I spend a lot of time with my grandmother, or rather, my mah mah as I like to call her in Cantonese. There’s an unspoken love between me and grandmother —very unspoken, because I literally have trouble communicating with her. In Hong Kong, where I grew up, the two main languages widely spoken are Cantonese and English. My grandmother doesn’t speak English and my spoken Cantonese is mediocre at best. While our relationship endures a generational and cultural gap, a wider gap is left by our inability to truly communicate, leaving me wondering about my own identity and what I’m missing out on.
Language attrition is the process of losing a first or once spoken language. I found myself experiencing varying degrees of language attrition while attending an English-only international school, despite living in Hong Kong. The importance of learning English has always been emphasized to me and threatened my Cantonese ability in my childhood. I see some of my Asian-American friends understandably losing a lot of their ability to speak and write in their mother tongues after being born and raised in predominantly English-speaking America. My case is strangely not as excusable, as Hong Kong speaks Cantonese and I’ve chosen to exist in an English-speaking bubble inside it. While I understand the majority of conversational Cantonese when it’s spoken to me, it is a shame that I have somehow lost a lot of my language speaking skills. There’s a Cantonese saying in international student communities—“sik tang, ng sik gong”, which translates to “can listen, but can’t speak”, and it is the clockwork response non-natives, or in my case, kids who are bad at Cantonese, say to fluent speakers. I find myself in a position where I am unable to freely express myself in my mother tongue despite identifying with my Hong Kong culture.
Last Spring break I was lucky enough to get the amazing opportunity to go on a week long trip to Japan. Through the Kakehashi Project, Asian Americans can go to Japan and experience Japanese culture, history, and traditions and promote US-Japan relations. This was done through sightseeing, lectures, and homestays.
We first arrived in Tokyo where we jumped right in and started learning about Japan and its foreign relations. We had to sit through some lectures, but after we were taken to the Overseas Migration Museum where we learned about the meaning of the term “nikkei”. I was surprised to find that the term was so inclusive, defining a state of mind and not a label defining ancestry. We were encouraged to all recognize our common roots and appreciate where we’re from. Then in the evenings we got to explore the city with the other participants in the group. We got closer and bonded over our common Asian ancestry and our feeling of dissonance with being American in Japan. We felt so foreign, barely any of us in the group spoke Japanese, and yet we looked the part. Exploring the city, we figured out how to use the subway and observed the similarities and differences between Japanese and Americans.
Chinese New Year, arguably the most important event in the Chinese calendar, is a momentous occasion in Chinese culture. As an American-born Chinese (ABC), I have celebrated this tradition for as long as I can remember. We feasted on steamed fish garnished with green onions and ginger slices, and New Year’s cake: a steamed, chewy sweet made from glutinous rice flour, slab sugar, and water. At night, my parents would leave the lights in our house on. Perhaps a long time ago, superstitions dictated that the house should be lit to guide the gods of good luck and prosperity, but now the tradition persists as the lore has faded away. For me, celebrating Chinese New Year has always been about eating together with my family. Receiving red packets with crisp dollar bills inside is an added perk, but after leaving home and moving to USC, I miss the familiar foods we used to celebrate the new year.