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From shame to pride: Why I lost my Cantonese and want to get it back

From shame to pride: Why I lost my Cantonese and want to get it back
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“You are in Canada now, speak English,” she said to us.

It was recess, and I was playing hopscotch.

Why my teacher told us to speak English that day, when we had already been speaking English, baffled my young mind. But even as a six-year-old, I guessed it had something to do with the fact that my friends and I were all ethnically Chinese.

By that time, English was already the language in which I was most proficient. Cantonese, the Chinese dialect my parents, grandparents and more than half a million people in Canada speak — and the first language I learned — was already fading in me.

But that experience pushed me to distance myself from anything that might lead people to believe I was different. I could speak Cantonese. That made me different.

New friends would sometimes ask me, “Do you speak Chinese?” And I would immediately tell them no, of course not. I speak English. And only English.

It was a lie.

My parents, who moved to Vancouver from Hong Kong at the ages of 13 and 14, switched between Cantonese and English at home. I understood Cantonese. I ate Cantonese food. I am Cantonese.
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