Growing up as a bilingual child, I remember my Father telling me that I would speak to the neighbours in Mandarin with a Kiwi accent! It was before I started learning to speak English, and I could only get a grasp of what English sounded like. Mandarin is the first language I grew up listening, reading, writing and speaking. It’s also common that some Asians that grew up in New Zealand may prefer speaking in English with their friends. Language connects us with one another. It allows understanding, embracing one’s culture and communicating with more people.
The most common Chinese dialect is Mandarin (Putonghua), and it is the most widely spoken language in the world with over a billion speaking Mandarin. Growing up in a Western country, it’s easy to speak English for predominantly most of the time. Exposure is important. When I was younger, my parents would read books to us, and my favourite were the ones by 幾米. They had these beautiful, colourful illustrations, and moving stories. The more we speak a language, the more we connect with those who speak it. Your mother tongue can strengthen your cultural ties and allows you to communicate freely with your family.
English was one of my favourite subjects growing up, as I’ve always loved reading and writing. I like to joke that English runs in the family, as my grandfather and Uncle were English professors in Taiwan. In the article by Amy Tan titled Mother Tongue, she talks about her experiences of the Englishes she grew up speaking. I highly recommend reading it, as it allows us to understand the power of language. I truly feel that if we don’t keep our mother tongue alive, we may risk losing a part of ourselves.
What is your Mother Tongue?
Photography by Sun Jun
This is a thought that’s been on my mind, ever since I’ve been curious to discover more about my cultural roots. My family background originates from China, with my grandparents originating from Shanghai, Hunan and Xiamen. My parents were born in Taiwan. However, it’s interesting how there is always this desire to identify oneself. We are all so unique as individuals. These ideas of identity are social constructions, yet they often help us feel a sense of belonging in a group.
Taiwan and New Zealand are where my family are. Taiwan is where I’ve visited once or twice a year since I was four years old. New Zealand is where I was born and raised, and so both places have a special place in my heart, and are where I call home. Growing up, I didn’t have any close Asian friends, and most of my friends were White/Eurasian. When I moved out of home and into the city at sixteen, I realised that there was a huge Asian community in the city.
When I meet people, I introduce myself as Katie. My Chinese name is 郭天仁, and the 郭 ( guō) literally means a wall surrounding the city. It’s one of the most common Chinese surnames. Many of the people who have the surname are descendants of Han Chinese. The word 天 (tiān) means sky, heaven and God. The word 仁 (rén) means kindness, benevolent and righteous. I was named by my 奶奶 (Grandmother), and even though I’m not often called by my Chinese name, it holds a special place in my heart.
My Chinese name is considered quite gender neutral, or maybe a bit tomboy because it’s not a very feminine name. Some of the ways that I identify myself: a woman, daughter, sister, niece and friend. I’m a Taiwanese New Zealander, but I’m also Chinese because of my family background. I’m a creative, independent, understanding, caring, kind and empathetic person. There is a way that people perceive one another in the public, but I always feel like there’s this mystery in each person.
We don’t really know anyone, really. It’s not until we dig deeper, spend time getting to know someone and opening up to friends that we can see beneath the layers. No matter what, it’s only you and you alone that holds your identity. It goes for our attitude in life, and whether we identify ourselves as a positive, hardworking and engaging person or the opposite. Identity can have huge affects in our daily life, because they can affect our thoughts and actions.
The importance is not to limit yourself. I think of New Zealand, and how anyone who calls it home here are a Kiwi. It doesn’t matter if you moved here a year ago or have spent a life time here. It’s also small things, such as when I hear someone is vegetarian or don’t eat much meat, I feel glad that they may share similar values in that respect. I don’t think our job title, income and materials define us. I think it’s our actions, how we treat one another, where we call home and the language we speak that can be parts of our identity.
Most of all our personality, because that’s something that’s completely different in every person. I love being in nature, and consider myself a sensitive person. I used to be painfully shy when I was a child, but I was completely myself at home, and was silly, cheeky and laughed a lot. But it sort of shows how it’s so easy for the outside world to see one another a certain way, but there are certain parts of ourselves that won’t always be revealed to everyone.