First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.
What’s it like to feel like an outsider in your own country? First Person writers tell their stories?
One of my earliest memories is doing times tables in Cantonese while in the bathtub, my mom’s firm but gentle fingers kneading my scalp with shampoo. Around and around we would go each bathtime, repeating the numbers until they stuck. In a jaunty rhythm, the language cascaded in a lyrical way to imprint the multiplication into my malleable mind. The meaning was lost to me at the time; I just knew that it was another task to do. Quite similar to the Saturday morning Chinese school I had to attend. My Friday nights, instead of looking onto a blank canvas of a weekend, was filled with feverish scribbling of Chinese homework and attempting to memorize ancient poems and essays.
My dad and mom were married in Hong Kong before immigrating to Canada, where I was born. My mother’s English has never been excellent. I wonder what it would have been like for her, to see her children’s mastery of the language quickly eclipse her own as we climbed the academic rungs in Canada. Although my native Cantonese was my first language (I didn’t speak English until I went to preschool), my capacity for learning and retaining dialects was never wide. It seems my childhood brain latched onto English as my mother tongue and it was not long until my dreams began to fill with English, replacing the chirpy Cantonese of Hong Kong television dramas we used to watch together.
I love the careful construction of English, the way the correct words can form a seamless image.
I once asked my parents how they picked my English name, Ronald. They told me they liked the sound of it and it seemed complementary to my brother’s name, Howard. Initially crestfallen at such a pedestrian name, I came to love its rolling R, the ability to shorten into Ron and lengthen at a whim, and of course, the shared namesake with J.K. Rowling’s scrappy, loyal underdog Ron Weasley.
It is quite common for East Asian immigrants to also have an Asian name; one that honours tradition and has its own meaning in the mother tongue. Mine is Ho Sing, which loosely translates to emphasize the traits of curiosity, intelligence and good fortune. My Chinese name mostly fell into disuse, at most being summoned once a week at Chinese school. Ronald was my identity.
As a teenager, I noticed that my legal Canadian name - Ho Sing - was routinely garbled by foreign tongues. I felt extremely self-conscious at having a name with a phonetically similar sound to a derogatory slang word. My parents didn’t see what the big fuss was. For them, their heritage, and thus, the lens with which they viewed the world, was their Chinese origins; consideration of an English-speaker’s slang interpretation would come second. I remember my father becoming upset when I suggested I would legally rearrange my names, regulating Ho Sing to a middle name. Perhaps he saw this as a coup d’etat to dethrone the corner of my identity that had always been Chinese. Or did he sense my embarrassment and how that sense of shame was seeping into our heritage, a mighty history that he continues to be proud of? For all its symbolic presence, “Ho Sing” was not a practical representation of me. And so, Ronald became my first and only name.
In recent years, I have watched as my Cantonese continues to gather rust, only creaking to use when I visit my parents on the weekend. There is a widening gulf between me and my mother, borne out of my own neglect of my native tongue. I fear the words I so cherish will one day fail me and I can only communicate in gestures. My mother occasionally finds this amusing, as I struggle to articulate an exact Cantonese idiom, gently correcting me; perhaps she is reminded of my childhood days when I likely studied the exact same idiom under her tutelage on another Friday night.
But for her, as she reminds my brother and I often, she immigrated to Canada for our futures. Native English speakers often complain of immigrants who don’t speak their language. And indeed, I have witnessed the exasperation, the snickers, the carelessly hidden smiles of these xenophobic people while I accompanied my mom doing benign, everyday tasks. What hurts the most is that I have jumped in, cutting my mother’s efforts off, likely with the belief that I was helping her when I was truly burying my own embarrassment.
The Cantonese translation of “I love you” is not bandied about as freely as its English equivalent. Growing up, I have wondered about how loved I truly was. Was love represented in the hours of violin, piano and extra math classes? What about the missing hugs, the open expressions of joy? I soon learned that my mother has her own love language. She perpetually worries that I’m not wearing enough layers. She will constantly offer me cut-up fruit when I’m home, and update me that my favourite desserts are stocked in the fridge. She won’t take no for an answer as she ferries boxes of prepared dinners for me as she drives me back to Toronto. I can’t remember ever hearing “I love you” from my mother, but perhaps these are instances in which no words are needed.
Recently, my mom decided to enroll in adult English classes offered for free at a local community centre. She smiles sheepishly whenever I flip through her heavy binder of homework; there is a worksheet teaching basic English words for body parts, here is another with copied sentences for frequently used phrases in retail. Her writing is neat, in larger and block-like font. She recently asked me to help her write a homework assignment, an essay.
“What’s the topic?” I asked.
She smiled slightly and paged through her handheld dictionary.
Ronald Leung lives in Toronto.