My Mother Tongue: Experience Split Between Different Cultures and Languages

“You eat yet? You no eat I make you food,” my mother calls out from the kitchen, a wooden spatula in one hand and a glass bowl in the other. She sets them down on the granite kitchen island and disappears into the pantry, muttering a mixture of English, and Vietnamese as she rummages around. Coming out, she asks, “Cơm tôm and pork chop, okay?” Without even looking my way, she begins prepping the food.

In our household, conversations like these occur all the time. In one minute, my parents could be speaking in Vietnamese or Chinese to each other, and then in the next in English to my brother and me. Although my parents are both of Chinese descent, they were born and raised in Vietnam before becoming refugees and finding solace in the United States during the Vietnam War.

Just as I grew up split between cultures—one at home and one outside—they too were children of immigrants learning to live in a world governed by two cultures and two languages.

For us, one language flows into the next almost seamlessly, forming a hybrid of sorts. While confusing and foreign to most, each language fuses with the others to create a language that we like to call our own. It is one of family, home, and belonging: our very own, one of which I am proud.

Unfortunately, this was not always the case. I am ashamed to say I once hated it. This strange, convoluted mess of language was the cause of a lot of confusion and frustration while growing up. When I was a child, all I wanted was to fit in, yet in a society that calls your family’s English “broken” and “limited,” I was unable to.

I had gone to private school from preschool through second grade. During that time, my classmates came from families where English was their first and only language. They were never picked on by our teachers to do extra phonetic exercises or ordered to purchase a recorder for more practice. I was “the special one.”

After all, I was the only student mixing up the pronunciation of “six” with “sex,” and I’m sure they had a good laugh.

While they certainly meant well (or so I hope), their need to rid my English of the slightest hint of my mother tongue caused a lot of insecurities and shame. Their actions only strengthened the notion that the English I grew up with was broken and limited.

For this reason, I strove to perfect my English, to learn the “correct” form I learned in school. During my middle and high school years, I’d research grammatical and writing conventions, ensuring that my writing and speech were correct on every paper and homework assignment. From learning how to identify and correct dangling modifiers to learning about rhythm and flow, I grew to love the English language and all its little nuances and styles.

However, with this newfound love, I also became hyperaware of all the “brokenness” in my parent’s speech. I would correct the way they spoke, never considering how it would make them feel. Without realizing it, I’d done what my former teachers did to me. As I transitioned from speaking primarily in our Chinese dialect with my parents to speaking solely in English, I lost a piece of my mother tongue.

I am no longer fluent in our Chinese dialect, my first language, only understanding it and Vietnamese when spoken to.

Even now when I try, with my mind searching for words I once knew—words that once rolled off my tongue—I can only remember bits and pieces, often resorting back to English. I lost a piece of my self in pursuit of another, and I didn’t even realize it until it was too late.

Despite the loss, however, I still love the English language and all its little nuances, especially as a writer. Whether I’m writing my own narratives or editing other people’s stories, I continue to find joy in the English language. Now, I simply better understand that there is no single correct form of English—rather there are many “Englishes,” each with its own personality and characteristics—and that my family’s language is neither broken nor limited. It is simply one of many languages, one we call our mother tongue.

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As a senior at UC Davis pursuing a B.S. in Neurobiology, Physiology, & Behavior and a Professional Writing minor, I am also a peer advisor and a program coordinator for our Health Professions Advising Center. Through my roles, I meet and work with many students and organizations through advising, putting on workshops and special events, such as the UCD Pre-Health Conference, and creating material for students to use. I love working with people, along with reading, writing, and trying new things.

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ENGAGE IN THE CONVERSATION

My Mother Tongue: Experience Split Between Different Cultures and Languages

“You eat yet? You no eat I make you food,” my mother calls out from the kitchen, a wooden spatula in one hand and a glass bowl in the other. She sets them down on the granite kitchen island and disappears into the pantry, muttering a mixture of English, and Vietnamese as she rummages around. Coming out, she asks, “Cơm tôm and pork chop, okay?” Without even looking my way, she begins prepping the food.

In our household, conversations like these occur all the time. In one minute, my parents could be speaking in Vietnamese or Chinese to each other, and then in the next in English to my brother and me. Although my parents are both of Chinese descent, they were born and raised in Vietnam before becoming refugees and finding solace in the United States during the Vietnam War.

Just as I grew up split between cultures—one at home and one outside—they too were children of immigrants learning to live in a world governed by two cultures and two languages.

For us, one language flows into the next almost seamlessly, forming a hybrid of sorts. While confusing and foreign to most, each language fuses with the others to create a language that we like to call our own. It is one of family, home, and belonging: our very own, one of which I am proud.

Unfortunately, this was not always the case. I am ashamed to say I once hated it. This strange, convoluted mess of language was the cause of a lot of confusion and frustration while growing up. When I was a child, all I wanted was to fit in, yet in a society that calls your family’s English “broken” and “limited,” I was unable to.

I had gone to private school from preschool through second grade. During that time, my classmates came from families where English was their first and only language. They were never picked on by our teachers to do extra phonetic exercises or ordered to purchase a recorder for more practice. I was “the special one.”

After all, I was the only student mixing up the pronunciation of “six” with “sex,” and I’m sure they had a good laugh.

While they certainly meant well (or so I hope), their need to rid my English of the slightest hint of my mother tongue caused a lot of insecurities and shame. Their actions only strengthened the notion that the English I grew up with was broken and limited.

For this reason, I strove to perfect my English, to learn the “correct” form I learned in school. During my middle and high school years, I’d research grammatical and writing conventions, ensuring that my writing and speech were correct on every paper and homework assignment. From learning how to identify and correct dangling modifiers to learning about rhythm and flow, I grew to love the English language and all its little nuances and styles.

However, with this newfound love, I also became hyperaware of all the “brokenness” in my parent’s speech. I would correct the way they spoke, never considering how it would make them feel. Without realizing it, I’d done what my former teachers did to me. As I transitioned from speaking primarily in our Chinese dialect with my parents to speaking solely in English, I lost a piece of my mother tongue.

I am no longer fluent in our Chinese dialect, my first language, only understanding it and Vietnamese when spoken to.

Even now when I try, with my mind searching for words I once knew—words that once rolled off my tongue—I can only remember bits and pieces, often resorting back to English. I lost a piece of my self in pursuit of another, and I didn’t even realize it until it was too late.

Despite the loss, however, I still love the English language and all its little nuances, especially as a writer. Whether I’m writing my own narratives or editing other people’s stories, I continue to find joy in the English language. Now, I simply better understand that there is no single correct form of English—rather there are many “Englishes,” each with its own personality and characteristics—and that my family’s language is neither broken nor limited. It is simply one of many languages, one we call our mother tongue.

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