Learning Your Own Language

Growing up not knowing your own language is tough. Because I lived my first seven years in the US, I didn’t have constant exposure to Asian culture and language. I wasn’t put into Chinese school where I could learn how to read, write, and speak Mandarin. While this may not seem like an issue to most, it’s an issue that a lot of Asian-Americans face.                                                                                                          Courtesy of Your Botswana

Not being able to fluently communicate in your own language serves as a constant reminder that you’ve lost a little part of your identity. Living in Malaysia between the ages of 7-18 helped me regain my Chinese heritage, but there was still a language barrier. I went to an international school where the students were from all over the world. It was almost like going to university in America—people are from countries that you may never have even heard of, but there’s still the base of American culture and everyone adapts to that. I grew up speaking broken Cantonese and always say “I sound so American.” One of the things my mom very adamantly pushed was learning Mandarin.

Even though my family spoke Cantonese, she wanted me to learn another dialect of Chinese in order to emphasize my Asian culture and because Mandarin is the up and coming language of the world. From the very first day in Mandarin class, my friends asked me “Wait, why are you in this class, aren’t you Chinese?” They thought I had an upper-hand because of where I was from, but in reality, I was in the exact same boat as all the Caucasians trying to learn Chinese. I struggled all the way until senior year trying to learn my own language. While I had the excuse that my parents didn’t speak Mandarin at home, it still felt weird being only one of two Chinese students in that class.

My situation is unique, but there are more people who face this issue than one might think. Many Asian-Americans feel a divide from their family members because they aren’t able to communicate with them. BuzzFeed did a video showcasing exactly this phenomenon. I was lucky and I was put back into a setting in which I had the opportunity to practice and learn Cantonese, but it still stings when people are surprised to hear me speak Chinese.

I will always remember when my mom reminded me of a time when we were visiting Malaysia and I was jabbering on in English. My grandpa finally spoke up and said “You are a Chinese girl, you should be speaking Chinese.” Of course I don’t actually remember that happening, but ever since she told me that, there has been a burning desire in the back of my mind to get more in touch with my home languages.