What My Mother Speaks

As Chinese New Year approaches (the best holiday, really, with the optimum permutation of food, family festivities and money), it is inevitable that I would contemplate how much more concrete the ‘Hong Kong’ facet of my identity has become since spending two years abroad. And enclosed within that facet, as the city is plastered with more and more fai chun (auspicious characters and couplets calligraphed onto bright red paper), is the problem of my mother tongue.

Against my own (and my family and friends’) expectations, I enrolled in a Hong Kong university four months ago. Since my early childhood, initially for no other reason than a romanticised Great Britain constructed from The Five Find-Outers and Harry Potter, I had always envisioned myself studying in the halls of some centuries-old English institution for my university career. It was only when I reached the wholly surprising conclusion that yes, I do want to be a doctor, and yes, I want to be a doctor in Hong Kong, that I grudgingly admitted Hong Kong is the most practical choice.

I had more or less grown up in international schools, so the culture that I was primarily exposed to differed significantly from that of most of my peers in Hong Kong. For one, I automatically slip into English whenever I talk to my high school classmates, regardless of whether they are from Hong Kong or of their proficiency in Cantonese, the local dialect. Although my mother insists I speak Cantonese at home, I often rely on filling in unknown phrases with English words. And when my parents fail to understand me, I would cycle through synonyms until one clicked. Given the infrequent opportunities where I must speak exclusively in Cantonese, my conversations with fellow medical students from local (state) schools involve constant guesswork as to what certain slang terms may mean. Or even what certain ‘normal’ terms may mean. I never realised just how lacking my Cantonese vocabulary is until I was forced to use it in daily conversations. Now, the roles have reversed and I am the one staring blankly until my classmates reach a synonym that I know.

Earlier in the academic year, a friend had quietly explained she could not attend the next lab session because she has to 做白事 (literally, “do white things”). Upon seeing my uncomprehending expression (my classmates have already learned to recognise this and automatically begin the synonym-spewing process), she offered a few more euphemisms. Still confused after maybe five or six alternatives and probably the actual word itself, another friend exasperatedly said in English: funeral. Then the clouded void suddenly blinked into a flustered sea of red. Of course, how could I have been so slow? White is the colour of death in Chinese culture. All I could utter was a contracted oh. They smiled sympathetically. And in that moment I felt more strongly than ever before the frustration that has tailed me since my first semester began. It seems mordacious that I should be born and raised in a homogenous Chinese family and yet fail so incredibly to be fluent in Cantonese.

Or Chinese in general, for that matter. After 16 years of struggling desperately to memorise characters and 四字词语, I still cannot read a local newspaper unaided. Although I can fool most people in short conversations to believe that I am as proficient in Cantonese as the typical Hong Kong youth, because this semblance of fluency is largely maintained by my mother’s iron rule that I speak Cantonese at home, most of my limited vocabulary exists in an aural vacuum; I cannot match the sounds and meanings to the characters. In secondary school, because homework was word-processed, I simply typed in pinyin (a standardised romanisation system of Chinese characters). Hence the large discrepancy between my homework marks and exam grades. When reading short sentences, I use accompanying English translations or my aural knowledge of common phrases to guess the unknown characters with sufficient accuracy.

So whenever I am faced with the question “what is your mother tongue?” in administrative forms, I never know exactly what to put. I grew up speaking Cantonese since early childhood and had even once been most comfortable conversing in it (when I first transferred to an international school at the age of four, I cried because I had difficulty understanding my teacher). Yet English has obviously become my dominant language not long since then. I wish I could claim to be bilingual with complete honesty, but a more fitting description would be that English had eclipsed any developing Cantonese ability when I began my international school career.

J.R.R. Tolkien recognised this quandary and distinguished between what he called native and ‘cradle’ tongues. The latter fits the traditional connotations of a mother tongue, in that it is what a child is predominantly exposed to from birth. But a true native tongue is the language the child forms his strongest sociolinguistic identity on. (A fun and not entirely surprising fact: in the case of Tolkien, he had actually confessed to considering Middle English to be one such native tongue.) But this unofficial classification still does not solve my dithering. Do I write Cantonese on the printed line? Or English?

Besides, the phrase ‘mother tongue’ is itself not without multiple potential meanings. While it is often used as a close synonym for ‘first language’, in many neighbouring East Asian cultures, ‘mother tongue’ simply means the language associated with a particular ethnic group. In Hong Kong, however, there does not seem to be a clear preference for either definition, so I cannot gauge what the forms are expecting me to infer. Though one school survey did provide an uncharacteristically helpful (albeit hilarious) explanation: “the language your mother speaks”. The fact that this is slightly too literal an approach aside (not to mention the average Hong Kong mother who speaks more than one language), if forms were to stick to using ‘first language’ or ‘language of your ethnic background’ instead of a term as equivocal as ‘mother tongue’, completing them would certainly be made much easier. I am sure I cannot be part of a negligible minority – in a city integrally shaped by both China and the West and with sizeable international school and expat populations, there are probably many others facing the same hesitation whenever they are confronted by the mother tongue question.

Sure, what does it matter if I cannot fill in some forms accurately? The more crucial pieces of information are such particulars as my name, birth date and occupation. But this post is less an urgent denunciation than a reflection on the diction of government documents. Whenever I had hovered my pen over the printed line, I was reminded of what I had given up in favour of acquiring English. Yet until now it had only been dull regret, easily shaken off by blaming it on an environment where English was much more critical to survival. But having shifted back to an environment where the opposite is true, where Cantonese is now critical in not only my everyday dalliances but also my future career, the loss suddenly proves so much graver. I suppose the takeaway is, you should care about your ethnolinguistic roots. I just wish I realised sooner.

3 thoughts on “What My Mother Speaks

  1. Christy, many multilingual students experience the same dichotomy as you but I see the availability of two language from which to draw words and expressions as enriching.In conversations with English/Spanish speakers we often throw in words from one or the other language or switch from one to the other.I have to say though after only a few years studying abroad,compared to my 25 years in Spain your English far eclipses mine.

    Going back to the quandry you have living between Cantonese and English .you are lucky your mum forces you to speak in Chinese at home so that your mother tongue remains with you.Language is after all:identity.


    You should read/listen to Sujata Bhatt’s Different History, a poem which raises the same questions as you and a bit like the former years in Hong Kong when it was a British colony this poet finds herself aware of her desire to speak English “the oppressor’s tongue” in conflict with parts of her identity.

    Keep writing.

    Morna International College,Ibiza


    1. Thanks so much for reading and the recommendation! And yes, retrospectively so grateful mum made me speak Cantonese at home all these years! 🙂 Hope all is well in Ibiza.

      Christy x


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