To Relearn a Language - Chiu-yi Rachel Ngai

A native language is a difficult thing to lose. Not difficult in the sense that it is physically hard, but more in the sense of the emotional toil and baggage that comes with realizing that you have forgotten the language you grew up speaking, or the language spoken by your family or your people. I lived in Hong Kong, speaking Cantonese, English, and a tiny bit of Mandarin before moving to the United States at 14. I was never particularly good at Cantonese, and my Mandarin was incredibly rusty, but it all only got worse without a solid system of Cantonese speaking friends and family to keep my Chinese skills on their toes.

It was a difficult conclusion to bring myself to realize, but roughly a year and a half into my life in the United States, I realized that my already (to quote my report cards) less-than-satisfactory Mandarin skills were near-nonexistent. Still, it needed to be noticed sooner or later, and I’m glad I caught it when I did. A problem needs to be recognized before it can be fixed.

So I started bit by bit, reading Chinese books, watching cdramas and other Chinese shows, and listening to Chinese music. I started with shows such as The Untamed and Word of Honor, xianxia and wuxia being genres I’ve always found fascinating but hesitated to watch. (Shameless self plug time, I have an ongoing series about queer-coding in Chinese dramas on this very site, Intersections Magazine’s blog. Please check it out if you’re interested!) I began watching variety shows, slowly but surely getting the hang of modern and colloquial phrases and sayings that could not be learned from textbooks. I grew up with Chinese music—I played pipa in Chinese orchestra and my cousins liked to sing folk songs in Mandarin—and reconnected with those fledgling roots by watching music competitions and filling my Spotify library with playlists titled “Cantonese Oldies”, “Soft Mandopop”, and “游來游去” (translates to “wandering to and fro”).

For the first time in a long time, maybe even for the first time ever, I felt confidence and connection with the language of my people. I alternated between Cantonese and Mandarin when speaking with my mother, and reading and processing Chinese became easier than it had ever been. Who needed English and its 27 letters when I could have Chinese and it’s thousands upon thousands of characters made up of those same handful of strokes evoking imagery and emotion English could only hope to achieve at its best?

Sometime during all that, alongside the joy that came with cultural reconnection, there came an overwhelming wave of guilt. There was guilt over how I could’ve let myself “go”. A constant internal monologue of “How could you forget? You’ve really let the internalized racism get to you. Way to be loyal to our own culture, girl with an unused Chinese name”. All consuming at times, the voice held back a lot of pride and joy at my progress and replaced it with shame and negativity. It’s ironic, almost funny, how my coping mechanism for my cultural trauma (and one of my coping mechanisms in general) became a catalyst for the thing it started out healing.

As delighted as I was to be relearning my childhood language and reconnecting with my culture, I had to acknowledge that it was simultaneously negatively affecting my mental health. It kept reminding me of my “failure” as a Chinese person for falling victim to internalized racism, even when the causes of my self-hatred were out of my control. Being from Hong Kong, I have some very strong opinions on the actions of the Chinese government, and early on in my relearning of Chinese, I struggled to separate the art, the country, and the government. Living in America, far away from where I grew up didn’t help the situation either. I started to spiral, and that was when I realized that something needed to change. I refused to consider cutting Chinese media out of my life again, but I still needed to prioritize my own mental health. I needed to find a balance, and it took me a while, but I think I did it.

Now, I have more than one coping mechanism for my trauma and more than one support system for my mental health. I talk to my friends, go to school, spend hours on jigsaw puzzles, and write about my feelings, thoughts, and ideas. I translate Chinese TV shows for my friends, watch Chinese television, and read Chinese books. I can enjoy the art created by China whilst simultaneously condemning the actions of the Chinese government. By finding ways to slip my native culture into the one I live in now and by doing my best to keep the trauma demons at bay, I can fairly confidently say that I am improving both in my Chinese language abilities and my love for my Chinese cultural identity.

It’s difficult to acknowledge and understand the vicious cycle of trauma and how it continues, seeping into and passing on to everything you do. It’s difficult to unlearn internalized racism, especially if it’s directed inwards. It’s difficult to reclaim a lost or buried identity and difficult to relearn the things you lost. However, whatever your situation may be, if you’re like me and struggling to reconnect with a language and a culture you once tried to hide away, I highly recommend you start the journey to relearn/re-embrace loving it.

Just a few final reminders and tips: Start with things you know you’ll enjoy doing. Revisit a childhood favourite song or show, and let yourself enjoy the process. Have fun, and above all remember that you can do it, and your trauma is not your fault. Happy learning!

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