When we are home, the language we speak may come naturally to us. Or not. Depending on who we’re talking to at home, we may switch between speaking multiple languages and that can either be easy, or a bit of an effort.
I was born in Australia, and English is the main language of instruction in this country. It is my first language and that was what I spoke to my teachers and classmates at school. But behind closed doors back then and up until today, I speak a mixture of English, broken English and broken Cantonese; Cantonese is my Chinese-Malaysian parents’ first language.
Behind each door can be one or many languages spoken.
It can be tricky defining “first language” and “mother tongue”. In general, the terms refer to the language(s) we speak at home, and/or the languages spoken by family. As there are more diverse families around and we get opportunities to live in different places, it’s becoming more common for many of us to speak more than one language at home.
Fighting over paying the bill for meals is something some of us are guilty of. If we’re the stereotypical Asian eating with other stereotypical Asians, coming out on tops to pay for a meal is often a big battle, sort of a sport in itself.
This is the case with my Chinese family. When I was a kid living in Malaysia, we had countless family gatherings with extended relatives. We’d have dinner at air-conditioned Chinese restaurants where waiters gave us clean plates after each serving. These nights always ended with lots of yelling, relatives arguing at the top of their lungs as to who would pay for the ten-course meals in cash.
In Chinese culture (and other Asian cultures), offering to pay the bill at the end of a meal out is regarded as polite. This goes for family and business-related dining affairs, and no matter the occasion, bill fights are usually amusing.
There are times when cultural stereotypes hold us back from going after our dreams and creative passions. As an Asian Australian of Chinese descent, I’ve often felt this way. But then there are also times when we somehow find the strength and spark of courage to challenge expectations that we have of ourselves, and the expectations others have of us.
For a long time, I struggled to call myself a writer. My migrant Malaysian parents encouraged me to pay more attention to maths and science subjects at school – and I did and was much better at them than English. Two years ago, stringing words together for posts on this blog was a struggle. Today, I’ve written a draft of a book.
When it comes to talking about Australia’s media, the topic of racism is bound to come up. It’s no secret white, Western faces and voices are what we usually see and hear in this industry, ironically in a culturally diverse country.
Growing up, I wanted to be a radio presenter or producer. Live talkback and pre-recorded infotainment radio programs fascinated me – voices over the airwaves nimbly informing and entertaining at the same time. At university, I took communications subjects, learning about the Gutenberg press and the ins-and-outs of writing for online publications.
Sometimes we look at the media and wonder why we are seeing what we are seeing | Weekly Photo Challenge: From Every Angle.
As part of my tertiary studies, I also completed a month-long internship as a journalist at SBS Radio (SBS is Australia’s largest public broadcaster providing multicultural and multilingual media services to Australians). But when I graduated from university, the last thing I wanted to do was work in a newsroom.
There are times when we find certain names harder to pronounce than others. Maybe ethnic names, cultural names or names with more than a few syllables. Names we have never heard of that make us stop and wonder if we’ll ever get the pronunciation down pat.
I was born Mabel Kwong in Australia to Chinese-Malaysian migrant parents. Or Kwong Li Teng (lee ting/lìtíng, 丽婷), Mabel – that’s how my name is written on official documents in Malaysia and Singapore. While the first-middle-last-name convention is standard in the Western world, surname/cultural names usually come first before first names in Chinese culture – think last-first-name or first-last-middle-name conventions in a culture where family and seniority are esteemed.
Although I go by Mabel in professional and social settings, I’ve encountered numerous people who are convinced that that’s not my real name, lumping me in the same boat with those going by non-Anglo names. Sometimes these instances are annoying. Sometimes there is more to these instances than meets the eye.