Why can’t you speak Chinese?

Hey Everyone!

It’s your Friendly Neighbourhood Gaijin here to talk me about an aspect of my Canadian life that I am always asked about.

“What are you?”

“I’m Canadian.”

“Yes, but what are you?”

“Oh Chinese-Jamaican.”

“So you speak Chinese and ughhh whatever Jamaican people speak?”

“Nope.”

This is the general breakdown of any conversation I have had with someone when they are trying to inquire about my ethnicity. See, when people ask you “What are you?” in Canada, they are simply trying to find out what race you are – as Canada is full of immigrants. Nonetheless, I’d eventually always reply telling them about my mixed (Chinese-Jamaican) heritage. The questions will eventually lead up to the fact that I do not speak my mother languages – Chinese/Patois. More people tend to ask me why I don’t speak Chinese,  as I am described at times as “More Asian then Jamaican.” Nowadays, I can tell them I speak Japanese, though I don’t think that really answers the question.

My father always asked me why I chose to learn Japanese over Chinese. There are two reasons.

  1. I really enjoyed Japanese Pop culture from young.
  2. If I did not feel accepted as a true member of each community from the start, I might as well pick a language I am actually interested in, rather than one that I should learn only because I’m “Half-Chinese”.

When I was around 11, I began exploring my cultural roots. At this time I began claiming that I was mixed. At this age, the only Chinese friends I really knew were my cousins and a boy in my martial arts class. With my cousins being the only Chinese people I really socialized with often, I never felt a divide between with my Chinese culture. I was also heavily influenced by Japanese culture at this time, and I really wanted to learn Japanese because it was cool (The amount of anime I watched spoke for that). One day, my father enrolled in Chinese classes and I thought joining him would be a good idea. I get to learn about my own culture, speak Chinese in restaurants and make my Dad proud at time same time – it sounded perfect. I even started going to badminton to try and feel more Asian.

There I was, enrolled in my first day of Chinese school where I would get to meet a lot of Chinese people and friends. I started by reading sentences in class, learning the characters and repeating after the teacher. Now this sounds okay right? Well, actually they put me in a class with individuals who were of similar age. That sounds all well and good, but I think my teachers expected me to catch up with students in my class who had been in Chinese school for years! I didn’t even know the characters for “Wo ai ni,” when I started that class. I was really far behind the level of the class and no one even told me.  Not to mention our class had a prick of a guy, who had always enjoyed coming around and attempting to torture individuals smaller than him (We’re friends now though). I continued to attend the class because I was able to make a few friends. Nonetheless, my interests often wavered and I soon lost interest in learning Chinese as I had no one to speak it with. At Chinese school I also learned that I looked different, like very different, from my fellow Chinese. I remember my mom bought me this stunning little Chinese outfit which was black and had a golden dragon on the back. I liked that outfit so much, but someone told me normally Chinese only wore such an outfit on New Years.  I wish I wore it more. Eventually, we quit Chinese School when I was 14.

Image result for Boys Black Chinese outfit

Something along the lines of this, except the Dragon was on the back.

So now, I’m feeling Chinese because I’m trying to learn Chinese, I’ve made a few friends and I have an awesome Chinese outfit. Then one day I realized something. The one time I really did not feel Chinese was when I went to a dinner with my Dad’s badminton club. I got put at the kid’s table with all the other Chinese kids. They were all speaking Chinese (Canto/Mando), while I was just sitting and trying to belong in my nice Chinese outfit. I don’t really think many people talked to me that night besides some parents. That partially was due to the fact that all these children knew each other because they went to the hosting badminton club. At that time, I really didn’t feel Chinese. I didn’t look Chinese, I didn’t speak Chinese, I didn’t act Chinese – I’m basically just a Canadian with no roots. For a few years after that, I felt slightly uncomfortable when I was surrounded by only Chinese people who could speak Chinese. I made lots of Chinese friends in high school, but when people would speak Chinese – I felt as I was missing out on something and immediately feel as if I wanted to leave.

Honestly, the reason I do not know Chinese is because I was not brought up with it. I was raised in a Chinese-Jamaican household that spoke English.  I was not one of those kids who was forced from young to: go to Prep School, go to Chinese School, learn to use chopsticks or play piano. I grew up speaking English, and when I tried to learn Chinese, it was too late while my attitude was too flighty. If I studied Chinese as a kid like I study Japanese now on a daily basis, I’m sure I would have been able to speak competently. Though that is a paradox of time. I didn’t feel welcome at times because of how different I looked and acted from the other Chinese children and I was too shy to practice my rudimentary Chinese with other kids. This is my tale of growing up in a mixed household, but I am not sad that I didn’t learn Chinese. That’s just a side of my culture I never experienced and I’m okay with that.

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