My mother and I don’t speak the same language, literally

I speak only English; my mom speaks only Chinese. We’ve spent our whole lives together trying to connect.

Lost in Translation

She’s going to hate me for writing this. When people ask me about my relationship with my mom, I describe it as a sort of demilitarized zone. It’s sensitive to ripples of tension that sour the air, and the people who inhabit it are prone to abrupt exits through separate doors, back to two worlds: one western, one traditional Chinese.

There’s a dramatic flair to that description, but the truth is my mom and I literally don’t speak the same language. I speak English; she speaks Chinese. In our linguistic Venn diagram, there’s a small, Chinglish overlap where we cobble together our relationship.

My mom came to Canada in 1986 because she wanted out of China. Always the leader in school, she delighted in compliments she received for her looks and her capacity to follow the rules. Those interactions sparked her desire for a life outside her sunny fishing village. After teachers’ college, she seized the first opportunity for escape: an arranged marriage to my dad, a Canadian citizen.

Those first few years in Canada were hard for her. She was an immigrant with no English, separated from her family and friends back in China. My parents’ first home was an apartment above my paternal grandparents’ Chinese-Canadian restaurant in Burlington, Ont. My dad, a high school math teacher, commuted to Toronto for work. My mom walked downstairs to help in the kitchen.

The firing woks warmed her growing belly during her pregnancy with me as she churned out orders of chow mein and chicken balls covered in that strange translucent red sauce. When I was born, the chaotic sounds of that restaurant became background noise, and my family’s Chinese baby babble shaped my first words. Although I was born in Canada, Chinese was my first language.

Soon, my parents enrolled me in an English-as-a-second-language daycare, and my mom signed up for her own English lessons. We started learning the language together, but it didn’t take long for me to outpace her. My interest in reading and writing Chinese quickly waned, and after my brother was born, the demands of motherhood and work forced my mom to drop her English classes. By age seven, I was sparring with her every weekend because I was hell-bent against going to Chinese school. By the time I was eight, she had finally given up. Her good intention to raise a bilingual child had been broken by tantrums.

And by my teenage years, our conversations consisted of the same few questions: “Are you hungry? Where are you going? With who?” and “Does this shirt fit you?” These Groundhog Day exchanges played on a loop and continued after I moved to Vancouver for university. “Hello where are you? Your dad is out. Are you walking alone? How much did you pay for your green beans?”

As an adult, it’s jarring to overhear my mom tell a story and understand only 40 percent of the words coming out of her mouth. And the Chinese that comes out of my own is so juvenile, my family mockingly calls me jook sing — a Cantonese label describing an overseas-born Chinese person with westernized values who can’t speak the ancestral tongue. I realize, in these moments, that my mom and I don’t have an easy parent-child relationship, and I often worry our language barrier might prevent us from ever truly understanding each other.

So when I was offered an opportunity to travel to London, England, for work last year, my first thought was my mom. At the time, I lived in Toronto, about 30 minutes away from her, but we talked only twice a week. She would ask if I had time to get dim sum, but I’d always have plans. My bad-daughter guilt began to gnaw at me. I had to reach out with a redemptive “sorry” gesture: I asked if she would join me in London. As soon as the invite left my mouth, panic came over me. I’d never spent more than a few hours alone with my mom since middle school, and our trip would last nine days. I wanted to show her how much of an adult I was: going on an overseas business trip, paying for meals where we’re expected to tip more than 10 percent (the standard at Chinese restaurants). But what the hell would we talk about?

On an October evening, we arrived at Heathrow Airport customs. A year and a half earlier, I had stood at the same polished counter for the first time. I had been travelling solo for two weeks and wanted to cross London off my travel list. My mom had tried to dissuade me from going on that trip. It flummoxed her why I wanted to travel without a man. She told me I was foolish to court danger.

I didn’t have the vocabulary to explain that my 10-year relationship with my boyfriend was ending. I tried to find the words to tell her how I had to get far away to ready myself for the riptide of emotions that comes with heartbreak. But what came out was some crappy Chinese stripped down to the most basic units of meaning: “I want to see new things.”

London is huge, and I was overly concerned I would lose my tiny mom in it. While I was working, she connected with two long-lost, London-based friends through WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app. They’d grown up in the same Taishan fishing village in the ’60s and ’70s, and they spent their days in London catching up, taking pictures in front of Buckingham Palace and Big Ben and fighting for the bill at restaurants.

A couple of days in, a routine emerged. I would leave the office and come back to the hotel to watch TV until my mom waltzed through the door, spirits high from a day of socializing. I watched her devour WeChat updates on her tablet for hours. In the dark, I’d look across to the other twin bed and see her face illuminated by the glow of the screen. I could hear her recording hushed audio messages. I didn’t really understand what she was saying, but I knew from the tone of her voice that she was responding to compliments over her touristy pictures . I felt left out, knowing she’d never speak to me that way — that I’d always receive a more sterile version. The trip wasn’t turning out to be the Asian Gilmore Girls kind I had hoped for.

Years of missed heart-to-heart conversations weighed heavier on me the more time we spent together. Yet on my days off, I eagerly paid for museum and gallery audio guides, hers in Chinese and mine in English — anything to avoid the growing tension between us. But then the inevitable happened: A lengthy walk along the Thames stirred an old animus between mother and daughter. Time was running out on the trip, and I wanted to learn more about her life; the familiar anecdotes she offered didn’t sate my curiosity. I kept prodding, asking her to give me more.

Sick of me questioning her, she finally exclaimed, in Chinese, “For the sake of your future partner, I hope you never get married!” I could feel the stunned expression on my face shift to anger. She didn’t look at me. Her face was resolute. With eyes fixed ahead, she told me she’d had enough of my poor Chinese. She blamed our broken relationship on my “wicked” pre-Chinese-school tantrums. And without missing a beat, I returned fire: “I’m tired of you not understanding English. You gave up on classes too.” I heard her sigh as I picked up my pace to walk ahead and cool down.

The 30-metre gap between us became 10, five, until we were side by side again. The sun had nearly gone down when we approached the Tate Modern. My mom complained that her knees hurt, so we went inside and wandered into an art exhibit. Lying on our backs in a darkened atrium, we watched motorized pulleys move suspended white panels up and down overhead. The sound of fake rain poured out of the speakers. We lay still, in the middle of the storm. I closed my eyes and bemoaned our situation. How did we get here?

I traced the trajectories of our lives, which were completely different. By the time she was my age, she’d already had me and was pregnant with my brother. I, on the other hand, am childless and have chosen to focus on my career. I thought about the anti-immigrant sentiment that fuelled Brexit and the election of Trump and that has surfaced in Canada — the kind that looks down on immigrants for not speaking the language of their chosen countries. Had I become that voice in my mother’s head, berating her for not speaking my language?

For years, I’d resented her for not sticking to her language courses, but now I realized how deeply hypocritical that was. She may not be the Lorelai to my Rory, but she had always shown up for me in her own way. Like the time she shouted down a McDonald’s manager, asking why he forgot my cheeseburger. I was 10 at the time, crying, because my first attempt to order for myself had gone awry. She did this for me despite her limited English skills.

I’d spent a good part of my life pushing away from her, but I was really pushing away from my own guilt and frustration. My broken Chinese is the only key I have to a huge part of my identity — and to my mom. It was time to make peace with our imperfect relationship. Soon, the thunderstorm soundtrack faded and the pulleys overhead stopped whirring. The lights came on, and turned toward her. She looked so vulnerable and tranquil. Her eyes were still closed, so she didn’t see me smile.

Zi-Ann Lum is a news editor with HuffPost Canada.

Diane Keaton recently revealed that she doesn’t have any friends. Can you relate?
Subscribe to our newsletters
I’m plus-size, I love fashion and I’m not alone. So where are all the killer clothes?

Get Chatelaine in your inbox!

Our very best stories, recipes, style and shopping tips, horoscopes and special offers. Delivered a couple of times a week.