Two days after finding out her mother had cancer, journalist Melissa Hung took a walk in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“I didn’t grow up in a Chinatown. It is not my home,” Hung writes. “Yet when I think of my mother in Texas, I feel pulled towards Chinatown’s tightly packed stores and no-frills restaurants.”
In her piece, “Towards Chinatown,” Hung describes her experiences on a bus ride, walking through the streets and seeing people shop, eat and move throughout their day. She moves around the city feeling a sense of loss. The journey is meant to take her closer to her mother, and it inevitably has her reflecting on her mother tongue: Cantonese.
“Some words come easily. Others I grasp for,” she writes. “They exist just beyond my reach the way the details of a dream tease the waking mind.”
Hung’s parents immigrated from Hong Kong, and she and her brother were born and raised in the U.S. They grew up speaking Cantonese in the house and English in school – Hung was placed in English as a Second Language classes as a kid – and when she was about eight years old, her parents made a conscious decision to switch to English-only. “My Cantonese freezes in time,” she writes, and English takes over.
Today, Hung’s Cantonese is just enough to get by, but she’s not able to have nuanced conversations – to follow a newscast, or talk art and politics, as she says. And she wonders what has been lost as a result of not being fluent in Cantonese. “I fear that some fundamental part of me has been displaced, that my inability to speak fluently renders me incomplete,” she writes. And beyond that, her connection to her family, “By losing my relationship to Cantonese, what have I lost in my relationship with my parents?”
WHAT’S LOST WHEN YOU LOSE A HERITAGE LANGUAGE?
According to 2019 data, there are nearly 5.1 million English learners enrolled in public schools in this country, and that number has steadily increased in the past two decades. Similar to Hung’s school experience, many students are taken out of class and placed in separate ESL learning rooms. Often parents are faced with a choice that involves investing more in English language learning than their heritage language. It’s a common experience for recent immigrants to the U.S. or children of immigrants.