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The Sunday EssayNovember 12, 2023

The Sunday Essay: Father’s mother tongue

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I’m rocking between two languages and I cannot see the shore.

The Sunday Essay is made possible thanks to the support of Creative New Zealand.

Images by Nadia Uy De Baron.


My dad and I get into arguments over semantics. Cup-throwing, plate-smashing arguments. When I say it like this, people often chuckle, imagining my father to be an eccentric philosopher and me following in his academic footsteps. People will nod, familiar with the situation, repeating anecdotes about how, after graduating in politics or sociology or anthropology, they too argued with their parents about semantics. “The way we use our words matters,” they would say solemnly. Yes, I know. My dad and I have different mother tongues. 

I went to Hong Kong recently in the hopes of practicing my adult-class Cantonese. It was embarrassing in the beginning, and my dad couldn’t understand why I would pay money for lessons. “I’ll teach you!” he would say. Then he would sit on the sofa and show me Chinese cooking shows for an hour. When I asked what a particular word meant, he would look at me blankly, try to explain it, and then give up, saying “just use Google!” 

I used to hate this response. But I think he just wanted to watch Chinese cooking shows with me. Now I nod and pretend to understand. I’m an expert at knowing when my dad will laugh or shake his head. I’m still not an expert in the language. 

When I was studying linguistics, we were told that people are never aware of how their language works. It just is for them. We had to be aware of this when probing for specific grammatical rules. You couldn’t ask, “why did you use -ia in this word?” Your participant wouldn’t know how to answer! It’s like asking you to explain why the plural of “dog” is “dogs” and “fox” is “foxes”. Why not “doges” or “foxs”? 

Instead, you have to come up with artificial situations that will excavate the linguistic phenomenon. Because my dad and I speak different languages, I feel like I was born into artificial linguistic situations. It’s as though I’m always outside of language, watching through binoculars. 

Growing up between languages makes you hyper-aware of what words mean and how things work. But it also makes you slip up a lot. Sometimes my syntax crosses over into the broken English of my dad. I make mistakes that people frown at, even though English is my mother tongue. I speak English in the intonation of Cantonese: too loud and too fast. I never get to be comfortable in my words. I’m seasick, rocking between two languages and I cannot see the shore. 

I’ve always been deeply impacted by the linguistic phenomenon of deixis and I never knew why. Deixis is a concept in pragmatics that is centred on words of reference: “here”, “there”, “tomorrow”. It is distinctly contextual, relying on the ontology of place, time and person in order to make sense. Imagine you find an anonymous note that says: “Meet me there, tomorrow.” It’s not that the information is missing: you technically have a date and time to meet. But it feels ambiguous because the point of reference, the deictic information, is missing. Where is “there” if you are not “here”? When is “tomorrow” if you are not at “today”? Who is “me” if you do not have the context to know the author of the note? The note is pragmatically nonsensical, even if it lexically makes sense. 

In Hong Kong, I try to listen to my aunties talk. I pick up a handful of nouns but am thrown off by colloquialisms that my polite, well-educated Cantonese teacher would never say. My Chinese family grew up in Diamond Hill, which was home to shantytown-style squatter dwellings before being demolished in the 2000s. My dad tells me stories of fighting and drugs and gangs. Between the pauses in his half-formed, broken English, I can almost see what he sees. I wonder what it feels like to explain suffering to your child in a language you are not familiar with. 

It makes me sad to think his memories are reduced to this frustrated, tense conversation of misunderstanding. Office buildings and high-rise apartments have been built on the soil of Diamond Hill now and the footprints of my dad in the dirt, where he’d catch spiders to fight each other, are no longer there. There is no deixis for Diamond Hill anymore.

And being here, I realise that my dad and I have different points of deixis for most of Hong Kong. We walk in opposite directions to go home. Our language breaks down across place and time, as well as syntax and morphology. As a child, my dad would gesture towards streets and restaurants in Hong Kong that no longer exist; his memories only survive in the negative space between demolished buildings. He is referencing a point in time and place that I cannot access. 

This plays out in the geographical realm too. My dad excitedly sends me places to visit while I am in Hong Kong and when I get there, they will have been closed down for several years. I used to be so angry that his directions would lead nowhere, but now I am sad. I don’t have a reference for the places he wants to go. To me, he’s pointing at nothingness. I am scared that if I cannot understand his stories, all I will ever see is nothingness. When physical places disappear, the deixis of generational stories are all we have. But what happens to stories that are lost in translation? Are we ever referencing the same place?  

Sometimes I forget that not everyone grows up in a household of translation and confusion. My friends talk about having sit-down conversations with their parents about life and dreams and goals. There’s only so much I can say to my dad before the focus is on explaining what a particular word means. I wish my dad could read my published articles. He tries his best, but I know he’s just happy to see the photo of my face at the top. “Good 👍👍“, he replies on Whatsapp. 

Perhaps there’s something beautiful in having to summarise my writing to my dad. I know what things he will smile at, and I know what will make him proud. I can tailor my life to make him happy; there’s a closeness to it all. The threat of misunderstanding means I have to try harder. It also means we have our own language: I know how to explain movies and simplify dinner menus and translate his stream of consciousness into emails. I’ve learnt a new language, just for us; one that no one can take away. 

But we argue a lot too. My dad and I are notorious for having bad tempers. If his words translate too harshly into English, or he mishears a crucial phrase in my sentence, it’ll be a full-blown argument. We argue past each other, as though yelling from different rooms: I never remember what he was saying when things are over, just what I was trying to say. My brother doesn’t know how I can get over our arguments so quickly, but I am not arguing with my dad; I am arguing with the fact that language never seems to be in our favour. 

My dad and I have learnt to combat potential miscommunication in our arguments by valuing noise. The volume of our voice supersedes the content of our debate and it escalates, to the chagrin of my mum, until there is no language at all: it is just noise. Then, mid-yelling, we will look at each other and start laughing. Misunderstanding is our inside joke. 

I thought I would practise every day in Hong Kong, but words tumble out of my mouth in English before I can even rehearse in Cantonese. My auntie and I spent 15 minutes trying to clear up our dinner plans. “Tsk. You don’t understand” comes up a lot around me. Being here by myself made me realise that it wasn’t Hong Kong that I loved, but my dad in Hong Kong. His confidence and humour don’t always translate into English: sometimes he’ll make a joke only he laughs at and there’ll be this long silence. “Haih,” he’ll huff. “You would get it if you spoke Cantonese”. How lonely for your children to never really know what you’re saying. 

But here, in Hong Kong, he can mesmerise a whole table with his stories. Sometimes my mum roughly translates for me, but mostly I just listen to the way his voice captures people. Maybe one day I can understand what he says, and I can be captured too. The potential to hear my dad’s stories, uninterrupted by the discomfort of language, is what keeps me going. 

But when this happens, I wonder: will I miss our secret language of misunderstanding?

Keep going!