tevere: Jihae, solemn with hint of smile (Default)
[personal profile] tevere
The new year didn't start particularly auspiciously, with a death in the family. It was my maternal grandmother, but we've never been close-- my mother disliked her, so the only memories I have of her is as an undifferentiated part of the Cantonese-speaking adult presence on the other side of the lazy susan during yum cha and family gatherings. I'll fly back next week for the funeral, home again two days later, and I suppose that will be that.

I always get annoyed when people say, snidely, "You can't even talk with your grandparents?" as if my inability to speak Cantonese is a personal moral failing. You want to know why I can't speak it? Why is because my Chinese-Malaysian mother was raised in a post-colonial society in which English was the language of privilege. She was educated in English, which her parents believed would give her better opportunities. She was forced to go to university overseas, because Chinese were systemically denied places in the Malaysian higher education system. She married a white man, and settled permanently in the west. When she had children, she was told by western educators that raising them bilingually would result in a lesser command of both languages, and if she knew one thing, she knew that if you were to succeed in the west you had to speak perfect English. When her children occasionally asked her to try speaking Cantonese to them, so they could learn, she'd say, "What do you need that for, here?" Mandarin, on the other hand, was useful, the acknowledged language of the future, so that was taught, but only later.

So it's not that I'm lazy, I have no respect for my culture. I don't have the language of my grandparents because it was withheld from me for my own good by parents who otherwise strove as mightily as they could to give me every educational opportunity.

I remember the first time I went to Hong Kong, I was startled and delighted by how it sounded like home-- a bone-deep familiarity that was, nonetheless, still completely incomprehensible. And now, over time, as I gradually learn more Mandarin, Mandarin has become familiar and (occasionally) comprehensible, and the sounds and characters of Cantonese increasingly alien.

I casually mentioned to a Cantonese-speaking friend that perhaps I'd like to learn one day, at least enough to get that lost sense of familiarity back, but she snorted and said bluntly, "You're too old. Mandarin, maybe, but Cantonese? Adults can't." True or not, I do know deep down that I'll never learn; I have a hard enough time keeping my current languages in my head, and of the Chinese languages Mandarin is more useful.

In the not-too-distant future, everyone in my family who can speak Cantonese will be gone, and I guess that will be that, too.
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