Hong Kong.
Culture / Language

You Are What You Speak

I have always been an international student. Growing up in Hong Kong, I went to an international kindergarten, progressed to an international primary school, and then attended an international secondary school. Now, I am an international student at Bowdoin. Throughout it all, my proficiency in the English language has been my greatest asset. That is, after all, what my parents intended. They decided even before I was born that it would be my first language—not Cantonese, the language of Hong Kong, where my mother and I were born and raised; not Mandarin nor Minnan Hua, the languages of Taiwan which my father speaks, having been born and raised there. It was to be English. And where better to immerse a child in the English language than in international schools, which teach almost exclusively in English? It is generally accepted in non-English-speaking countries, particularly in former colonies like Hong Kong, that English is a child’s ticket to prosperity. Speaking English fluently opens opportunities to study in, work in, or emigrate to the Anglosphere, and to access the English-speaking Internet. And yet, for all I have gained from my parents’ strategy, I wonder what I have lost.

It is possible to be fluent in multiple languages; bilingualism and trilingualism are common enough. Unfortunately, I am not so gifted. I speak Mandarin well enough that people perceive me as more proficient than I really am, but I still have the literacy of a feudal peasant. I cannot speak Cantonese at all without butchering it, partially because I swore off the language for over a decade—a rash decision in response to a few childhood incidents, and one of the worst decisions I have ever made. The other reason was that we were banned from speaking anything but English at school for most of my education. I speak even less Minnan Hua. My inability to communicate coherently, if at all, in the languages of my surroundings has left me with the feeling since I was eight that I do not belong.

I am not alone in my little identity crisis. Many whom I know from my history of attending international schools report something similar: little to no understanding of Cantonese or their parents’ other languages, an intention to finish studies in an English-speaking country, and the barest sliver of an idea as to what comes afterward.

Immigrants face a similar dilemma. One of their greatest obstacles is acculturation, as they acquire the culture of their new country while preserving that of their country of origin. Successful assimilation of the new culture is facilitated by proficiency in the new language. In the Anglosphere, in countries like the United States, this is English. But what becomes of the old language? Studies show that it is lost in three generations. Second-generation immigrants in the US, speaking their language of heritage at home and English elsewhere, often grow up bilingual. Third-generation immigrants, however, grow up in households proficient in English and typically retain only English. Of course, this model is highly generalized. Even so, it conveys the fact that proficiency in a language is the result of exposure. The lack thereof, in favor of a more socially and economically profitable language like English, makes the loss of one’s heritage language inevitable.

When one’s primary language differs from that of one’s parents, as in the case of second-generation immigrants, there is also the concern of communication within the family. My mother’s first language is Cantonese, her second Mandarin, and her third English. My father’s first language is Mandarin, his second Minnan Hua, and his third English. My languages, in dramatically decreasing order of proficiency, are English, Mandarin, and French, and my brother’s are similar. At home, we speak a pidgin Mandarin that is sometimes comprehensible to everyone, but equally often comprehensible to no one. In addition to the difficulty of confiding in one’s parents over a language barrier, there is also the issue of learning one’s culture. If one struggles to learn cultural traditions from one’s parents but lacks access to the community that practices them, what heritage is there to retain at all?

But there is more to me than where I come from. I may mourn what I don’t have, but I must also celebrate what has been bought with that price. I can study effectively because textbooks and academic literature are primarily written in English. I can learn about cultures and communities I’ve never seen because of English’s role as a lingua franca. I have made English-speaking friends on the other side of the world whom I would have never met if not for my ability to speak English, and I can make more. I can find employment and a future in almost any of the many English-speaking countries on this planet.

Language is inextricably linked with identity. What you speak determines the resources and communities to which you have access, and hence what you can become. Being an international student has left me adrift, insecure in my connections to my homeland, my family, and my culture. But has this not all been for a reason? Because I speak English, I have the entire Anglosphere in my hands. There may be much that I still yearn for from my own heritage, but I am grateful to my parents for the choices they made over eighteen years ago. Because I speak English, I can be whomever I want to be.