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Cathy Su | Reconnecting To Chinese Culture and Language

Culturestride Culturestride Sep 21, 2020 · 8 mins read
Cathy Su | Reconnecting To Chinese Culture and Language
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Hi there! My name is Cathy. I graduated in 2019 with a Commerce degree from UNSW and currently work full-time in financial services. Outside of the 9 to 5 routine, you will find me making a nice cup of coffee using an Aeropress or a Chemex, cooking and experimenting with food, and going on a hike or a bushwalk. I am the youngest in my family, just like how my mum and dad (by the way, he has 7 siblings…) are the youngest in theirs.

I was born and raised in Australia and grew up mostly in inner west Sydney. Like most immigrant families, my parents immigrated to Australia to seek a better life. My mum worked as a nurse in numerous nursing homes and my dad worked as a machine operator at a plastics manufacturing company.

They were busy people, worked hard to financially provide and were rarely home. My dad would work the afternoon to midnight shift full-time during the week and my mother mostly did overnight shift work during the week and afternoon to night shifts on the weekends.

I went to a somewhat diverse primary school, but the majority of the students were of European descent. There were a few Chinese students at the school, and the school offered Community Languages. For me, because my ethnicity is Chinese, I was a “background speaker” and was automatically enrolled in Chinese classes that occurred once or twice a week, which was mandatory for me to attend. I didn’t really enjoy Chinese class, found it boring and when the Selective Test preparation season was approaching, I found it convenient to get my parents to use the preparation season as an excuse to get me out of these classes.

I believe that due to my home environment and that I wasn’t keen on learning Chinese as a child were factors that reinforced my ABC (Australian-born Chinese) identity - my parents conversed in Cantonese and Mandarin with me but I’d respond in English. And I had no problem with that.

This continued into my high school years - I had the choice of selecting Chinese as an elective from Year 9 onwards as well as the HSC, but I didn’t even give it a try at all because I knew my proficiency would be laughable for someone who is Chinese, particularly in front of other background speaking students who were WAY better than me.

With constant pressure from my parents and passing comments of “you are Chinese, you must speak Chinese” from my extended family and aweing in wonder of how other background speakers were able to speak their mother tongue, I began to see how disconnected I was to my roots and the shame gradually started entering my life.

Cathy Su
2002 → 2020

I slowly became reacquainted with my roots when my Mum, sister and I started attending a local Chinese church and ultimately became Christians. My mum became very close with some lovely Chinese aunties and they eventually got to know my face. Because there were so many people who attended our church, at times they were unable to find my mum just so they could have a chat, so what they did was they would walk up to me on the lawn and ask in Cantonese, mixed with minimal broken English - “lei Mummy hei bin dou?” which means “where is your Mum?”. Because my Chinese was not great, all I could do was reply in English. I was fortunate that some of the aunties could understand English, but deep inside, I felt a little guilty that I wasn’t able to reply back with my mother tongue.

Cathy Su

My mum passed away in 2018 from a terminal illness, and this was the catalyst that eventually led me to really take learning Chinese seriously. I had regrets of not making an effort to converse in her mother tongue at home, and recalled the times I ran away from the phone when she wanted me to greet my grandparents in Cantonese because I was ashamed of not being able to converse with them.

I took the loss hard, however, the opportunity to visit my family could not have come at a better time as it had been a decade since I last visited China. My trip lasted a short 10 days, visiting my mum and dad’s hometown, as well as Shenzhen, where my 舅父 (uncle, mum’s younger brother) lives aka. the Silicon Valley of China.

Cathy Su
View of the Shenzhen skyline at Shenzhen Museum

Because my Dad was with us on the trip, he was mostly our “translator” at the time. I could feel the frustration when I couldn’t form sentences in Chinese and had to get him to translate or he couldn’t accurately translate our words. I was brought to tears during the trip as I was finally reunited with my grandparents again after 10 years and saw the image of my mum in them, and I was overwhelmed by the kindness and Southern Chinese hospitality I received from my mum’s relatives when we had gathered for a 10 course family reunion dinner despite knowing that they would encounter a cultural and language barrier when interacting with me because I couldn’t speak fluently.

They had taken their time to say a few words of strength and encouragement now that my mum was no longer with me. “保重”, which means “take care” was what I had heard from them most of the night. Though they did not shed a tear, I could sense that the loss of my mother shattered their hearts, especially with one of the aunties who approached me and said “you really look like your mum”.

And here I was, standing awkwardly, nodding and acknowledging what their words of comfort and strength, yet I still couldn’t form a solid and culturally accurate response fluently other than saying “谢谢“ (thank you). I couldn’t find the right words to give them the assurance that I had stored up their words in my heart.

Cathy Su
Reunited with my grandparents after a decade in Guangzhou

Reconnecting with my roots has made me more adventurous. I had returned to China again in late 2019 with my sister for a month-long holiday, visiting our parents’ hometowns as well as visiting other cities for the first time - Guilin, Chongqing, Beijing, Huangshan and Hangzhou.

We were brave enough to explore China ourselves despite our limited proficiency but the adventure excited us. China was more than just the food, fighting over who will pay the bill and the festivals. We saw the beauty and history of the country outside of the popular, metropolitan cities, had a taste of the many different dialects and developed confidence in picking up the language again.

Though we relied on our Translate apps (a lot) and the Lonely Planet phrasebook, we were surprised by the patience of some of the locals when we explained to them that our parents immigrated to Australia and our Chinese wasn’t great but they saw that we tried and even complimented at times that they had understood us anyway despite our poor tone and broken sentences. I had expected to receive shame from these locals from not knowing our mother tongue but I received empathy and understanding instead.

I didn’t want to fall behind in Chinese again, so I returned home and conveniently, Culturestride popped on my radar on LinkedIn.

Cathy Su
Hiked Huangshan for 12 hours!

I consider myself to not be a very ambitious person and I try not to dwell on past shortcomings, but if I were to give advice to my younger self, I’d say that you will never know unless you try.

I didn’t take the chance to learn and practice Chinese during my student years, the years where I would’ve had a lot of freedom and time to build my proficiency. Because of this, I missed opportunities of bonding with Chinese aunties and elders who I’m not related to by blood yet they treated me like I was their daughter, having conversations with my wonderful extended family, some who are in their 70’s and 80’s and are in retirement villages or will enter soon.

If I had tried earlier and made a few mistakes along the way, at least I would have failed earlier and fast, and my proficiency level would be higher than it is today. But I am satisfied knowing that in the recent visits to China, I got out of my comfort zone and practiced speaking with the locals, and became more confident in speaking in Chinese at family gatherings with my cousins who also live in Australia, which caught them by surprise because I was that cousin who just only “spoke English”.

The fruit of my efforts were and still are very visible.

This article is an entry into Culturestride’s “Cross Borders” Article Series highlighting inspirational young people who are exploring international culture, language and opportunities.

Culturestride is an online Mandarin language platform helping you learn Mandarin communicatively and socially with students like Cathy. We offer a free Theory and Practical class for every new student to try out the platform, learn more about Culturestride classes here.

Written by Culturestride
Culturestride is creating a more connected and empathetic world through online language education.