In the summer of 2014, my family and I traveled to Malaysia – the country of my origin. There, I was met with warm greetings from all my aunties and uncles, and various strangers too. Each and every time I met new people, I gave smiles and hugs and so many handshakes that I’ve perfected the act. And every time they spoke to me, they spoke to me in broken English.
While my cousins had no problem speaking to me in English, the older generation was hesitant. With English being my first language, I felt a distance between them and me- a distance caused by our language barrier. I’d have to tell them “It’s okay- I understand Cantonese too,” in my broken Cantonese. What a sigh of relief it was for them. Gone was their hesitation and out gushed a flow of words… sometimes too fast for my English-as-a-First-Language Ears to catch.
Having never formally studied Chinese, I can’t read or write it. I can only understand and speak it, but even then I am self-conscious about my Cantonese. Hardly do I ever speak in Cantonese to other people… the only person I speak to in Cantonese is my grandmother, who can’t speak English.
Yes, I am aware of my accent.
Yes, I am aware of my broken sentences.
Yes, I am aware of my mispronunciations.
To me, language is one of the biggest components of a culture. How does one learn how to cook food, sew clothes, or make art without communication first? Because I don’t practice it, my Cantonese wasn’t as good as it used to be. Am I not as connected to my heritage as I used to be? The distance between my status as a Chinese Malaysian and a Canadian, grows.
But there is no obligation for me to speak in my parent’s native tongue. No rule, no law that states that I must openly embrace my heritage. Yet it feels like there is a responsibility for me to hold onto the multi faceted culture my family brought with them to Canada, as if to prove that my pride in being a Canadian doesn’t mean shame for being a Chinese.
While I understand that it is likely my own future children and their children may never be able to speak Chinese, I’m not clinging onto my heritage for them.
I immigrated here with a culture; I owe it to myself to hold onto it.
– amanda l.