I’ve never been a linguist. No amount of toil or prolonged manic Duolingo frenzy has ever or will ever change this. Nor will beginner podcasts, exchange trips, Quizlet revision lists, pen pals, foreign television, conversations with bilingual friends, or manifestation. Yes, I really have tried every possible option. I don’t mean to say that I was ever a bad student (God forbid), just that it never stuck. No matter how intensely I may have wanted it, it simply wasn’t destined to be.
It wasn’t until recently that I devoted any time at all to thinking about why this could be or what this could mean. Language is, first and foremost, a means of communication. Being bilingual would undoubtedly have been a practical skill. Beyond this, the notion that bilingualism is a marker of identity solidified my (already ardent) intent to master a second language. I knew it to be a special badge that gestured towards belonging to something bigger than you, like the key to a secret society where the agenda was always to exchange inside jokes and mock the oblivious excluded commoners. And it was generally accepted that the English were the most painfully uncool, tacky, and obnoxious club out there, second only to the Americans. Jokes aside, if what I was really after was a sense of belonging, why was I not satisfied with my English?
I was brought up by an English mother and a Thai father. That I never learnt a word of my father’s first language and am to this day unable to communicate with my grandmother fluently has always been a sore spot. If I only share a language with half of my extended family, then it follows that my identity is not linguistically grounded. But then, I never watched the same television series (I’m thinking specifically here of ‘Strictly’), or grew up eating the foods that my mother’s family enjoyed so I always felt that I lacked the cultural milestones that otherwise would have given us a lot in common. In the end, neither language nor cultural associations connected me to my family.
I belong to an expat family; expatriates that live outside of their home country. Twenty years ago, my parents (desperate to escape the confines of the United Kingdom) packed us up to leave and never looked back. Over the course of my schooling years I juggled three different languages as well as any primary school student can be expected to juggle (read, not very well): French in Mauritius, Japanese in Tokyo and Mandarin in Hong Kong. The common phrase I managed to retain across these languages is ‘Sorry, I speak English’ (very telling, I know). Other bits and pieces I’ve picked up along the way relate to specific -and not very useful – memories and experiences. I remember the incoherent and curse-word ridden French phrases scrawled across the school bathroom doors in Mauritius, how to explain how I want my hair done in Japanese (I was one of those who insisted on side bangs when I was in year 4), and how to ask the bus driver to stop in Cantonese, all of which doesn’t leave me much to work with today, and definitely doesn’t qualify me as being bilingual.
In the wake of moving around a lot as a child, and later as a teen, learning a language always seemed like an activity confined to the classroom, and one which I would inevitably abandon a few years in when my parents packed up to move us across the world again. It became an awkward cycle of doing well enough to pass whatever exams were coming up before starting the next. Later, gawky teen summers spent in the UK made it clear I didn’t fit in quite as seamlessly as I’d hoped; conversations usually involved nodding along and pretending I knew who the Go Compare guy was, or butchering pronunciations of British cities and streets (how is anyone going to get Marylebone right on the first try?) But when I went back home, I needed help from friends to translate the menus and I could never escape being profiled as a ‘gweilo’ (Cantonese slang literally translating to “white ghost” or “white devil” used to describe foreigners).
I looked back on the many years I spent on the defensive when people asked where I was from. I felt the need to accompany my answer with a justification as to why I couldn’t speak the native language. It’s hard to convince someone that my ‘home’ was the same place in which I couldn’t communicate with the majority of the population. Many clumsy explanations later, it began to feel like I had no tangible connection to my homes, past and present. I recognised more and more the implications of the subtextual coding of language as identity and where this left me: I was in a delicate state of limbo between not being British enough in the UK and being too British abroad, and I was condemned to this cultural no-
It’s funny because the notion of ‘home’ seems so deeply private. It appeared antithetical for me to have been so desperate to cling to a culture of people Ididn’t know, and to have been so conscious of how to justify myself to those people. ‘Home’ is meant to encapsulate where you fit into the wider world. I’ve come to realise that it is not as intimate or straightforward in reality as people might think. It bears notions of belonging, family, community, and background, and when these can’t be neatly reconciled, it’s bound to be confusing. I’m sure this is a sentiment shared by many, perhaps by fellow expat babies, children of a diaspora, mixed kids, and probably more.
Amidst these reflections I do not dispute for a second my immensely lucky and happy upbringing. Growing up an expat afforded me humbling exposure to the world, to which I owe not just the unique experience of having my playground span continents, but also my
present sense of self. Today I am acutely aware of both the privileges and disorientations packaged up in expatriate culture. I suppose being an expat itself symbolises a weird intermediate state of community, like how once you get through security in the airport you’re technically in international waters already; you’re not quite one or the other but somewhere in the middle. To continue this awkward metaphor, I just had to find comfort and stability in this boat in the middle of the sea, turning this rudderless boat into a home, if you will (this is working better than you can imagine because we actually did live on a boat in Hong Kong). Now, the feeling of shame in admitting my monolingual limitations has almost dissipated.However, I will admit that every so often when it comes up in conversation I still feel a creeping urge to redownload Duolingo…