On Losing My Language


“Chinese language” in traditional form characters (left) and simplified form characters (right).

The immigrant experience is something I usually avoid speaking about, because I am not an immigrant (despite looking like one), and I strongly dislike it when non-immigrants see people who look like me and automatically lump us into the group that experiences “the immigrant experience.” But losing the language of my mother tongue is something that I struggle with more and more as I get older; it is my disillusionment as a child of immigration. Let me back-track a bit and explain from the beginning.

Can someone read this? Because I can't.

Can someone read this? Because I can’t.

My parents immigrated from Hong Kong in 1987. I was born in Toronto, Canada, and have only been back to the “old country” a handful of times since. As a kid in elementary school I was still pretty good at the “Chinese at home, English at school” bylaw that was enacted in our house. In fact, my parents would pretend not to understand me when I spoke English at home just so I could speak more Chinese. Looking back, I think I would’ve rather had my parents be the type of immigrants that can’t speak English, just so I could have been more forced into speaking Chinese, but my mother was an English teacher, my dad worked in finance; they couldn’t fake it forever, and it was so damn irritable to be ignored by them all the time. Eventually, they gave up, and now I speak English everywhere.

Now, I wouldn’t say I’ve forgotten my language completely. I can understand by hearing perfectly well, and I can carry on a decent conversation as long as it’s not too technical or philosophical. But it pains me that I can’t pull up a Chinese webpage and read up on what’s happening in China from a Chinese person’s point of view, and understand it, like, really understand it––through the nuances of the language and the author’s choice of words. It also pains me that I cannot read and appreciate Chinese poetry, especially because Chinese is a language more capable of free structures and multiple symbolism than an alphabetized language like English. I’m practically illiterate when it comes to written Chinese. In part, I blame the language itself because it has no alphabet but about 10,000 separate intricate symbols for words you have memorize…but mostly, I blame myself. For not studying harder when I was young enough to do so. For not speaking more Chinese at home. For not being more proud of my culture.

Recently asked my parents to buy me this on their trip to HK. It's a children's book of Chinese four-character sayings. Maybe I'll read it.

Recently asked my parents to buy me this on their trip to HK. It’s a children’s book of Chinese four-character sayings. Maybe I’ll read it.

You see, we shouldn’t be talking about the “immigrant experience” anymore. We’re way past that. We have to talk about the “children of the immigrant experience experience.” Living in the area that I live in now, most of my friends are just like me: either raised or born and raised in North America, with a somewhat limited knowledge of their mother tongue. And the thing is, most of us have no interest whatsoever in keeping that mother tongue, keeping that culture. It doesn’t help that China as a country has such a bad reputation in western media; in fact many people my age purposefully distant themselves from a country with a bad human rights rep and an indecent tendency to poop openly on public streets.

I am a staunch individualist. I believe who I am is what I make of myself in this life and not tied to the thousand-year history of a people I barely know. But nothing pangs me with more regret than having someone see my last name, ask me if I could translate for them or something, only to hear me say, “Sorry, I can’t.”

I am a staunch individualist. But I am also the daughter of a great civilization, a great civilization just like any human civilization. Instead of the human rights abuses, declining morality, and street-shittings, I try to focus on the things I should be proud of: the invention of paper, kung-fu, paintings of magnificent dragons on scrolls. And maybe, maybe I’ll have the strength to hold on to my language.


Share your thoughts. Are you a child of immigration? What is your incentive to hold on to your roots? Do you even have motivation to hang on to them?


Dragon (creative commons)
Xizhi poem (PD-Art)


7 thoughts on “On Losing My Language

  1. It would be hypocritical for me to tell you not to pain yourself for not being able to speak your language, after all you are a second generation Canadian, a child of immigrants. Now imagine me in my situation, where I am not even born in America, yet can’t speak my languages fluently. Now that’s fricking embarrassing! Granted my excuse is that I was raised with like three or four languages, but still. This is not a match on who has it worse. I just want to tell you from my experience that it could have been worse. Don’t beat yourself for it. You did the best you can and there is hope that you can still master fluency in your language.
    But the process of losing the native language is gradually lost as each generation continues to immerse in the new country. This phenomenon has occurred in ancient times and also in modern times.


  2. Pingback: Children of the Immigrant Experience: Why I Avoid “Ethnic Writing” | breakfast with words

  3. Pingback: Children of the Immigrant Experience | breakfast with words

  4. (You should do a Part 2 post of this but discussing losing the culture!)

    For me, my parents only speak Chinese so my situation’s different; I still speak my broken Cantonese at home. However, as I spend less and less time at home, I spend less time with the language and I, too, am losing it ever so slowly. For me, the biggest question is – do I make my kids learn it? On the one hand, if they don’t, they won’t ever be able to speak with their grandparents. On the other hand, if they do, the lack of use means that they will surely forget it like me anyway, and since Chinese is ridiculously difficult to learn, will it even be worth their time? How many generations down the road do we want to preserve this language?

    To be honest, beyond the capacity to communicate at the most basic level (for the sake of being able to talk to my parents), I don’t feel it necessary for myself or my children to study the language. It has nothing to do with separating myself from China or the Chinese or anything like that – It’s just not practical, as I have no use for it beyond that basic communication. It’d be cool to have that skill, sure, but it’s not one of my priorities, yenno? I don’t feel any regret when I am unable to write even the basic Chinese characters. Sure, it’s my roots, but this is who I am now and this is who I’m going to be – I’ve never been particularly inclined to cling to the past. As long as I acknowledge my roots, I think I’m a-ok. (y)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Practicality is the reason why I haven’t done much to remedy my situation either. As you said, it’s (sadly) at the low end of my priorities. But for me, I find it rather shameful if a person sees my face and expects me to have this skill, yet I fall short. I know, I know, I know, we should “not care about what other people think” or “they are just stereotyping” or “they don’t know my backstory” etc. etc. Yet, I can’t really get over this, and no excuses satisfy me. Maybe because if only, if only, if only I had made a slightly different decision in my earlier years, I could have deferred this and been perfect in both languages. If only, if only, if only. To me, the ideally skilled person is well-rounded and fluent in both languages, identifying herself as the equal offspring of two civilizations.

      I do think, especially in the coming near-future economy, knowing Chinese is a very competitive skill to have, so I’ll have to disagree with you about it becoming disused. Something like 20% of the world’s population speaks Chinese, so knowing it will definitely get you a leg up in the business world. As for children talking to grandparents, just stick them with their grandparents on a long weekend and they’ll probably pick up an adequate amount 🙂 I know that my Chinese spontaneously gets 5x better when I’m with grandparents for some reason…


  5. Pingback: China’s Campaign Against Foreign Words | China Daily Mail

  6. Lol- I partly read a lot of teen fic because there were quite a few asian-american fictitious tales that made sense of what the child-of-immigrant experience was. But in real life this discussion doesn’t happen; it’s all focussed on the immigrated parents who gave up everything. As if the children never had things they gave up each time they loved someone from a different culture from their ‘home’. I read in psych class that when children learn two languages, when tested they may seem to know less in one language, but across both languages, the amount of words are the same. So unless you are actively studying it it is bound to happen, no one to blame. You wrote in your last post this is the first season of the lives of the 20 age bracket. You can make it happen by the next season.


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