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.


Reflections from “The Courage of Hopelessness”

Recent political events both here and back home have led me to think about a similar array of issues that appear to be both universal and conditional. Reading Žižek’s new book “The Courage of Hopelessness” offers a different way of navigating the current conundrum of democracy, liberty, and to some extent, privatisation of the commons. Perhaps now I should clarify that I have not finished the book, therefore these observations and thoughts are simply inspired by certain lines of argument and definitions within the book.


The Umbrella Revolution, Hong Kong 2014. Source: Will Xu, 2015

Democracy has become an aspiration for many in recent years. After Umbrella Revolution and the LegCo election scandals, it appears to me that many have conflated democracy with freedom, coining it as a delusional panacea for all ills. Yes, we have to acknowledge that Hong Kong has never fully experienced universal suffrage, or any sort of representational democracy that can result in rule by popular sovereignty. And it is true that our sovereignty and political stability are increasingly being challenged by external forces, but is democracy the answer? Is democracy the only choice for change? Is this even the question we should be asking when the historical context for when modern democracy was conceived is drastically different to that of contemporary Hong Kong? The current political discourse offers little opportunity to question the fundamentals upon which we are basing our arguments. We must not forget that democracy simply promises a voice for everyone, a theoretical political equality, but nothing more.

Standard political democracy can also serve as the very form of un-freedom: political freedom can easily provide the legal framework for economic slavery, with the underprivileged ‘freely’ selling themselves into servitude. We are thus brought to demand more than just political democracy — we need the democratisation also of social and economic life. In short, we need to admit that what we first took as the failure to fully realise a noble principle (of democratic freedom)is a failure inherent to this principle itself — understanding this is the big step of political pedagogy. (Žižek, 2017: 62-3)

Another point that I thought can be applied to the situation back home is the ‘fetishisation of democracy’. In Hong Kong’s highly unequal capitalist structure, democracy is likely to perpetuate inequalities and support the financial apparatus that produced them in the first place. In a sense, the societal chasms and deep political discontents are caused by financialisation, and the extremely distorted ‘free market economy’. Democracy will not fix issues like income disparity, and it is unclear how a radically progressive government can possibly instigate any change.

That, coupled with big questions on individual autonomy, identity, public vs private, makes it easy for issues to snowball and public frustration to grow. I have nothing to offer except this – having lived in London for 5 years now, democracy does not solve everything. In fact, it just exposes existing social divisions. It is empowering, but public participation in politics is not guaranteed simply by having democratic voting…

More thoughts soon…