This First Person column is written by Rachel Phan, who is a second-generation Chinese Canadian. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.
There’s this thing I do when I’m walking down the street with my partner. When someone crosses our path, I’ll say something in perfect, crisp English, loud enough for that stranger to hear. I do it to offer myself just a little bit of protection as if to say, ‘Please don’t say anything racist to me. Look how well I played the game. I speak this language perfectly, without an accent — I swear, I’m one of you.’
I learned this hypervigilance when I was a child, growing up in Kingsville, Ont. — a small town about four hours south of Toronto. To survive my childhood as the only non-white student in my class, I did everything I could to blend in. I brought Lunchables to school instead of mum’s braised pork belly and dad’s stir-fried morning glory. I stopped raising my hand in class out of fear of being labelled the school’s token ‘nerdy Asian.’ I became tyrannical about spelling and grammar to showcase my mastery over the English language.
Now, as an adult, I know the truth: speaking perfect English will never truly protect me from racism or micro aggressions. If anything, it has pulled me further away from the things I hold most dear: my parents, my ability to speak Cantonese, my culture.
My parents — who are ethnically Chinese, but were born and raised in Vietnam — were among the hundreds of thousands of ‘boat people’ who fled after the Vietnam War. They arrived in Canada in 1981 and settled in a small town that was almost exclusively white. Mum and dad wanted so badly to fit in and to learn the language that they never made a fuss when my siblings and I responded in English to their Cantonese. Eventually, they started speaking to us primarily in English, even though neither of them have the same command of the language as their three children.
As a 33 year old, I now barely speak our first language — and it’s soul-destroying. It feels like a million little heartbreaks when my parents call me “Rachel” instead of 美美 (May May), my Chinese name.
I can no longer talk to my parents about anything meaningful or even about matters of life or death. In the early days of Canada’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout, I often felt like I was screaming into the void because I didn’t have the words for “the blood clots are rare” and “all vaccines are good vaccines.”
How could I explain efficacy rates and the rarity of side effects when my Cantonese is limited to food items and the most basic phrases? When my parents referred to certain vaccines as “the good ones” and others as “the [expletive] ones,” I felt like my hands and my tongue were both tied. (Thankfully, mum and dad have since been fully vaccinated.)
My parents still live in a small town in southern Ontario — something that has terrified me throughout the pandemic with reports of anti-Asian racism at all-time highs.
When I tried to explain to them that they needed to be careful because older Asians were being spat on, punched, and blamed for the pandemic, they seemed to think nothing of it. How could I possibly give them a nuanced explanation of what anti-Asian racism is? I wondered if they would know what a racist slur meant if someone called them one on the street.
But it’s not just the life-and-death issues that make the loss of language so apparent and painful. It’s my weekly phone conversations with mum, where she’ll say a word or phrase in Cantonese and we’ll go back and forth on what she might mean.
“I don’t know how to say it in English,” she’ll say, frustration in her voice. I’ll start guessing, and more often than not, I’m wrong. We often end the call never truly getting on the same page.
In the moments of levity – when I do allow myself to speak a minor, trivial thing in Cantonese – my mum will stop and squeal, “You’re so cute when you speak Chinese!” But these moments are few and far between. My shame and insecurity constrains my tongue, making it that much more impossible to speak a language that has an absurd amount of tones.
When I talked to my parents recently about the language barrier between us and whether my inability to speak Cantonese makes them sad, they both said the same thing: “It’s our fault.”
“I was supposed to send you to Chinese school, but there’s no Chinese school here,” dad explained. “The closest was in Toronto — so why would I get sad? It’s my fault too. Sometimes I wish we could talk in Chinese together. It would be better. But it’s okay. I know the situation.”
Mum echoed his statement. “If I’m sad about it, what can I do? We have no choice. You were born in Canada and speak in English. It’s my fault too. If I talked to you more in Chinese…”
Her sentence trails off and I fill in the gaps. My parents could have spoken to us in Cantonese, but they didn’t because they wanted to do everything “right.” They wanted to excel at the assimilation game — and they did. So why, then, does it feel like I’m the biggest loser of all whenever someone tells me, “Wow, your English is so good”?
I’ve realized over time that for some people, I’ll never be ‘Canadian enough’ simply because I’m Chinese. That reality hits hardest when a white person approaches me to say, “Ni hao” (Mandarin) or “Konnichiwa” (Japanese) or to ask where I’m really from. To them, I couldn’t possibly be a Canadian. I must be from somewhere else — just another exotic foreigner.
To make matters worse, I also worry that my loss of language makes me somehow less Chinese than my peers who can speak Cantonese fluently.
But when I asked my parents, they both answered without skipping a beat. “No, you’re still Chinese.”
Their words feel like the most soothing of balms. For a brief moment, the gulf between us feels smaller, and I feel fully, proudly Chinese — just like them.
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