30 Sept 2021
This Chinese Language Week, Stuff spoke to Chinese New Zealanders, especially those born in New Zealand or who migrated young, who are reconnecting with their native language.
New Zealand-born playwright and paediatrician Renee Liang is not letting the imperfections of her Cantonese stop her from embracing the language.
Liang described an “emotional” experience in playing a Cantonese-speaking cameo role in recently-aired mandarin drama Inked.
“Our experience as ‘reclaiming mother tongue’ speakers is so similar to what Māori speakers are doing as well... I don’t think anyone is to blame for the circumstances for losing their language, but we can all make a choice as adults to do something about it,” she said.
Liang’s Cantonese faded after she started kindergarten, but has at several stages tried to progress beyond speaking it to just her family.
In her twenties, Liang tried learning to read and write Chinese characters because of an interest in Chinese literature, but found it challenging.
Later working as a paediatrician, Liang wanted to be more fluent to communicate better with Chinese patients.
In recent years, Liang noticed the space for Cantonese shrinking in south China, where Mandarin is increasingly becoming the primary language. She said this gave her more drive.
“It’s becoming obvious that language needs to be preserved in pockets of diaspora (those living away from their homeland), its basically up to us,” she said.
“The language has always been there, it receded when I was a little girl, and I didn't feed it for a long time, but now that I’m feeding it, it's growing again.”
Similarly, for Wellington-based writer Rose Lu, the commitment to learning reading and writing in Chinese came later in life.
At age five, Lu and her family migrated from Chong Ming, a district of Shanghai, to Whanganui, which has a very small Chinese community.
Despite speaking Mandarin and Chong Ming dialect at home, it wasn’t until her twenties when Lu took two months off to study Chinese at Sichuan University.
In 2019, Lu's book of essays - All who live on Islands – was the first published book in New Zealand to include English phonetics of the Chong Ming dialect, as well as Chinese characters.
Lu said the experience in China opened her up to the diversity of Chinese languages.
“Everyone speaks it with the accent of the region they're from... In China, most people will speak [their] dialect and putonghua [mandarin].”
Lu said learning a second language is a “huge exercise in empathy” in understanding the challenges of people who speak English as a second language.
In Gisborne, Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon is proud to have maintained his Cantonese and Si Yip dialect, living in a city with less than 100 Chinese people.
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“It means I know my roots, I have a genealogy that comes from my parents and grandparents”.
The former mayor is currently attempting to write a Chinese song for a multilingual album in the works.