Growing up in Melbourne as an Australian of Chinese heritage, my parents consciously spoke to me in English day and night. Whenever they were deep in Cantonese conversation and I toddled up to them asking for a piece of chocolate, they stopped talking and sternly lectured me in English about the negative health impacts of consuming sugary treats. My parents are Malaysians; their first language is Cantonese and both are fluent in Mandarin.
We moved to Malaysia when I was seven. On weekends my mum forced me to write elementary Mandarin characters and pronounce them over and over until I got the intonation almost right. When we moved to Singapore three years later, I became too busy keeping up with my studies to continue learning Cantonese and Mandarin. This hasn’t stopped me from being able to understand Cantonese movies and Cantonese/Mandarin conversations in wet markets today. However, I can barely string a proper sentence in Canto. Nor read or write the language.
I’ve always pondered about making the effort once again to learn Cantonese. Why should I bother learning Cantonese? Or Mandarin?
I live in Australia, a country where if you speak only English, you’ll get by quite easily whether you’re studying, making a living or getting around because English is the main language of instruction here. But it’s not uncommon for Asians living in Western countries to be stigmatised for not speaking their native language. Ien Ang has written that a Chinese person’s ability to speak Chinese affects their “Chineseness”, saying:
“In Taiwan I was different because I couldn’t speak Chinese; in the West I was different because I looked Chinese.”
That is, chances are an Asian person who doesn’t speak their own language often feels excluded socially. There have been countless times when I’ve felt left out as a result of not being able to converse in Cantonese or Mandarin. At university, international students said something to me in Chinese, I could only always muster, “I’m sorry, I don’t understand”. Then there were times when I hung out with them – also with my friends in Singapore – and never got a word in when they chattered away in Chinese. My friends probably attributed my quietness to my shyness and thought my muteness was normal, though they did let me know I was welcomed to butt in and ask them to translate what they were yapping about.
I’ve also seen Caucasian Australians look surprised when they hear me speak English fluently. And they give me a funny look when I mention I don’t speak Mandarin or any dialects.
Part of me tells me I’m ignorant for refusing to sit down and take the time to learn Cantonese or Mandarin again. Not everyone in this world speaks English. By speaking Cantonese or Mandarin, I’d most certainly be able to help that lost China tourist in the city find their way around Melbourne. I’d be able to carry a proper Cantonese conversation with my Malaysian relatives.
Language is strongly entwined with culture and by not speaking my mother tongue, there’s every possibility I miss out learning aspects of Chinese culture. Chinese phrases can be enlightening, encouraging us to see things from fresh perspectives. A while ago, one of my friends told me this eye-opening translated phrase by Confucius: “Have no friends not equal to yourself”. She explained that it’s a message reminding us to be wary of the company we keep as those around us influence our personalities. And you wonder why Asians keep to themselves a lot.
My Malaysian parents always take the time to explain such Chinese proverbs to me when I hear them and look confused. But they won’t be around forever and there’ll come a day where I won’t be hearing these precise explanations of Mandarin words of wisdom straight from the horse’s mouth anymore. I might never get more accurate, authentic proverb descriptions. Yet another reason why I should start re-learning my mother tongue now.
Weighed up against these pros of learning one’s mother tongue, the defense that English is spoken everywhere by those who don’t speak their native language seems a paltry one.
I don’t feel that I’m less Chinese by not speaking Cantonese or Mandarin. I take an interest in, uphold and respect Chinese values that I’ve learned over the years. But reflecting on the Cantonese phrases that I know, as a person of Chinese ethnicity, I reckon some things and feelings are better expressed in our native language. For instance, saying “Happy Chinese New Year!” doesn’t exactly radiate the same joyful sentiment as saying “Kung Hei Fatt Choi!” – each word in the latter phrase has a distinctive, positive meaning that contributes to the connotation of this Asian celebratory greeting.
Preserving such longstanding articulations entwined within languages only adds to the diversity in this world. As a multiculturalist, I’m all for this. So I guess I really should get around to re-learning Cantonese or Mandarin.
Or maybe both.