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China’s Rebellious Daughter: On Losing a Language

The food was delicious.

Two large round tables filled the white-marbled room. Pretty, twenty-something-year-old waitresses carted steaming, expensive plates of food, light pooling from the glass chandelier above. Relatives I barely knew smiled at me, asking me questions about life in America. As the clink of wooden chopsticks against porcelain bowls grew quieter, my voice—my deliberate Mandarin—carried on about school in America, the coveted freedoms of an American high school senior, the friends I already sorely missed only two weeks after graduation.

They smiled encouragingly before me, the extended family I had not seen for six years due to increasingly busy summers. After all, this was the first time I had visited China since sixth grade, the one summer with no obligations. A great desire to recount everything from those missing six years, crucial adolescent years that contained all of middle school and high school, spurred my excited storytelling, before I paused for a breath.

Ting ting.”

It is Great-uncle’s voice that interrupts the pause, my name spoken quietly, slowly—as if it were an afterthought.

All heads swivel toward him, the chopsticks halting for the first time—except for his.

Great-uncle continues easily, plucking food languidly from the center dishes, picking at the small grains of rice in his bowl. He gazes curiously at me, as if I had done something to surprise him.

His eyes flick to my mother, and he smiles in a dry, wistful way.

“Keoi m sik gong baak waa?”

She cannot speak Cantonese?

He is the only one to have noticed—or the only one with courage to say it.

In the entire 30 minutes leading up to his question, I had responded to every relative not in those same rough, familiar consonants of Cantonese, but in starched, clipped Mandarin. I knew, then, that he had been waiting—waiting for me to prove myself, to prove that, yes, I still had the Cantonese within me, that I had not completely forgotten the mother tongue—no, I don’t mean China’s official language; I mean the real language of these streets.

Great-aunt waves her frail hand in the air, as if physically brushing away the pause like an annoying gnat, and laughs. “Why would an American girl need to know the dialect?”

The entire table chimes in agreeing chuckles, and the conversation moves on, mothers scooping more food into their children’s bowls, the men bending to light each other’s cigarettes as they do at every meal.

Yet I catch Great-uncle’s tightened lips and brief slump of shoulders.

The twinge in my throat is not anger or annoyance, but shame.

It is the strangest experience—the ability to understand a language but not speak it. Over the years, my grandparents, who now live with us in the Arizonan desert, and I have unknowingly adopted a system: they speak in Cantonese and I reply in Mandarin, both using languages the other can comprehend but not use.

But once, I could.

I have seen camcorder videos of four-year-old me, climbing over desks and drawers, shouting in energetic, raucous, lovely Cantonese—every word spoken as if it were my native tongue.

That girl is foreign to me.

Sitting with the white napkin folded primly in my lap, eyes trained on my oily plate, I quietly remember my parents suddenly forbidding me from speaking the dialect out of fear that it would accent my Mandarin. My mother once explained that I couldn’t possibly have become perfectly fluent in all three languages at such a young age, and that there was only room for Mandarin and English. She told me that these are the useful languages. These are the important ones. And plus, when would I ever use Cantonese in my adult life?

However, it is not just me that my parents’ generation chastises, but many other young children.

In mainland China, kindergarten teachers punish children for speaking their local dialects instead of Mandarin. According to the Pew Research Center, by 2020, about a third of Hispanics will speak only English at home because Hispanic Americans are becoming less and less likely to pass Spanish down to the next generation. A boy in Catalonia will forget the local tongue of Catalan because of the pressure on schools to teach in the national Castilian Spanish instead, due to fears of children being shortchanged in Spanish. Over and over again, we are so willing to discard the old—to let the next generation forget the past.

Strangely enough, there always seems to be a contradictory hope that the child somehow still preserves that ignored language and culture. That even with all forces pointing toward more standardization, more modernization, the younger generation will somehow, in some way, retain the culture that was covertly pushed away.

Whenever I conversed with Grandmother as we played with multicolored pieces of Chinese checkers in the Arizona heat, I found myself, again and again, wanting to slip into her language, to show her that I can know and understand her words exactly—not just an internally translated version of them. I constantly yearned to reclaim those forgotten intonations, even as I delighted in learning economics jargon in Spanish and listened to political broadcasts in Mandarin. Like the aftermath of those Chinese kongque dance performances where I must eventually shed my traditional costume for the quintessentially American cutoff shorts and tank top, perhaps this is yet another experience I can never be fully a part of, where I will, again, be an other, a foreign individual.

Throughout that dinner, I attempt to push aside those residues of shame, to brush away and dismiss Great-uncle’s comment like they all had, to continue making merry conversation in my polished, trained Mandarin.

Yet even as we stroll outside, moving from the glossy room to the cluttered streets of Zhaoqing, my mother’s hometown, the strains of the dialect burst like cannons through the air. The outdoor market haggling between middle-aged women, the harmonies of Cantonese folk songs that the old street musician sang nightly over strums of his erhu, even the vulgar joke I caught between two boys in their elementary school uniforms—these sounds touch me like a forgotten tune.

A language is more than its modern “usefulness.” It is place, history, emotion, and collective consciousness.

Cantonese is the mesmerizing spin of the glass server at the dimsum table’s center, the thick leaves of lomaigai, the creaking wheels of metal carts with steaming delicacies stacked in castles of bamboo baskets.

I have lost melodies of the only permitted port of 19th-century Chinese international trade, a portal to the poppy flower that ruined a nation, and the blazing fires of the temporary Chinese capital during the Chinese Civil War.

In those summer nights I spent in China, I stood on a concrete bridge that rose over the bustling small-city traffic. The sweet, musky Zhaoqing air of summer clung to my mosquito-bitten skin. Like a lover, the breeze left traces of itself all over my body—the pungent cigarette smoke of the potbellied clerk who greeted us every night, the sweet toxic haze of all that vehicle exhaust, the steam of meaty pork dumplings from the boisterous vendor downstairs—I smell it in my skin, my hair, on the nights I lie in the netted mattress. It is not China, but her rebellious daughter that teases me like that once-was lover. She taunts me, revealing what I once knew and what I may never know.