I slammed my 12-year-old fists onto the shiny Yamaha piano keys, the polyphonic dissonance echoing my frustration. “Would you please stop speaking Cantonese to me?” I yelled. “From now on, I only want you to teach me in Mandarin or English.” My piano teacher looked at me, her eyes scintillating with disbelief and something else I couldn’t quite grasp at that age. “I don’t know why you’re abandoning your cultural heritage, but you and I are both native speakers of the language and I won’t speak anything else with you.” Her stern expression shut me up, and I stared at the cowlick jutting out from behind her ear, stubbornly upright, defiant. In retrospect, I can identify that something else I saw in her eyes—a strange mélange of shame and pity, but also hurt.
I’ve always been a non-conformist. The rebel in the family, the gutsy only child. Growing up in Hong Kong and speaking Cantonese at home but only English and Mandarin at school, I had no one with whom I could practice my academic languages. At a certain point it dawned on me that no matter how hard I worked, I was always behind my friends who spoke those languages at home. I remember staring at my English homework, thinking to myself: How do they expect me to do as well as native speakers when I only spend a third of my time speaking English?
So the 12 year-old me came up with the ingenious idea of completely relinquishing Cantonese, a useless dialect, in the name of acquiring fluency in English and in Mandarin, the official dialect of Chinese spoken in China. Needless to say, that decision resulted in explosive family conflicts. My parents reproached me for abandoning my cultural and linguistic heritage and I fought back and said that it was my very “heritage” that held me back at school. I held out for a year and a half without saying a word in Cantonese—I reverted to sign language with my grandparents; butted heads with my piano teacher; was dubbed a snob by most of my friends. But I’ll never forget the feeling of sheer pride and joy the first time someone mistook me for a native speaker of English or Mandarin—it felt like being wrapped in a fuzzy green blanket on a cold morning.
All this came with a price, though. As I progressed through high school and then started my freshman year at Princeton, I slowly came to the realization that I had officially lost the status of having a mother tongue. I didn’t know how much this would bother me until I encountered questions about my native language on a daily basis as an international student. Theoretically, the language of home is your mother tongue—the one that you speak with the most facility and fluency, the one that is least likely to disintegrate when you’re exhausted or drunk.
Yet, I remember when I skyped my parents in my dorm, my American roommates would always be able to understand the outline of our conversation, because whenever I speak my home dialect of Cantonese, it will inevitably expand into a vibrant mosaic of Chinglish. And when my friends asked me why I couldn’t just stick to one language, I was paralyzed with fear and shame when I realized that I was no longer able to hold an entire conversation in pure Cantonese without throwing in foreign words. This sense of rootlessness is disorienting and something I still continue to grapple with.
At the same time, while I am able to speak perfectly unaccented, standard Mandarin, my cover of being a “native speaker” is blown whenever I go to China—I speak the Mandarin of literature and of academia but I have no experience in “living” the language. I can talk about the portrayal of national apathy and indifference in Lu Xun’s short stories, but I don’t fare so well haggling in Chinese markets.
The same applies to English; I grew up in a British colony but most of my English teachers were American, so while I have an American accent, I occasionally spew out words like “rubbish bin,” “lift” and “cinema,” which incur strange glances from my American friends who sometimes forget that I’m not actually from the US. There are also times when anxiety and fatigue unwind the spool of my English syntax, revealing the linguistic imposter in me I so desperately try to conceal with feigned eloquence and flair.
I tried to numb myself from this feeling of being in limbo by taking advantage of the linguistic suppleness with which trilingualism has endowed me. I wanted to find and learn a language to which I felt a sense of belonging. And as I started studying French outside of school in 8th grade and began German and Latin at Princeton, I realized how much I loved languages and how easily they came to me.
Ironically, the more I have learned, the less disoriented I have come to feel, to the point where I no longer feel the need to desensitize myself. Maybe it’s not so bad after all to not have a single language in which to curl up and seek refuge when life gets hard. Maybe it’s actually kind of cool to have a quadrilingual dream. Maybe code-switching and blundering along the way is a blessing and not a curse. I feel more at ease now when I explain to people my complicated linguistic history and admit that I don’t actually have a native language. I finally feel like I am in the business of belonging to a multitude of places and of living and breathing a diverse array of languages.
Life is funny—you go through stages thinking that you need something, that you don’t need something, that you lost something, that you don’t actually need that something after all. I guess I’m at the stage where I don’t really need a mother tongue to feel a sense of belonging—multilingualism is my mother tongue.