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…