A few years ago, my parents and I were wandering around in a shopping mall on a trip to Hong Kong when my mother and I decided to visit the washroom.
As I washed my hands after doing my business, an older Chinese woman thrust a newspaper in my face. “Miss! Sorry to bother you, but I grew up in the ’40s during the war and never learned how to read. Would you mind reading this for me?” I looked at the paper; I remember from the pictures it had something to do with celebrity gossip.
But that was all I could read — the pictures. So I said politely, in Cantonese, “Um, sorry… I don’t read Chinese.” The woman looked extremely confused. Thankfully, my mom came out of the stalls at that moment so I waved her over.
“Oh, I can help,” my mom said when she was updated on the situation. “She” — referring to me — “doesn’t read Chinese.”
There was once a time when I was proud of knowing another language. But inside, I was also ashamed.
I grew up in a majority-White elementary school in a relatively affluent, White area. This was before cultural diversity became cool, so stuff like bringing funny-smelling food for lunch and speaking to my parents on the phone in Cantonese made me feel othered.
Yet whenever a teacher or adult asked us group of kids who spoke a language other than English, I would proudly raise my hand. Teachers would often call us lucky. It made me feel like I had a superpower.
Until I was about 10 years old, I attended Chinese language school on Saturdays. I hated it. I hated the extra homework. I hated the rote memorization that is required to learn Chinese characters. I hated that I hated Saturdays.
Eventually, I got out of Chinese language school when I found another extracurricular that happened on Saturdays. Since I was no longer being forced to practice reading and writing in language classes, the words slowly began to slip out of my memory. Today, while I can speak somewhat stilted, conversational Cantonese, I am practically illiterate.
I internalized the idea that Chinese was a loud, raucous, ugly language compared to English.
For the most part, I’ve attributed my ignorance of the Chinese language to laziness. When I was still speaking Cantonese for the most part as a child, my parents used to pretend they didn’t understand English to encourage me to speak our mother tongue. But I was too lazy to do so and kept speaking English because I knew they understood English. “Dad,” I would stubbornly say, “you talk to White clients every day; of course you can speak English.”
The truth was, I was embarrassed. I thought having smelly food for lunch and speaking a loud language made me less cool, and being cool was a top priority as a kid and teenager. Eventually, I moved to a school that was populated mostly by East Asian immigrants. One would think that this environment would make me more comfortable with my heritage. Instead, I regarded myself as one of the cooler kids because I was one of the few born in Canada.
But as I’ve gotten older and my understanding of language and cultural nuances has increased, I’m starting to understand that a big part of my language loss was due to internalized racism. I’d internalized the idea that Chinese — and Cantonese in particular — was a loud, raucous, ugly language compared to English. I’d also internalized the idea that Chinese values were stuffy, backwards, and inferior to Western ones. Finally, I disliked Chinese food as a child. My excuse was that we ate it too much, but plenty of Chinese people in China eat Chinese food all the time and love it, so why can’t I?
I allowed embarrassment of the culture I’m a part of to make me forget the language I was once proud to know. Now, I’m determined to reclaim my superpower.
Relearning a language is hard, especially one that uses logographic characters as its written form. Because Chinese has no phonetic alphabet, the only way to be somewhat literate is to memorize thousands of unique characters. [Edit: I have since been notified that there is a phonetic alphabet for Chinese called Bopomofo, but I was not taught this in Cantonese learning school.]
Realistically, as an adult with adult responsibilities, memorizing characters takes a back-seat priority. I’ve focused on only recognizing key characters, such as those used in menus, so I can effectively order food in its native language. After all, Chinese restaurants exist practically everywhere, so this is a skill I can take all over the world.
Speaking of food, I am relearning the fact that no, Chinese food is not disgusting. Sure, I’m not a big fan of dim sum simply because of taste, but there are lots and lots of tasty Chinese dishes I genuinely enjoy. I don’t know if this is me reclaiming my culture or simply being a less picky adult eater, or maybe it’s simply recognizing that Chinese cuisine is vast and diverse. I live on my own now, but I do relish visiting my parents for a home-cooked Chinese meal. Steamed fish, tomato egg, and even egg tarts (a Hong Kong specialty!) are among my favorites.
As for culture and values, I may not always agree with elements of traditional Chinese values (Confucianism has some misogynistic values), I recognize that these values evolved very differently in a different part of the world, and it’s hard to judge them from a strictly Western lens. Rather than blindly criticize these ideas, I’ve learned to actually explore how these values came to be.
I’ve also come to appreciate that knowing just a little bit of my mother tongue is a privilege. Some Indigenous and Black American folks, for example, will never know their linguistic origins because of historical, violent suppression. And this makes me immensely sad. I have begun to accept that coming from an immigrant culture of color is a gift, not a setback. Knowing another language really is a superpower.
Being multilingual means being privy to different worlds. Language grants you the keys to entire cultures and the perspectives and stories within them
Being multilingual means being privy to different worlds. What I didn’t appreciate as a younger person is that language grants you the keys to entire cultures and the perspectives and stories within them. For example, multilingualism opens unique perspectives about world events. Hong Kong is currently going through a revolutionary period, and I wish I could read and participate in Chinese-language forums so I can understand the events from the Hong Konger point of view, rather than get my information from Western sources. Knowing the language would help me better understand what people in Hong Kong are really going through in their own words.
Multilingualism also connects young people to elders. My grandparents have all passed, but I wish I could have had more in-depth conversations with them. They were all directly impacted by World War II, and I wonder if they would have shared more of their stories with me if we’d been closer, because the Eastern side of World War II is often ignored in Western discourse.
Also, Cantonese is just a sassy language with fun, quirky idioms and wordplay. And I wish I could laugh along.
So if you have a non-English mother tongue that is starting to get rusty, I beg of you, please do your best to keep it. Keep that gift, that superpower, that access to a rich other world.
And a final note for fellow linguistic nerds! I use the term “Chinese” to loosely mean the people, cultural heritage, and history of the place known today as China, as well its diaspora populations, and as a blanket term for all the languages spoken there.
However, China is an incredibly diverse place with many languages. Today, Mandarin is considered the official language, but Cantonese remains dominant in the south, in Hong Kong and Macau, and in diaspora communities. Whether Cantonese is a dialect or a language in its own right is a controversial matter. If you want to learn more, this video does a good job explaining the differences between Mandarin and Cantonese.
Update (20 May 2020): I want to note that this piece was built off ideas in a similar piece I wrote 6 years ago on my personal blog. I read it again recently and it’s interesting how my tone and the contextual framework I used have changed since, but the core sentiment remains the same. I believe I am better at critiquing myself (instead of just my environment) now, and I am better at celebrating my heritage rather than just complaining about it. Leaving the link here for anyone interested to read, compare, and contrast.