Editor’s note: This story was written by a high school student in Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation’s Summer Youth Leadership Program. This story is part of a special back-to-school issue.
By Nina Dang
The ability to speak a foreign language at an early age is a custom that most Asian families choose to follow. This skill is exceptionally beneficial in expanding the opportunities that a child will have in the future, aiding them in global, personal, and social affairs. But there’s a lot more to it than just that.
Speaking a language is one of the most significant ways to show gratitude toward one’s ethnicity.
About 2.5 million Asians in the United States speak Chinese. I, however, am not one of them.
Cantonese is the main language my family speaks to communicate with each other. Almost everybody in my family is fluent.
I used to be fluent. I didn’t realize that losing my ability to fluently speak Chinese would completely change my character, how I felt in society, and the effect it would have on my family.
My relatives can give me a pretty hard time. Some come up to me in a lighthearted manner and say, “Do you understand me?” in Chinese.
They already know the answer, and that phrase gets a little old. It just hurts when I know they’re talking about me. I might not be able to understand what they’re saying, but I’m human. It’s amazing to see how well you can train yourself to notice the details that people think a language barrier can disguise.
At times, I feel like some people see and treat me differently when they discover that I’m not bilingual. It’s subtle, but I can feel it.
For instance, there are the encounters I have with strangers. It’s the worst when people assume I speak Chinese and I can’t respond. I just stand there not knowing what to say, making me look and feel uneducated. After that horrible silence comes the absolute worst thing about being non-bilingual — I see their face.
It’s that awful condescending look of pity that churns my stomach and makes me feel like I’m a cultural disappointment. I get that a lot.
Something that really saddens me is when people just give up all effort in talking to me when they discover that I can’t speak Chinese. They really do treat me differently. There may be a language barrier between us, but it doesn’t mean we can’t communicate with each other.
I understand that my situation is probably difficult for the majority of the Asian American population to relate to, but it really is a social issue that I wish people were more aware and understanding of.
Losing the ability to speak the language is something I’ll regret for the rest of my life. It’s more painful than one would think, and it really hits you in places where you’d least expect it. And please, never make assumptions about or tease people who can’t speak their own language — you don’t always know the reasons why they can’t speak it and what they’ve had to go through because of it.
My goal in discussing this issue is not to make people feel bad for non-bilinguals but to stress the importance of never taking language for granted. It is my hope that people will truly appreciate and cherish the ability to speak their own language, because it’s something you should never let go of. ♦