My Cantonese is at a Second Grade Level. And That’s Okay.

Discovering Rachel is not an official site of the Fulbright Program or the U.S. Department of State.  The views expressed on this site are entirely those of the writers of Discovering Rachel and do not represent the views of the Fulbright Program, the U.S. Department of State, or any of its partner organizations.

When 2019 came to an end, I attempted to reflect on my five months in Taiwan but struggled to come up with a story about personal growth, maybe something related to resilience or cultural sensitivity. It wasn’t until the end of my sixth month that my story about personal growth dawned on me.

The half year that I have spent in Taiwan didn’t just improve my Mandarin skills; it made me confront my relationship with languages. In Yunlin County, an area with few foreigners, I had to constantly explain myself in simple Mandarin that I wasn’t Taiwanese and that “Yes, I am REALLY from the US.” Sure, the explaining got repetitive at times, but in retrospect, these conversations made me re-evaluate my perspective on my own knowledge of languages.

As a child immigrant from Hong Kong, I’m extremely self-conscious of my Cantonese and like to remind people that my level of Cantonese is at around second grade proficiency. In the US, I didn’t grow up in a Hong Kong diaspora community and I didn’t go to Chinese school on Saturdays. While I’m perfectly capable of using Cantonese to communicate and navigate Hong Kong on my own, I struggle in explaining complex topics using the language. I can confidently articulate my thoughts in English but am frustrated at my inability to do the same in Cantonese.

During this winter break, something clicked. Perhaps it was the constant explaining of my background that reaffirmed my immigrant identity or the three-hour long Cantonese conversation that I tried to have with my hair stylist in Hong Kong, but I felt comfortable. For once, I feel comfortable having various levels of proficiency in a number of languages. These levels of proficiency represent my identity and my personal relationship with each language.

I speak Cantonese like my mom because we only have each other in the US. I know some Mandarin because of my Fulbright in Taiwan and my experience in reciting Chinese poetry as a child. I learned Spanish because it allowed me to communicate with a different demographic and to speak with my friend’s parents. I know Korean because I studied abroad in Seoul for four months and had a genuine interest in Korean modern history and culture.

I’m sure that my turbulent relationship with language is not an uncommon occurrence, but one that is common in the immigrant narrative. It has been a long, long journey for me to get here. But now, I can genuinely and confidently say that I’m proud of my knowledge of my languages. I don’t need to be fluent in a language to be confident in it, and I’m proud that my language abilities are a reflection of my international experience and my complex, immigrant identity.

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