Entering a classroom to learn a language is always a strange, intimidating thing — especially if it’s something you abandoned two decades ago because the lessons were so daunting.
Like many Chinese-Australians, my parents sent me to Chinese school as a kid. Since Dad was from Hong Kong and Mum grew up in Taiwan, Mandarin was their common Chinese language.
Every Saturday, I’d wrestle with the mother tongue in an old demountable at the local public school with half a dozen other Chinese kids. Our boredom was palpable. Each of us lost in our daydream of relative normalcy.
Back then, I’d wanted to go join a basketball team and play on Saturdays like all my friends did. The irony is, I was being conscripted to learn a language I barely even used at home. My parents, both tertiary educated, primarily spoke to me in English. So beyond answering the occasional phone call from long distance relatives, I got away without knowing any Mandarin.
Going to Chinese school compounded my sense of foreign-ness. As a 90s kid growing up at the height of the One Nation frenzy, I’d wanted to feel less conspicuous, less ‘Chinese’. It was because of that sense of resistance, perhaps, that despite going for years, l could barely converse in Mandarin. In the end, I dropped out after high school had started. And the pinyin, the calligraphy, the awkward weekly lessons— all quickly became a distant memory.
Now, nearly two decades later, any nagging anxiety about not feeling ‘Australian’ enough is long gone. I do, however, feel a sense of embarrassment about being a Chinese-Australian who couldn’t speak Mandarin. No matter how many Lunar New Year celebrations I’ve attended or how much I’ve read about Chinese culture, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of somehow being less ‘legitimately Chinese’, not knowing the language.
This hit home the hardest during my first trip to China, where my inability to speak Mandarin wasn’t just a sidebar about who I am, but an actual barrier to communicating to those around me.
So for the past 18 months, I’ve been taking weekly evening classes to learn Mandarin. My mum didn’t say much after I broke the news, but I could sense that she was both surprised and happy. After telling her about the night classes, she’d started speaking to me more in Mandarin and about Chinese culture in general more enthusiastically.
As a 90s kid growing up at the height of the One Nation frenzy, I’d wanted to feel less conspicuous, less ‘Chinese'
Unlike the Saturday classes of my childhood, there was a lot more diversity in my new evening classes. Some people had Chinese heritage, others did not. Some could speak other Chinese dialects but not Mandarin. Our common thread was that everyone wanted to be there and was interested in learning the language.
My attitude is different this time around, too. I study outside of class, do my homework, readings, and even find myself practising on Duolingo. The hardest thing is still struggling with the different tones and pronunciation as I did when I was a kid. But in spite of all this, I feel like I’m finally making progress.
What takes me by surprise is when non-Chinese students sometimes assume that I’d be better than them, as if one can pick up a language purely from something in your DNA. While there is no overt pressure, you do feel that learning Mandarin should come more easily because of your family history. It feels strange to be a beginner at a language, but are seen as much better than you consider yourself to be.
No matter how many Lunar New Year celebrations I’ve attended or how much I’ve read about Chinese culture, I still couldn’t shake the feeling of somehow being less ‘legitimately Chinese’, not knowing the language.
Working in Haymarket — near Sydney’s Chinatown — means I’ve been able to practice a little outside of class. Every time I enter a Chinese restaurant, manage to read (some) of the menu and order in Mandarin feels like a small victory. At a restaurant I visit near work, the staff often greet me in Mandarin. In the past, I would’ve responded in English, but now I can carry a conversation fairly confidently. I’ve also tried to work more Mandarin into my conversations with Mum, even though it comes out in mostly in a hybrid form. When my mum asks whether I wanted to take something home when I visit, for instance, I’d say, “Bùyào (no thanks), I have too much already.”
In a way, I feel I’ve come full circle — from a reluctant student who pushed back on their heritage to someone who now has an active interest in their cultural roots. Not only has my second-chance Chinese class brought me closer to my parents, but it’s made me realise that sending me to learn Mandarin was about sharing a sense of where we came from, even though they may not have been able to articulate it.
I’m not sure if I’ll ever reach the point where I’ll have enough Mandarin to discuss politics or describe an artwork in detail. But I hope that next time I visit China, I’ll feel more at home in my Chinese-Australian skin.
Osmond Chiu is the Secretary of the NSW Fabians and works as a policy officer for a trade union. Follow them on Twitter @redrabbleroz
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_