I say I grew up bilingual, but the truth is more about loss than duality. My earliest language was Mandarin, spoken by caregivers in the Taipei foster home where I awaited adoption for the first nine months of my life. When I arrived at my parents’ home in California, Mandarin was replaced by my family’s southern village dialect of Cantonese—my first language extinction. Like many first-generation children of immigrants, my parents’ mother tongue carried me through age four, when I started school. English was introduced like an invasive species—devouring, crowding out, and multiplying through every television show and new friend. And yet, English did what it was supposed to do: provided access, made me less afraid. What do you call an invasive species that the ecosystem comes to depend on?
Even as language widened the gulf between us, my mom and I shared a linguistic intimacy: parallel ossification. Her English and my Cantonese grew bone-hard, losing the suppleness required to overcome recurring errors, blanks, or broken connections. With her, I now speak what Amy Tan calls a daughter’s dialect, able to express only what a child can express to a mother: hungry, tired, full, please.
In high school, I began learning Spanish. The grammar clicked in me. I could mimic friends’ accents, my tongue somehow agile in ways it no longer was with Cantonese. After four years of study, I started to describe myself as bilingual. A lesson in the first year haunted me: Our words for things are arbitrary. Words come from us, not the thing itself. The distance between me and my parents is an accretion of words. Yet words, and by extension our alienation, were randomly assigned. Words themselves did not contain the essence of daughter or nui, for that would make one word less true than the other. Words could not measure the distance between my parents asking in one language and my answering in another.
In 2015, my husband’s teaching assignment brought our family to his university’s Madrid campus for the spring semester. We arrived with our four-year-old and one-year-old, breathless before the city’s beauty, its pace and height. Hapless exchanges in Spanish with the super and a pharmacist on our first day sank my confidence. For the entire semester, I was unable to relax, constantly defensive and over-prepared, never knowing if my vocabulary would get me through the task at hand. Easily overwhelmed, I pretended to understand far more than I did, rehearsing every possible interaction, then retreating into silence as often as I could. My oldest threw tantrums whenever I held a conversation for more than a few moments, as if not being able to understand her mother was frightening.
For most of our time in Madrid, I was slow, tangled, and ungrounded. When I finally saw pictures from that time, I realized that we had managed to buy groceries, eat out, hire sitters, hail taxis, enroll in ballet and music classes. In truth, we lived well, and people were extraordinarily generous and patient. Still I’d felt lost and inadequate, slightly unreal. My weariness came from inhabiting a slightly different version of myself, waiting for the real me to return once we landed back home.
When I found it meaningless to hear I love you in Spanish, I thought of all the ways my mom needed her mother tongue for a sense of grounding and reality. She counted and measured only in Cantonese. Any words of care, from eat slowly to sleep early, came out in Cantonese, as did words of anger. And so her care and her anger, her superstitions and stories, all drifted on her side of the gulf. All of my words for desire and the future remained on mine. Each of our languages of intimacy was the other’s language of limitation. I wish I could say my empathy for my mom grew after living in Madrid. But my mind only raced ahead to our return to the states in May. For fifty years in her adopted country, my mom has held the desire for such relief.