你会 speak 日本語 吗 ?
If I had to put a label on the way the English language and I felt about each other, and if I was the type of person to advertise my relationships on Facebook, I would say: It’s Complicated.
Is it ever.
A little background on my background:
In 1995, I was born in Tokyo, Japan, to Chinese parents. Ma and Ba had immigrated there in the early 1990s for work, and when they found themselves pregnant with a second child… Well, I like to imagine that they high-fived and did a celebratory dance, but they probably were too busy trying to figure out how to swing the expenses. But despite the difficulty, they had me (thanks, guys!!!). And I spent the first five years of my life living in Japan, and, inevitably, learning Japanese. In fact, my parents naturally segued into using Japanese with their kids instead of Chinese, so I spoke only Japanese. And so it’s technically my first language, and when people ask me, “what’s your mother tongue?” that’s what I could say.
But here’s where it gets messy:
In 2000 we hopped on a plane and ended up in Canada. Great! Cool. I cried every day in kindergarten because I understood nothing and everyone had a weird face and I was five. Crying was my favourite hobby. Actually, let’s not kid ourselves. Crying is still my favourite hobby.
Regardless, kids are pretty malleable. Despite the crying, by the end of kindergarten I was fluent in English and devouring little books. My parents, though, struggled to keep up because learning a language at 38 is much, much harder. And with the constant exposure to a new language, I’d forgotten how to speak Japanese. So my parents picked up on the little Chinese I did speak and started using that at home instead.
Wow. You see where I’m coming from here? At five, I only spoke Japanese. By seven, I didn’t speak Japanese anymore and was instead bilingual in Chinese and English. Now, at 20, English is the language I think and engage with predominantly while I struggle with keeping up my Chinese. I’ve picked up Japanese again too, somewhat, but I’m nowhere near as fluent as I was. And, bonus: along the way, I’ve learned français, because everyone said you had to learn it to be successful across Canada.
So what am I supposed to say when people ask me what my mother tongue is?
I love reading. I love languages. I think it’d be hard for me to be a Creative Writing Major if I didn’t. And in perfect honesty, I love the English language, too. I fall in love everyday with beautiful sentences and the stories people can make.
But I also hate it.
English is the language that looks down on my parents because they have an accent. English is the language that pushed aside my Chinese, my Japanese. It’s not an accident that so many immigrant kids refuse to speak their “mother tongues.” If you’re someone who hasn’t grown up having to straddle their different languages, if you’re someone who hasn’t had other kids laugh at you because you pronounce things wrong or sound silly on the phone—you can’t understand. But, hey, for all of you who know exactly what I’m talking about: thanks. I don’t know the answer to these feelings, but I do feel better knowing that there are people like us out there. No matter how you speak it—or how you don’t—the way you’re connected to your languages is precious. It’s okay for it to be complicated, hey?
Mary is Editor-in-Chief of The Garden Statuary, the UBC Undergraduate Journal of English. She is a queer Chinese Canadian artist and writer who has grown up in the cradle of unceded Coast Salish land. She is currently completing her BFA in Creative Writing with a minor in Asian Canadian and Asian Migration studies. Someone apparently thought it was a good idea to hand her the keys to the kingdom this year, so if The Garden Statuary ends up publishing 15 stories about dogs, you know who to fire.
Image: “Lanterns in St Annes Square, Manchester, for the Chinese New Year” by Gidzy via Flickr. CC b 2.0 license.