By Danielle Leng
“Sap-m . . . sup-lok . . .”
In a restaurant on Bowery Street in the Chinatown section of New York City, people pushed up against strangers as they all tried to reach a tall man holding a clipboard and shouting numbers. Tanks of large fish, crab and lobster were on display at the window. Tiny Asian women squeezed around tables while pushing metal carts filled with tiny dishes of food.
I screamed into my sister’s ear to tell her that I spotted our cousin in the back of the restaurant. We removed ourselves from the mob of people waiting to be seated in the tiny establishment and headed downstairs to a private area.
Although my ears were still slightly ringing, I was relieved not to be pushed up against strangers and deafened with loud Cantonese. In the private room, colorful decorations were strung up and there was a large banner in the back that read “Happy Birthday.” It was my dad’s 60th birthday and many relatives came to New York for the celebration. I saw cousins and uncles that I had never met before who came up from Florida and South Carolina for the party, and I soon forgot their names by the end of the night.
Then there was my grandmother, my Po-Po, who flew all the way up from Miami to celebrate her only son’s birthday. With thick circular-rimmed glasses, a hunchback and short grey-white hair, this tiny woman had a loud voice, loud enough to be heard over New York construction. Holding my hand, she spoke a mix of Spanish and Cantonese to anyone with an ear. I was able to pick out a few familiar words and random English phrases here and there, but for everything else my Po-Po might as well be talking to a bobble-head.
There was a time when my grandmother did speak some English, my father explained, but it was not her first or even second language. My Po-Po was born in China. As a young adult, she moved to Cuba in order to leave the Nationalist Chinese government system and to have a more economically stable life. She married her childhood friend, then gave birth and raised my dad and aunt in Cuba.
When Fidel Castro announced a “Socialist Cuba” my grandparents did not want to raise a family under that type of government. So, through a sponsorship from extended family, they moved to New York. After the children grew up, my Po-Po and grandfather moved to Puerto Rico and finally retired in Miami. Living in Spanish and Chinese communities, my Po-Po had no use for the English language and only remembered a few words such as “Ice Cream” and “You like?”
As a child and even today, I would rarely speak to my Po-Po directly. Instead, I’d go through either my mom or dad. If they weren’t available to communicate my messages, I would shrug or nod my head hoping I was giving the correct response. There were times when my parents struggled with translating a word in English that held the same meaning in Cantonese, which led to eventually losing the meaning of what the original sentence was. My Po-Po was an alien and my parents acted as extraterrestrial translators. As I grew older, it became more frustrating that I couldn’t breach the language barrier.
I questioned my parents and why they didn’t teach me nor my brother and sister Cantonese or Spanish when we were younger; perhaps then my siblings and I would be fluent or at least give us an understanding of the language.
Their answer: We are in America. We are in an English-speaking country. I had to go to an English-speaking school, so I needed to know English.
I was one of the two Asian kids in my grade up until middle school. Other kids asked, “Do you speak Chinese?” (In one instance, I had someone ask if I spoke Asian). While my parents speak Cantonese, English and Spanish fluently, I could only speak English.
I’m the generation that lost the family language.
I understood and spoke a few phrases. When my mom said, “Levántate,” I had to get up and when she commanded, “Sientate,” I had to sit. When my grandparents gave me a gift I said, “Doh jeh,” (Thank You). When it’s Chinese New Year, I tell everyone “Gung hay fat choy” (Have a prosperous, good year).
However, I cannot hold any sort of conversation entirely in Spanish or Cantonese. Older cousins, great-uncles, aunts and even Chinese friends always expressed disappointment that I could not speak my family’s native language. It isn’t my fault that I grew up in an English-speaking household. But it still made me feel like I was missing something, like I was a “bad Asian.” In Cantonese I would be called a “jook-sing” which basically means a Westernized Chinese person who can’t speak Chinese or read Chinese characters.
Cantonese is nothing like English—pronunciations nor grammar. The Chinese language doesn’t even have a standard alphabet that equates to English. Learning a different language takes time, practice and discipline which was why most of my childhood and part of high school I was frustrated with language classes at school.
In my junior year of high school, I decided to try out Rosetta Stone, a language-learning computer program, for a little over a month. Since it didn’t come with Cantonese, I used the Spanish program since a portion of my family speaks Spanish. The computer flashed images and words at me, and then I had to type in or click on a word that would fit. This was like doing mundane schoolwork which I had enough of. It didn’t feel like I was truly learning the language. I was just memorizing pictures.
Perhaps I didn’t give the program a chance, but it seemed like I couldn’t realistically transfer the Rosetta Stone lessons to the real world. Also, my main goal was to understand my Po-Po when she spoke to me, but most native speakers like my Po-Po didn’t speak as clearly and slowly as the computer voice did. This program just wasn’t for me. I abandoned it.
With AP classes, track, clubs in high school, then college, I ran out of time, and I pushed learning a new language to the side.
Then about two years ago, while visiting my Po-Po in Miami, my family and I were sitting in her house taking a break from the Florida heat. Bored, I decided to ask my dad to teach me the numbers in Cantonese. He rattled off the numbers from one to ten quickly.
“Gau, it almost sounds like you’re saying cow with a ‘g’ instead of ‘c.’” My dad explained. “Gau, nine.”
After about thirty minutes, I was able to recite from one to ten in Cantonese, albeit with a distinct American accent. He called over my Po-Po and told me to recite the numbers for her.
“Yat, yi, sam, sei, m, luk, tsat, bat, gau, sap,”
My Po-Po clapped and cheered, giving me a hug and kiss. She said something in Spanish which my dad loosely translated as her saying how proud she was. I smiled, feeling triumphant. Wanting to keep going, my Po-Po attempted to teach me the rest of the numbers all the way up to a thousand, but I was quickly overwhelmed and abruptly ended my lesson for the day.
My mom told me that when she came to the United States, she did not know a single English word. When she was 11 years old, my mom immersed herself in American culture and language by watching TV, listening to the radio and just hearing English words on the streets of New York.
To fully understand and speak an entirely new language, I had to devote a large amount of my time and concentration on it. I needed to surround myself with the language. A 30-minute lesson on numbers wasn’t going to make me a master of Cantonese.
However, learning Cantonese or Spanish can open doors in communicating with my family and even traveling abroad. After I graduate college, I may try to learn. For now, I settle with short sporadic Cantonese/Spanish lessons with my parents. Becoming fluent in a second language isn’t my top priority. I still love my Po-Po and enjoy her company despite everything she says sounding like gibberish to me. Just because we don’t speak the same the same language, we still are a family and capable of loving each other just as any other grandmother and granddaughter. And in my own time, I will learn Cantonese or Spanish, for me and for my family.