I was not prepared for the pain of losing my mother tongue. It isn’t the same as the pain of losing a loved person, but it is a dull ache that gradually builds up and becomes part of your being. Cantonese is my mother tongue and the only language I speak with my parents. As it fades from my brain, so does my ability to communicate with them. They look puzzled when I tell them that it is absurd. “You don’t speak English?”You may ask. “And how do I talk to my parents?” I have never been able to give a satisfactory answer. Truth is, most of our conversations are conducted using online dictionaries and translation apps.
It is strange to hear myself admit that I have difficulty speaking with my parents. I don’t believe it yet. The script of our phone conversations is the same every week. “Have you already eaten?”In Cantonese, my father asks. Long break. “No, not yet. I will answer. I’ll be right back. “Why not?” My mother interrupts. Long pause. “Remember, drink more water and use a mask outside,” she says. “I agree with you.” Longest pause. “Then listen, We’ll stop bothering. ”The conversation is flat but intimate, and deviating from it carries the risk of discomfort for us (or, if I’m honest, just me), which I try to avoid at all costs.
My childhood was in Sheepshead Bay in Brooklyn’s southern tip. It was a quiet neighborhood with a lot of Russian-Jewish immigrants. My parents couldn’t communicate with their neighbors so they kept it private and sought other ways to enjoy American culture. My father tried to make McDonald’s chicken nuggets once a month at home for my brothers and I, before taking us to Coney Island boardwalk to view the Cyclone rollercoaster. On Sundays, my mother took me to violin lessons. After that, I escorted my mother to Chinatown to make blouses for me while she did homework. These constant tokens, which were my parents’ ideas on Americana, shaped who and what I am today. Why is it so difficult to have meaningful discussions with my parents at the age of thirty-two? I feel more like an adult than her daughter, as I have become her friend.
My California home visits have been quiet and our conversations are brief. My parents are asking me about my life in Cantonese over plates of Siu Yuk or Choy Sum while I struggle to put together sentences sprinkled with English. My Cantonese words seem far beyond my reach. After so many years of being ignored in favor of English, I feel like I have so much more to say. Every visit makes me feel more empty. It’s as if my connection to my parents is fading, and I also lose traces of my Chinese roots. Can I still call myself Chinese even though I don’t speak the language?
My parents taught me my first words. Naai was when I was hungry to drink milk, and Gai was when I was hungry to eat chicken. Born in New York City, I spent my childhood in Brooklyn. My parents spoke Cantonese and it was the only language I could understand. Their family immigrated from Guangdong (a southern Chinese province) to the United States in the 1980s. Their jobs in sweaty kitchens and cramped clothes factories required long hours, leaving them no time to study English. My parents were dependent on the Chinese community of New York to survive. I enjoyed running errands alongside my mom in Manhattan’s Chinatown. I could hear Cantonese at the hair salons, grocery stores and doctor’s offices all around me. We enjoyed special occasions and shared delicious meals with our mom’s friends. I loved my favorite dimsum dishes, Cheung Fun and Pai Gwut. They also praised me for my incredible appetite. The popular Hong Kong TV series “Journey to the West” was aired on TVB. We also heard Jacky Cheung sing cantopop songs. My only friends before I went to school were children of Cantonese-speaking immigrant parents. We shared a mutual love for fruit jelly cups and white rabbit candy. Cantonese was everywhere in my life.
After learning English in elementary school, I was quickly bilingual thanks to English as a second-language class. I switched between the two languages seamlessly, went through the multiplication tables with my mother in Cantonese and in the same breath told my brother in English that I hate math. I was a translator for my mother at my parent-teacher conferences, despite an apparent conflict of interests. “Jenny, in general, is an excellent student, but she needs a little help with math,” said my third grade teacher. I shared this with my mother only after I had edited the math.
It didn’t matter that I was not good at math. Because my parents believed English was key to success in America, they encouraged me to excel in English class. Because my teachers spoke English, English would be an asset in all classes. My parents believed that my ability to speak English would lead me to a secure job and a good future. I would be able to move forward in my entire life if this missing piece was found in the lives of my parents.
It wasn’t long before my realization that English was the main language had important social implications. The ESL course was not the only time I met my first teacher. “Ching Chongs”I heard them shout in my direction. “Do you think you sound like that?” Ask a child to laugh. I didn’t know, because “ching chong”Never had it come out of me before. It was still a common joke that I had to endure along with “No speaky English?” Even though I knew English. Because of my appearance and my ability to speak another language, I felt embarrassed. It was easy to learn Cantonese in order to feel more American. This didn’t work out. I felt less connected to both of my identities.
My social circle changed when I was in my teens. Brooklyn Technical High School was home to many Asian students. My friends looked almost exactly like me, for the first times since I was a pre-schooler. My personality changed; I became more bold and rebellious than the shy wallflower I was in the past. For the thrill, I dyed my hair magenta. My parents were not bilingual when I was able to speak English to other Chinese-American students. They should have learned English as a second language because they love it and understood its importance in this country. “Mom and Baba had to start working. We had no money. We had no time. We had to raise you and your brothers. ”I was only able to hear excuses. I was angry at what I perceived as laziness, a lack understanding and foresight. They should have been my protectors. My parents blamed me when I was subjected to racist abuses even though my English improved. My parents’ inability to accept me in America hampered any strides I had made toward acceptance. I had no other way to vent my anger so I spoke English to my parents even though they didn’t understand. I was cruel, calling them names that were hurtful and demeaning their intelligence. I used English, a language they liked, against them.
Cantonese became a subordinate part of my life over time. When I went to Syracuse University for college, I heard it less frequently. After my first job as an advertising executive, I had a hard time speaking. Even though I live thousands of miles away from my family, it is rare that I can speak. It was a way for my parents to have fun calling me.
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