The Importance Of Keeping Your Mother Tongue Alive

Culture

Growing up as a bilingual child, I remember my Father telling me that I would speak to the neighbours in Mandarin with a Kiwi accent! It was before I started learning to speak English, and I could only get a grasp of what English sounded like. Mandarin is the first language I grew up listening, reading, writing and speaking. It’s also common that some Asians that grew up in New Zealand may prefer speaking in English with their friends. Language connects us with one another. It allows understanding, embracing one’s culture and communicating with more people.

The most common Chinese dialect is Mandarin (Putonghua), and it is the most widely spoken language in the world with over a billion speaking Mandarin. Growing up in a Western country, it’s easy to speak English for predominantly most of the time. Exposure is important. When I was younger, my parents would read books to us, and my favourite were the ones by 幾米. They had these beautiful, colourful illustrations, and moving stories. The more we speak a language, the more we connect with those who speak it. Your mother tongue can strengthen your cultural ties and allows you to communicate freely with your family.

English was one of my favourite subjects growing up, as I’ve always loved reading and writing. I like to joke that English runs in the family, as my grandfather and Uncle were English professors in Taiwan. In the article by Amy Tan titled Mother Tongue, she talks about her experiences of the Englishes she grew up speaking. I highly recommend reading it, as it allows us to understand the power of language. I truly feel that if we don’t keep our mother tongue alive, we may risk losing a part of ourselves.

What is your Mother Tongue?

Photography by Sun Jun

A New Zealander’s Story On Being Chinese

Books

I finished reading Being Chinese – A New Zealander’s Story by Helene Wong in two days, and it really made me think about my own background, experiences and thoughts on being a New Zealander. Wong was born in Taihape, with a mixture of second and third generation in her family, and in her book, she explores her family history. She shares her experiences in acting and theatre, and the stereotypes and often lack of authentic representation that occur within the industry. I really encourage anyone to read this book, as it really makes you think about the importance of cultivating a society that treats everyone the same. It’s something we should all strive for. It makes one reflect on their own background and the portrayal of Asians in the arts and media.

Being Chinese final cover lr

I think about how when I was younger, I sometimes never felt quite completely Taiwanese, when I was in Taiwan, and yet not quite completely Kiwi when I was in New Zealand because of my appearances. Even though I was born and raised here. There is a sentence in Wong’s book where she writes “I ask myself, just how Chinese am I?”, and as she writes about her childhood, there were many parts that I could relate to and I believe many Asian Kiwi’s may have also experienced.  

Growing up, there was this feeling of Other as my last name would say. There would be the constant mispronunciations during school assemblies and prize giving, yet it was something I simply got used to. In Chapter 3 titled ‘I never think of you as Chinese’, she shares a story in which someone said those words to her. She talks about assimilation, and it made me think about an English paper I took last year, where I did an essay on Amy Tan’s essay on Mother Tongue. It made me think about accents, and how often I noticed growing up that because my parents had Asian accents when they spoke English, they were perceived a certain way compared to an Asian with a Kiwi accent.

I related to Wong’s love for writing, as English was always one of my favourite subjects, and I loved writing essays, reading books and spending time thinking and analysing about texts and meanings. Wong talks about how because of one’s physical identity, we will be viewed a certain way. It made me think of when I was placed into ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) in primary school, even though my English is fluent. It makes me think about how because of the way one looks, I will always be inescapably asked where I am from. If we look at the arts, media, advertising and many other industries in New Zealand, we have to emphasise that there is a need for more representation.

Wong writes about the films she grew up watching, and how often stereotypes and whitewashing occurred. She writes “…there only for their ‘Chineseness’. Worse, if they were anything more than exotic colour and had dialogue, the parts were usually played by white actors in slitty-eyed yellowface. They made me squirm with anger. Despite evidence all around us of Chinese people doing the same things as everyone else – in my own family, occupations ranged from nurse to architect, hairdresser to psychologist – Chinese were never cast in these roles.” She talks about food, as she writes “…when the look, taste, texture, fragrance and sound of a dish all came together it was art, and eating it brought a burst of joy.”

When the nineties arrived, there was an increase in immigration. Wong talks about how during this time, she really became ‘Asian’. She talks about the media stories in 1989 about immigrants, which used the phrase ‘Asian Invasion.’ She writes that “White New Zealanders were suddenly seeing more Chinese faces on the street…They did not say the same of the South Africans who were also arriving in the country under the same immigration policy. Chinese were too different – in looks, speech, behaviour.” She continues to write that “The Sinophobia also came from longstanding beliefs in the West that Chinese were inferior.” When people deny this, they roll everything under the carpet to keep it quiet. However, I really believe that we need to speak about it more.

The term ‘casual racism’ is used, and I think about how often it comes from ignorance and unintentional offense, and other times it’s overt and covered as a joke. It really starts with accepting and being respectful of everyone’s differences. Every individual person is so unique, full of layers and has a beautiful story to tell.  Auckland is one of the most culturally diverse cities, and being born and raised here, I call it my home. However, there is still a lot of room for improvement and change, and I believe that we can and we will see more diversity in the arts and media industry.

Photography by Sun Jun

How To Improve Your Chinese Language Skills

Culture

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Chinese is one of the most beautiful languages in the world. When you see the words themselves, each of them are like a picture. It is the most spoken language in the world by more than 1 billion people. I remember my Grandmother explaining to my sister and I the way each Chinese character are like a picture of the object. 火 means fire, 人 means person and 山 means mountain. If you look at them, they appear very much like the character itself. According to the NZ Chinese Language Week Trust, Chinese will be the third most common language spoken in New Zealand.

In order to improve a language, we must consistently speak it and expose ourselves to it. If you don’t speak the language with your family, it’s a good idea to find opportunities to speak it with someone. Try speaking it with a friend, language partner, on the phone or attending a Chinese event. The more you speak, the more you remember. A great app to add on your phone is Pleco. It’s a wonderful dictionary that’s easy to use. Try reading a small section of a book, text or magazine article and translate the words you don’t know by using Pleco (or your own dictionary).

Writing words down can also help you to remember what they look like. Learning and expanding your vocabulary is ultimately one of the ways to improve your skills. Listening is what we’re first exposed to when we’re a baby. We listen to the way our parents talk, and we imitate the words they speak. You can listen to Chinese music, watch a movie that speaks Mandarin, listen to a podcast or watch a Youtuber who speaks Chinese. Finding what works for you is important. Some may find certain Chinese language apps better than others. Some may work better by following a text book, taking lessons in class, having a private tutor or using an e-book.

Growing confidence in your skills is a wonderful thing. Improving is extremely rewarding. As something beneficial as Chinese, it can be encouraging to know that you will definitely be applying the language in many places. It’s a language that has a long history behind it. It is one of the oldest written language in the world. If you grew up reading Chinese Cinderella by Adeline Yen Mah (I highly recommend the book!), she mentions: Chinese is a pictorial language, not a phonetic one. Our words come from images. The meaning of many characters is subtle and profound. Other words are poetic and even philosophical.

Photography of Ling BingBing by Sun Jun