Language and the struggle to feel at home

Born and raised in Hong Kong, I’ve been brought up speaking Cantonese and writing traditional Chinese. And with my dad being Taiwanese, I became fluent in Mandarin too. It was only until my teenage years when English overtook Mandarin, or even Cantonese, as my most spoken language. Recent debates on “Mother-tongue” have led me to this reflection. 

The beauty of language is how it clings onto things, people, events, and somehow when you recall them, you do so in that language. Because of this, and because I grew up learning two Chinese languages (Cantonese and Mandarin), I will always think of my Taiwanese grandma as nai nai (奶奶)and my Cantonese grandma as por por(婆婆). Lovely tender braised pork served over a bowl of rice from a road side cart will always be lu rou fan (滷肉飯), and delicate little translucent prawn dumplings will always be har gao (蝦餃). And then of course, there are things and people and events that I have lived through since my time in London, or even since I have started speaking English predominantly. Sometimes, the rhetoric of languages, or perhaps my lack of vocabulary, would render me speechless when attempting to translate something that just wouldn’t. I can only compare things from one culture to another, hoping to get the texture, taste, smell, or feeling across just the way I hope to, but I suspect there would’ve been a few failed attempts at the very least.

My Chinese has definitely deteriorated throughout my teenage years. Words or characters I was using daily have now become phantom or unfamiliar. Their shadows now live in a dusted crevice in my mind, and to recall them takes immense effort of mental rummaging. I still keep up with Chinese news and documentaries as much as I can, but I have lost touch with the ever changing local culture. Despite my ability to read the news or to communicate fluently in Cantonese, my way of speaking is now tinged with a time that has passed, a twang of something other, almost like I am a foreigner speaking my own mother-tongue. It seems unfair that we have to trade fluency in one language with that in another. English, being such a complex and confusing language as it is, has taken me years to get to this level of adequacy, but I am still by no means fluent. I have trained myself to think of tenses, sentence structure, and word order when I write, but when speaking, I know I make mistakes – with plurality, tenses, … grammatical systems that don’t exist, or are more forgiving in spoken Chinese. I am constantly searching for the right word to express myself – a struggle I didn’t use to have when speaking Cantonese, but recently have surfaced there too.

Language is used by many to define who they are, and sometimes the better you speak it, the more accepted you are in a particular culture or society. I wonder sometimes if my constant fight with the two languages means I am no longer part of, but rather an outsider to both societies that I either used to be part of, or long to be accepted into. And maybe this is me – fraying at the seams of the crossroads of English and Chinese, the struggle to feel competent, be accurate, but most importantly, the struggle to feel at home.


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