different. And depending on the context, some cultural artifacts work better in certain situations. Cultivate the cultural-savvy to navigate in our increasingly-diverse multi-cultural world.

Aside: This is the nomenclature I’m using for Asian Americans. First-generation refers to foreign-born Asian Americans that immigrated to the USA after age 12. Second-generation refers to both foreign-born Asian Americans that immigrated under age 12 and of course all native-born Americans of Asian ancestry. Age 12 is not a magical number of changing worldview, but from my life experience, that seems to be the inflection point for which culture holds the greater influence on one’s identity.


2 responses to “Why Asian American generations don’t understand each other”

  1. I find Keith Chen’s TED talk sharing his research of different language tenses and related behavioral patterns more thorough and also just as interesting.


  2. celest Avatar

    hm. interesting. thanks for sharing this! i just skimmed his talk, not in detail, but my 2 quick responses: 1) i think he’s got a point, although it’s very glib; 2) he’s totally defining the subjunctive wrong

    i think it is valid to explore how a language’s possibilities shape cultural attitudes. that’s a no brainer.. and it is valid to say that the lack of hypothetical etc does indeed affect mentality tho his conclusions about this are very pat–as they have to be in a ted talk.

    he is wrong in equating the subjunctive mode w/ the hypothetical. the examples he gives (we would have gone if it hadn’t rained) are indicative mode, and conditional & pluperfect, respectively. some hypothetical statements are indeed subjunctive but not all, and he doesn’t seem to get it.

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