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.
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.
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?