On Immigrant Grandparents, Languages, and Love

I cannot think in anything but English.

I don’t speak a language besides English. A smattering of badly pronounced Spanish (some colors, some animals, some verbs), yeah. I even have a vague sense of French: hello, goodbye, sorry, excuse me.

I don’t actually speak another language. I cannot think in anything but English. But I can’t count how many times I’ve been asked if I speak a second language. On job forms, by friends, family, new acquaintances, teachers, professors, interviewers — you get the idea.

I am mixed Chinese and Scottish, and I’m pretty visibly not white. Apparently, it’s not a huge stretch to imagine that I speak another language. I would honestly love to speak a second language.

But there is one specific language that I don’t speak, that a lot of people seem to expect me to: Cantonese. There are a couple of specific reasons that I don’t, though. And there is a really big reason that I say no a little reluctantly every time someone asks me this question.Me, apparently looking like someone who speaks multiple languages.

Before I was born, my parents and paternal grandparents agreed that it would be nice and probably fairly easy to teach any resulting grandchildren to speak Cantonese from birth. It was a simple plan, and it wouldn’t have been hard to execute.

We would visit my grandparents (my paternal grandparents are Chinese immigrants, now Canadian citizens, who both fluently speak and write Cantonese) a couple times a week, and they would primarily speak Cantonese to said grandchildren.

Neither my dad nor my aunt and uncle are fluent in Cantonese, though my dad can speak what he calls “pidgin Cantonese,” and he thinks my uncle still remembers quite a bit. My grandparents raised visible of-color children in a primarily white community in the 1960s and 1970s.

It’s understandable that they ended up trying to help their kids to assimilate as best they could. I think that my grandparents and parents, when making the plan to teach the impending grandkids Cantonese, thought that 30 years later things were different enough that a second language would be an asset. (Clearly this is not always the case; I’m speaking only for my specific locale and my family/self.)

But I never ended up being taught to speak Cantonese, and I’m not sure when my parents first told me about the plan. I was definitely young, probably around seven. My first reaction was anger. I felt that I had somehow been robbed of the chance to really be Chinese in a way that I desperately wanted to be.

I had a lot of really angsty feelings about being biracial as a kid, and not speaking the language was a big part of that. I felt like I was a lie, an empty shell of Chinese looks with none of the cultural knowledge to back up my dark hair, my slanted eyes. I felt ashamed when sometimes I couldn’t understand my grandparents.

I was sometimes angry specifically with them for not teaching me Cantonese. I resented that they had kept this part of my Chinese side from me.Being a squishy baby, pre-biracial angst.

It ended up being my (white) mom who slapped some perspective on the situation into me and alerted me to the fact that I was being a pain. We were talking about it once, (I was probably 10-ish) and I said something along the lines of, “I don’t get why they didn’t just teach me.” She, being the astute lady she is, probably heard the hint of resentment underlying whatever I said, and proceeded to let me in on what she thought happened. And I have to say, it rings pretty true to me, then and now.

Today, speaking a second language seems to be a strong asset. In Canada, you cannot work within the government or even go very far in studying Canadian history without speaking both English and French. There are international internships and co-ops available specifically for students who speak multiple languages. There are endless connections to be made with fascinating people if one can speak something other than English with them.

My Yeh Yeh came to Canada at 16 and my Nying Nying in her early 20s (so, roughly, the 1950s). In the 1950s and 1960s, when my grandparents were growing up in Canada and then began raising children, speaking anything other than English was not an asset.

It made you a target.

My grandparents learned English because they had no choice. English was the language of success — you couldn’t really move in the business world or the scholastic world, or the Canadian world, without it. They worked viciously hard to make a place for themselves within Canadian society.

After they married, they eventually set up a successful corner store (it’s a stereotype for a reason) and eventually got into real estate investment. My Yeh Yeh never graduated from high school, but he and Nying Nying ended up establishing themselves so firmly that neither my sister nor myself will have to worry about paying for our university careers, if we are careful.

My mom thinks they never ended up speaking Cantonese to me because they couldn’t. She thinks that there was a lot of shame ingrained in them, paired with a vivid belief that in order to succeed in this country, you just had to leave some things behind.

It was hammered into them that it was better to just be Canadian. Being different was a liability. 

So they did what they thought was best, what Canadian society taught them would be best, and they cut their kids’ ties to a lot of Chinese culture. Once, at a parent teacher conference in the early 1970s, an elementary school teacher explicitly pointed to their youngest child (my dad), who was not yet in school, and told them to “make sure this one speaks English.”

So they did, to make sure their kids had the best chance at a good life. And I think that 30 years later, they were still doing the same thing for their grandchildren.

Language is powerful. It is intrinsically linked with a culture’s values and structure. How a culture uses its words is a key part of how its children are taught to see the world around them.

I am sure I am not the only descendant of immigrants to wrestle with this. Even for non-visible minorities (people from Poland or Greece, for example), language loss is still a very powerful way of homogenizing cultures so everyone can fit into a single idea of a country.

Forcing people to only speak English to their children is a really effective way of separating people from their cultures of origin. In school, from their teachers and peers, kids are taught that English is normal and desirable. Anything else is something to be ashamed of.

This is a way of colonizing that has been employed repeatedly by many different cultures (a big example: North American residential schools forbidding any language but English). Something else to keep in mind is that a lot of the things I’ve talked about regarding English being a forced norm still apply today.

Over time, I have learned at whom to be angry that I do not speak Cantonese.

I am angry at colonization. I am angry at a society that was (is) so threatened by the idea of true diversity that cultures seen as different are often violently suppressed.

I am not angry with my grandparents any more — I’m just grateful. I am in awe of the work they put into their business ventures, and the success they achieved.

Today, I live less than a five-minute walk from where my Yeh Yeh lives (my Nying Nying is now in a care home). Whenever I see my grandparents, they try to feed me. A lot. They ask about school. If my part time (extremely part time) job comes up, my Yeh Yeh always frowns and tells me to make sure that school is my first priority. One night, I showed up out of the blue to pick up some stamps, and he stopped me on my way out. 

“If you ever run into any trouble — you just let me know.”

I almost cried on my way home, because I knew that he really, really meant it.

Another time, a couple years back, I showed up for a visit wearing really worn out boots. He was so offended by these boots that he asked for my shoe size, and just sat there shaking his head every time he looked over at them. I kind of rolled my eyes and shrugged off his concern, but I told him. A couple months later, when I came over for a visit, he handed me (and my sister) two bags full of brand new boots (he also has really good taste in shoes, as it turns out).

We will never have a relationship like the grandparents I saw in movies and television shows when I was a kid. I often have to ask them both to repeat what they say. Verbal communication is not really our strong suit. I doubt they will ever tell me they love me in so many words.

But I know that they care. They support my education, and they have never pushed me regarding university or careers. They let me drop by and randomly pilfer stamps. They always send me home with leftovers after dinner. I have a key for their house, and the security code (even if I never remember it). Yeh Yeh insisted that my partner and I both feel free to “drop by anytime.”

There are a lot of reasons my grandparents and I don’t speak Cantonese together. A lot of what I’ve written today — it’s really just an educated guess. I probably won’t ever know for sure. I have thought about asking but I don’t know if our relationship is one where they would be comfortable enough to answer. 

My dad thinks some of it might have come from not wanting to infringe on my parents’ prerogatives — if my sister and I had spoken Cantonese to them, my mum would have been shut out of some conversations, at least firsthand.

I think, for me, what it comes down to is that whatever the reasons, I choose to believe that they were doing what they thought was best. I am choosing to trust that they want what is best for me. I am choosing to see their actions as coming from love, even if that love is not explicitly expressed.

This is not to say that I am not angry at the systematic racism that forces immigrants to conform to ideas of what it means to be “Canadian.” I will never, ever, ever, really be able to forgive the loss of the cultures that was forced upon people.

But I have learned whom to blame for that loss of culture. And it’s definitely not the man and woman who make sure I’m fed, who send me to school, and put sturdy shoes on my feet.