Rediscovering My Mother Tongue

I loved my native language growing up.

I was always either reading or writing, mostly stories and occasionally poetry. I had a little notebook that I carried around, and I would write down all these random sentences that popped into my head throughout the day. If I didn’t have it on me, I would write it down on my desk. I spent half of my waking hours thinking about new ways to word things, and my dream was to become a writer one day.

But all that changed when I went to secondary school. I became interested in learning English, thanks to High School Musical. I was also struggling to adapt to my new school, where everything was taught in Malay and English. I’d gone to a Chinese primary school, where everything was taught in Mandarin Chinese, so my Malay and English skills were horrible. I could barely understand anything – the lessons, the announcements at the assembly, what my teachers and classmates were saying.

Most of my classmates spoke English, and some of them would make fun of me for my lack of fluency. There was the general feeling that speaking Mandarin Chinese was uncool, as was being someone who’d gone to a Chinese school instead of a regular one like everyone else. On top of that, I was having trouble fitting in with the only Mandarin-speaking kids in my class.

I was utterly alone. It was a lonely year. I spent a lot of time by myself, and many sleepless nights crying into my pillow wishing that things were different, that I were different, or that I didn’t exist. And then, determined to survive, I decided to set my native language aside to focus solely on improving my English and Malay skills.

Over time, I even came to reject it completely – I cut off all input in Mandarin and stopped listening to Chinese songs, watching Chinese shows or reading Chinese books. I stopped writing altogether. I pretty much cut my own mother tongue out of my life, barring the minimal input I got from my daily conversations with my family, and the Mandarin classes my parents insisted I took at school.

I grew to resent the fact that my native language was Mandarin Chinese. It’s sad, looking back at how desperately I tried to rid myself of anything remotely Chinese. You don’t need a psychology degree to know that it came from a self-loathing place. The feeling of being constantly punished for being who you are can do that to you, and it takes a lot of hatred and shame for a person to shun the only language that they’re fluent in, because doing that means you lose all – or close to all – means of expressing your thoughts and connecting with the outside world.

So little by little, my Chinese skills eroded. It wasn’t apparent right away, though. I had a pretty solid base. I was the best in my year throughout all 6 years of my primary education, and in Standard 6, I represented our school in the regional tournament (where we compete to see who’s the best in the language – yeah, that’s a thing), where I won the grand prize. I had a lot of pride when it came to my skills in the language, and looking back, I’m honestly surprised and a little saddened by my readiness to abandon it. I couldn’t wait to, in fact. For some reason, I thought it was holding me back.

I still did pretty well in my Mandarin class at school, which in all fairness wasn’t really that much harder than the stuff we used to do in primary school. But I stopped progressing. I didn’t think I was going to lose it, though. After all, it’s my native language. It’s the first language I ever spoke in. I read literature and wrote stories and poems in it. I can’t possibly lose it, right?

It didn’t really hit me until around 8 years later, one day, when I saw my little sister doing her homework. She was 15 years old, and unlike me, she went to a private secondary school where everything was taught in Mandarin. I took one look at the textbook she was reading – I think they were analysing a classical poem – and realised I couldn’t understand a single thing. I know what you’re thinking – come on, it’s a classical poem. But I used to be able to read them. Now I don’t even remember how to pronounce half of the words in there.

I think that was when I realised the full consequences of my neglect – or maybe rejection’s the better word. I tried writing again, but of course I could barely get a word out. I wanted to go through my old stuff, just to see if it would give me some inspiration, only to realise that I had gotten rid of them a long time ago, thinking they were an embarrassment.

(A side note: A few months ago, I did stumble across something I forgot to toss out. The words were so unfamiliar that if I didn’t find it sitting in my drawer, I would have thought someone else wrote it. I’m still kind of sad about it.)

Sure, I could still get by in the language. Read the paper, order a coffee, make a phone call. But it wasn’t enough. And it would never be, not even with my target languages. When I say I love languages, I truly mean it. I want to be able to read poems and weep, to feel the emotions in words, to express my thoughts fully and gracefully.

Even today, there are still things I don’t know how to articulate in Mandarin. Not naturally, anyway. And that’s something I never thought I’d ever say about my own native language. But it’s true. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like my native language anymore.

I did briefly try to regain some of it after graduating college, by reconnecting with Chinese pop culture, but it was harder than I thought. I had no idea what music people listened to, what movies or shows they watched – I didn’t even know anyone who did.

I tried to start reading again, but nothing felt right. I’m not sure what was the problem, but something wasn’t clicking. Maybe it was the timing, or maybe I just wasn’t in the right frame of mind. Everything felt alien and uncomfortable, and eventually, I gave up.

Fast forward to 2 years ago, I met a new friend, Han Qin.

She’s my pen-pal, 2 years younger than me and currently living in Shanghai. She loves classical music, has a penchant for poetry and is an expert in tea. She reads a lot, which shows in her elegant prose. I remember thinking, when I read her first letter, that she was everything my 12-year-old self wanted to be. I might have cried a little, and I think it rekindled in me something that I didn’t even know was still there.

She would tell me about her favourite songs, books and shows. She would share with me snippets of the stories that she’s writing, and quotes from her favourite poems, usually accompanied by pictures that she took herself.

Her letters were like a window to the world I had lost the key to – I started watching the shows and listening to the songs that she recommended. I would draft my letter on the computer and reread them over and over again to make sure there were no mistakes before transferring them to paper. I haven’t put this much effort into handwriting anything since I was a kid, putting down every stroke with care and intent, because I want everything to be perfect. I feel like a student again, in the best way possible.

And there’s something else I can’t quite put my finger on. A tender, hesitant kind of joy – happy, yet uncertain, as if the joy could vanish any moment. I suppose it’s a bit like reconciling with an old friend that you had a fall-out with a long time ago.

I don’t know what exactly made the difference this time around. Was it my friend? Or perhaps she just appeared at the right place, at the right time? If I’d met her 5 years ago, would things have turned out the same? I’m not sure, but I’m grateful for this second chance anyway.

And that’s how I fell back in touch with my native language. I just finished reading my first Chinese book in years, and I ordered a couple more yesterday. I’m currently creating materials for Mandarin Chinese learners, and I’m thinking about starting a journal project to practice my writing skills.

And maybe, just maybe, the little girl who got lost will finally find her way home again.