I can’t speak in my mother tongue

I was brainstorming for a new topic/style of writing…and this little incident came up from the back of my mind.

Warning: this is a super long post.  If this isn’t your thing, click away, I’m not making you stay.  If it sounds like a good idea, grab yourself a cuppa, get comfy, and let’s begin!

Flashback to February in Nice, France.  I was travelling in Côte d’Azur with two of my friends, taking a break from the lovely gloomy British weather in the French Riviera for some sunshine and ocean.  We had a really good time around places like Nice, Cannes, Menton and Monaco.

*inserts Mr Bean’s Holiday background music*

Our ethnicity (Chinese) obviously gave it away that we are tourists from another country (or continent even?).  So we found out something interesting on our first day already – when the servers at the restaurants asked where are we from, and if we say London, they would ask ‘but where are you really from?’

I know, I know.  I probably don’t have the right to be angry.  We aren’t even proper British Chinese who grew up in the UK, or third generation Asian Americans who still get picked on and asked ‘where are you really from’.  But identity is a very complicated matter, and our case is even more complicated.  The three of us weren’t born in the UK, we didn’t come to the country until our teenage years, and (although my friends are legit British citizens and I am sort of a British national as well) we technically didn’t really migrate to the country either.  But I would quite confidently say that we have all adapted to the British lifestyle to a certain degree.  By the end of my university degree I’ve lived in the UK for 5 years (which is 1/4 of my life so far), same for friend #2, but friend #3 would have lived in the UK for 7 years by the end of this year (and still counting).  Although we used to go back to Hong Kong now and then for holidays, we have already started to call England home.

And this weird identity thing as well.  As snobby as this might sound, our lifestyle is a lil different from the mainstream in Hong Kong, since we spent a lot of our time in the UK, adapting to all the habits and culture.  In this age of globalisation, I think pretty much everyone in the world has been affected by a culture or lifestyle different from their own.  Homogenisation of culture, Americanisation, Glocalisation, McDonald’s.  The boundary between ‘us’ and ‘them’ is blurring, and it’s hard to tell ‘our own’ and ‘theirs’ (well arguable now, but again, this isn’t a human geography essay, so I’ll stop here).  Since we’ve lived abroad, our identity is more hybrid than others.  Now that I’ve moved back to Hong Kong, I would obviously tell people that I am from here if I travel to another country.  But when I was living in London, there’s no problem whatsoever if I tell people that I’m from London, because I did spend most of my time in the year in the UK (fact: only been back in Hong Kong in mid August for the first time since 7th January).


Anyway back to our voyage.  We were in this restaurant on our third (?) night for dinner.  We read the menu outside and it looked good, so we decided to pop in.  As usual, the server asked us ‘where are you from?’  We said London.  He went on and asked ‘but where are you really from?’  We didn’t want to complicate matters – because Hong Kong itself is a very complicated and controversial story.  Long story short, we don’t really like it (well at least I don’t) when random people says ni hao to us (because we don’t even speak Mandarin in HK).  So to make things easier, we just said we are from London.  I could tell that the server wasn’t convinced.  But whatever, it’s just a meal, we aren’t gonna run into each other again anyway.

So after we placed our order, the server came and placed cutlery on our table.  After he’s done, he said to us in a criticising (and a little bit strident and/or sarcastic?) tone, ‘why aren’t you speaking English if you’re from London?

Okay wow.  Now you’re controlling what language do I speak with my friends?

Just to make things even more complicated, the three of us are all extremely fluent English speakers.  I don’t really know if I’m at native level accent-wise?  But my friends have a very strong British accent for sure.  But since we met in Hong Kong back in secondary school (our school wasn’t entirely international), we thought let’s just keep speaking Cantonese to each other till today.  We do speak English to each other sometimes, but I guess around 75% of our conversation are in Cantonese.

After the server said that and walked away, the three of us just looked at each other.  We were all too shocked and we didn’t know how to react to that.  A few moments later we decided to speak English to each other somehow.  But a few months later, here are my thoughts.

Firstly: why do you care so much where am I ‘really’ from?  So if we were caucasians would you criticise me if I told you we’re from the UK?  OR if I was White would you criticise me if I told you I was from Hong Kong?  Korea?  Kenya?  Or Guatemala?

Secondly: so apparently you can’t speak Cantonese if you’re from the UK.  What about first generation immigrants?  What about second/third/fourth/fifth+ generations Americans/British/Canadians/whatever who speak a non-English language to their parents/grandparents/great-grandparents? What about people in San Francisco?  When I went to SF in April, I was so happy to hear Cantonese announcements on the bus – that’s because of the major Cantonese population in the Bay Area.  I follow quite a few Asian American people on YouTube (Wong Fu Productions, CatCreature, Jenn Im), and they all have videos of them speaking Mandarin/Korean to their family.  I guess no one would argue with them when they say they are from America…????????

I don’t know.  I guess I am overreacting a little bit.   Maybe the server was just curious why were three ‘Londoners’ speaking a weird language.  Maybe he just wanted to know, but we took it as an offence.  Maybe it does make a difference that we spoke Cantonese to each other, but then I don’t understand why was the server so obsessed with finding out where we’re ‘really’ from.

But then maybe because Côte d’Azur/Nice is not so much a diverse area (like London), so people genuinely want to find out where everyone’s ‘from’.

Also of course I’m not against any particular culture/country/society, this could happen anywhere in the world.  And I do love France a lot.  And also, there’s also an issue of speaking English in Hong Kong as a HKer…but let’s not dig into this here today…

ALSO, when I went to California in March/April, when people asked my friend and I where we’re from and we said London, the conversation would just move on, instead of asking for our ancestry.  I’m guessing this could be because California is so much more culturally diverse, like what K Choi said in her video, that you could easily find second (and so on) generation Asians in California and not be weird at all.  But then again this could also be because I wasn’t with a fellow Asian/Chinese friend and we spoke English to each other, so…

To you all bilingual/multi-lingual people and global citizens out there, have you had any interesting experience regarding languages and/or ethnicities? I would love to hear about them…and see to what extent the majority of our world still judges people by their skin colour…

I’m probably way too sensitive and judgemental, but it’s just an experience that I had and would like to share.  You could definitely argue with me, leave a comment below, I would love to know what do you think about this.  Just tell me off.  But I’m just writing what is on my mind…hey this is MY blog, I write what I like to write ok??? Well ANYWAYS…

If you’ve made it here, THANK YOU SO MUCH, it must have been so hard to keep reading such a long article.  You deserve a treat, here you go. 

And until next time, take care and goodbyeeeeee!

Don’t be a stranger, stay connected!





Take care and see ya soon! <3

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