by Melissa Au
When you ask where home is, I can give you a variety of answers. I was born in Hong Kong, but I grew up in Shanghai. I’m not deeply familiar with either of these cultures as I went to an American school, understanding enough of each culture to relate to my peers but not enough that I would fully fit into any particular city. Of course I now live in London, and have since picked up a strange mix of an American-British accent as well as a combination of random phrases and slang from both cultures. I speak enough Mandarin and Cantonese to get by and hold conversations, but not to a degree that would be useful for any job. Effectively, my mother tongue, the language of my ancestors, is being lost to me and unless I move back to Hong Kong, will likely be lost to any future children I may have.
Because of my upbringing, I was not in Hong Kong enough to cultivate a love for her. Hong Kong is not ‘home’ for me in many ways; I lived in Shanghai, visiting Hong Kong only twice a year. I loved the food, but I could barely get around the city. But Hong Kong was the home of my ancestors, the origin of my heritage, the place where my life began. Hong Kong is home in a way that Shanghai and London and any other place I live will never able to replicate.
This doesn’t matter significantly in many ways; I doubt that a job at the UN or Goldman Sachs or any firm for that matter will depend on my ability to speak conversational Mandarin or Cantonese. Nevertheless, it matters deeply; due to the nature of my life and the life of my relatives, many of them do not speak English and the few that do have dispersed over the continents. It is important to me because one of the few remaining ties I have to my family is my language, my ability to communicate with them. Without my mother there to translate adjectives and nouns for me, it becomes difficult to get beyond the niceties and general statements. I cannot understand my family history without being able to understand my language. Without my language, my path home becomes twisted and severed.
In this one short year, I’ve lost my ability to accurately reproduce the tonal words. I don’t hear them enough and I don’t speak them enough. The pronunciations are clear in my head, yet come out twisted, like a foreigner trying to learn a new language. When I call home, I focus hard to make my tongue form the words I want, yet they never come out like they should.
I am afraid that one day, I will be unable produce the words I need to find my way home.