Jenny Liao is relearning Cantonese after years of rejecting it, saying she was inspired by the sense of community that came as a result of anti-Asian hate crimes fueled by the pandemic.
“As I relearn Cantonese, I feel myself becoming closer to my parents,” Liao, 32, said. “And that’s a gap that might take a lifetime to close.”
The Los Angeles-based Asian American writer grew up speaking Cantonese at home in New York City. But her fluency dissipated as she prioritized speaking English due to the racism she experienced as a child, she said. Now, she can barely speak Cantonese beyond basic phrases.
“That cost me the most important tie — to my culture and to my parents — which is the ability to communicate with them, and to talk to them.”
Her mother, Huizhen, says she understands why her children would prioritize English over Cantonese. Though she doesn’t understand English, she was aware of the racist teasing her children endured at school, and their urgent need to show they belonged by speaking only English.
Now, because none of her three children is fluent in Cantonese anymore, a lot of their conversations are carried through the help of translation apps.
“If I don’t have my phone handy or my laptop handy, it’s just kind of like a guessing game.” Liao said.
To study Cantonese, she is using a language learning app to rebuild her vocabulary, calling her parents more often to practice with them, and immersing herself in Cantonese movies. Liao hopes one day she will have a sophisticated conversation with her parents without relying on translation apps.
“And for me, definitely prioritizing my ability to talk to my parents is my way of telling them that I love them and they mean a lot to me.”