Barely Bilingual

When people look at me, they see my ebony black hair, my dark brown eyes, my pale skin; Asian features. 

“Are you Chinese?” they ask, curious.

“Yes.” I reply, automatically.

“So you can speak Chinese fluently then?” they assume.

“No,” I say, hesitantly, guiltily, “I only understand a little bit.”

When I was younger, I was able to speak Cantonese fluently. This was probably due to the fact that my sister and I lived with our grandparents while our parents worked. As a result, when I started kindergarten, my English was terrible. My sister and I were brought into the ESL class, and I only really remember playing board games and learning words on flashcards there. As I grew up though, my English improved; I could speak, read, and write in it. My thoughts are spoken in English in my head, but my Chinese suffered in my speech.

Last year, when my family and I were packing our things to move into a new house, my dad found a letter. He showed it to me, grinning surreptitiously, saying that I wrote it. I looked up, and saw that it was a paragraph of Chinese characters. A whole paragraph. Shock initially filtered in, but guilt immediately surged into my barren chest. When I was little, I was able to write a whole paragraph in Chinese. Now I can not even read a single character. Where did my mother tongue disappear to? I blunder over the subtle tones of my language, tripping over pitches, and sluggishly stumbling through intonations. Why is it that when I try to speak, my voice is choked down by some mysterious force and instead, only English slips out of my mouth? English is what I use the most; I speak it everywhere, even at home. It is comfortable. I glide over vowels, waft through tenses, and enunciate syllables with ease. My ideas are expressed through this second language that I had learnt – English is familiar, but Cantonese is a struggle.

English is the second language that I’ve learnt, but there are a few more. I like cherry-picking languages; I can kind of read and write in French now – there is only a bit of hesitance when I try to speak out loud with my horrible attempt at a French accent (I wonder why Ms. Gay still asks me to read things). My understanding of Japanese speech has, out of nowhere, improved drastically (I realized it was proven when I was able to watch raw anime).  My silly attempts at imitating my parents’ Vietnamese results in joyous laughter and chuckles. So why is it, that I have lost my Chinese somewhere in a dark abyss of an ocean, and I’ve no knowledge of where it lies?

Related imageI remember in grade 10, we had a project about our culture in social studies. There was a section where I had to write about my culture and language.  I admittedly wrote down that I’ve lost my language, but have been attempting to speak it more. A girl from another class walks up to my poster and reads it. I don’t know her, but she reads my poster for a few seconds before suddenly exclaiming, “You lost your language? How could you?!” I look up at her, surprised. “Just kidding,” she says, without skipping a beat. She leaves to read the next poster.

My loss of my language suddenly takes a hit. I swallow; my throat is parched and dry. A hollowness envelops me like an empty glass of water. The cup that was once overflowing with cultural rhetoric is drained, and I have no means in which to find more. Yes, how could I? How could I have lost it? Where is it? I’ve been trying to find it. Ba, Ma, I promise; I really am trying – even when you speak to me in Cantonese, and I hopelessly respond in English. Even when I meet one of your friends and I feel relieved when they speak English. Even when I miserably speak in English to 奶奶 (grandma) and 爷爷 (grandpa) and I know they won’t understand what I’m saying. My heart breaks every time I hear my grandparents try to speak in English to me when I see them. Please, just speak Cantonese. I know what you’re saying.

Have you all given up on me?


One day, I am sitting at my grandparents’ house, and  爷爷 (grandpa) seated himself beside me. We talk (Rather, he talks. I mostly listen and nod my head). He asks if I’m full after eating dinner (as all grandparents do), and I smile and nod. He continues to converse with me, and he teasingly asks if I understand what he is saying. I scrunch my eyebrows and retaliate, “I understand!” He laughs, doubting my answer, and he starts to lecture me on the importance of having two languages. He says that when I go to an interview, the person in charge will see that I have Cantonese and English, and they’ll be more likely to hire me. He says that when I go to eat Dim sum, I’ll be able to order food on my own. He mentions that I’ll impress people if I speak both languages. I wonder about that. He continues to list all the benefits of being bilingual; the list is simple and true.

His gentle, gentle Chinese makes me want to cry.

After this conversation, a sudden wave of motivation invigorates me. My thirst for recovering my lost language is instigated. My guilt falters, giving room for courage. Nowadays, I respond the best I can in Cantonese. It is only in short, broken sentences, but it’s a start. When I responded in Chinese to  爷爷 (grandpa), his eyes lit up, a delighted smile on both his face and mine. He exaggerates now, telling others that I can argue in Chinese. My dad is surprised but silently happy when I speak in my mumbled Chinese. Water is slowly trickling into the cup.

The cup is no longer empty – and maybe one day it will be full again.


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8 thoughts on “Barely Bilingual

  1. Dearest Kelley,

    I was scrolling through the latest AP posts (as I have taken to doing when I miss this class and the people in it a little too much) when I came across yours. And I am sitting here, after reading it twice, with nothing but absolute respect and pride for you and for what you have accomplished.

    You have grown an incredible amount since last year in AP – and I really think, ironic though it may be, you have found your own distinctive and unique voice through this piece.

    I have never actively thought of language as something that was part of me, and everyone else – I have never actively thought of it as a part of yourself that you can lose, and I had never even paused to consider the pain of losing one’s own mother tongue as it is not something I have ever experienced. However, I have experienced the quiet losses of different parts of myself, and it is this unyielding pain that you have illustrated so beautifully.

    The nuances, I found, were in the most small, unlikely places, like this:

    “His gentle, gentle Chinese makes me want to cry.”

    It is so simple, yet somehow so incredibly powerful – the repetition of the word ‘gentle,’ for example is such a beautiful and unsuspectingly impactful touch. I love the subtly of your writing – how you are not overly dramatic or dismissive, but rather introspective and, well, gentle, for lack of a better word.

    Kelley, this piece was beautiful. I just really want you to know that.

    And I just couldn’t help but leave you a comment because I am so proud of you and humbled by your growth and absolutely captivated by this beautiful, beautiful piece.

    I hope you are well,


    1. Dearest Hope,

      Thank you so much for taking your time to read my blog! As you’ve probably noticed, this piece is very important to me, and I’m happy that I’ve inspired some insight into the concepts of losing one’s language. I really appreciate your comment on this piece because it was also quite painful to write about. I cannot express the gratitude I have for your words because it reassured my confidence about being in AP.

      Once again, thank you very much for your kind words,

      P.S. Honestly, I would read all the AP posts too when I’m gone. 😉

  2. Dearest Kelley,

    First of all, I would like to take this time to say the many many thanks which you deserve for being such a supportive and amazing member in our family group. Whenever I hit a blank, which happens more so than not, you are always so willing to help me and I’m grateful and humbled by your support. Above all, you always leave something for me to think about – be it in your writing or the silly arguments we have in class!!!

    The first thing that drew me in to read your post was the title, Barely Bilingual. It’s perfect and so original! As soon as I started reading this, I didn’t have to search to know it was your piece – you captivated your personal voice so beautifully. While reading through, I couldn’t help but think back to my life. My parents have made sure that me and my siblings never forget our mother tongue, and for that I am truly grateful. I am one of the fortunate ones for I can speak and partially write Malayalam – a south Indian language. However, just recently I came across my preschool handbook which had been stowed away in the depths of the attic. In it were swirling arabic letters. Surprised, I ran up to my parents who then informed me that I was once fluent in arabic (I lived in Dubai until I was 5). I went through the same trail of thinking as you and it was difficult to accept that a language I had once known had been completely deleted from my memory. It bothers me and there is no way I can re-attain it. I understand and relate to the feeling of having ‘lost’ something like this, and I’m so proud of you for regaining this lost treasure!! As for you writing, it was so beautiful and raw. Even the formatting is incredible, I truly enjoyed the way you were jumping forward and backward – bringing up past memories then leading it to the present, it is a true masterpiece!

    As for improvements, I really don’t have much to suggest, it is perfect the way it is!!! If anything, I would suggest relooking the formatting of the piece. I don’t know if it’s just for me, but the image beside ‘I remember in grade 10’ is not showing. Just to create more coherence, you could even more pictures!

    Overall, wonderful job Kelley! Your an amazing writing and an amazing friend. Keep shining, keep smiling!!!!!!!!! 😋

    Lots of Love,

    1. Dearest Hefseeba,

      First of all, thank you so much for your sincerity and positivity of your response! You are such an amazing and incredible friend, and I love that you’re in my family group this year! As for my side, the wisdom that are laced between your words shock me whenever we’re having a discussion and you are such an amazing writer; I want you to know that.
      Anyway, I’m really happy that you shared your story with me and I really appreciate your advice! As for the formatting, the image is showing on my screen, so I’m not sure how to fix that…

      Lots of love and hugs,

  3. Dear Kelley,

    Thank you for writing such an important piece. It really means a lot for those of us who struggle in retaining the language of our upbringing, and I truly don’t know anyone else who could’ve written a piece like this in a more beautiful and thought-provoking manner. Thank you.

    I really love the imagery that you used throughout your blog in order to set the scene, whether it was the description of Asian features, the recollection of memories of a childhood long past, or the use of a cup of water as a metaphor for language. You described each of these scenes so skillfully that you were able to conjure up the sentiments springing from my own history and my own experience with the subject matter. I especially enjoyed your anecdotes – they were filled with such emotion that I, too, felt as if I was in your shoes. Thanks especially to your diction and style, I was able to feel the longing, as well as the regret, of letting a childhood language slip away. You, Kelley, are one amazing storyteller! Keep it up!

    In regards to improvement, I saw nothing too major that you could improve upon. However, I did notice a couple of minor grammar and punctuation errors: the use of the semicolon in “…my pale skin; Asian features.” (I would suggest a dash instead), and the use of “me” instead of “I” in “…me and my sister lived…” However, these do not detract from the strength of your piece and I’m sure that they could be easily fixed!

    All in all, I was greatly moved by your post! Having lost the fluency of my childhood language as well, this post really speaks to me. I am greatly encouraged by the sense of hope with which you ended your piece. I am so glad that you are trying your best to retrieve the language of your childhood – you inspire me to do the same.

    Ever yours,

    P.S. Your French accent is not horrible at all! 🙂

    1. Dearest Jieo,

      Thank you very much for your kind words! I’ve been planning to write this piece for a while, and I’m happy that you were able to relate to it as well. I’ll fix those grammar mistakes in a jiffy, and once again, thanks for taking your time to read my blog!


      P.S. Your French accent puts everyone else’s to shame 😛

  4. Dearest Kelley,

    I have not found many instances in this life in which another person has been able to dig so deep within themselves and still leave a lasting impression upon me. What I mean is, it is incredibly rare in this chaotic world for two people come to agreement, much less leave a lasting impression. And yet, that is something you have done through this blog post. You’ve managed to ignite my little spark of meaningful, raw emotional connection – for that, I thank you so much.

    I want to start off by saying, you have a very distinct tone throughout your writing, this tone captivates and draws in readers incredibly well. Allowing one to be very absorbed: almost as if you were reading this to me. Furthermore, I loved the creamy and descriptive language that you inserted, they all really added to the richness of your anecdote. Not only that, the way you utilize the 5 senses into your writing allows me to morph into your thoughts, almost becoming you in that instance – a snapshot of your story.

    Regarding your anecdote about your grandfather, I could almost cry – that truly resonated with me. My back story is similar to this, however, my parents always had a strong desire for me to keep my mother tongue – Mandarin. But it was hard to upkeep growing up around a culture so different to it. I remember visiting China a few summers ago and only then had I realized how much of my own culture I had suppressed in order to blend in; I was sitting around a dinner table filled with my family, yet, hardly understanding a word of the conversations. It had made me feel so isolated amidst the crowded table. Since then, as you had said in your story, I have been trying to find that delicate balance. Thank you for ending this on such a positive and hopeful note, it’s like a little push for me to continue my own journey in this hard, hard world.

    In terms of improvement, the only advice I’d suggest is to weave a bit more cohesiveness throughout the piece; for, I feel as if you could have added unity in tying the three main parts together either with a common theme or perhaps a transition sentence. Other than that, flawlessly written Kelley!

    Lots of love hehe,
    Judy 🙂

    1. Dearest Judy,

      Awww, thanks so much for reading my blog post! I haven’t realized I inputted the five senses into my writing; I really appreciate you pointing that out. Thank you for sharing your own experiences with me, and you put that in words that really resonated with me as well (about feeling isolated at a crowded table). I’ll try for more coherence and unity on my next blog!

      Smiles and Hugs,
      Kelley 🙂

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