When No One Speaks your Language

There were two things my mother would always tell me when I was growing up in the little farming/industrial town of what is now Brampton. One was, “don’t forget to put your face cream on”, or more accurately truncated to, “face cream!” The other was, “you have to know how to defend yourself, because no one in this world is pure-hearted enough to do it for you.”

She still tells me to do these things to this day. And traditional Chinese proverbs I can’t remember – I don’t have the linguistic expertise as she does to remember poetry that comes from the little village in Calcutta – or, rather, Kolkata, because Calcutta no longer exists.

It’s funny to note that Canton – the province in China that a good chunk the Hakka Liu and Teng ancestry, presumably, were concentrated in – also no longer exists. We can make castles from of our bare hands, but the only materials we have are sand, sweat, and our own blood.

“What the hell is that?” I remember a cousin of mine that talked about her first (and presumably last) day of Chinese Sunday school when describing what language she spoke. It certainly raised a few eyebrows, because didn’t all Chinese just speak Cantonese and/or Mandarin? How would a Hong-Kongese list a Hakka person in this case – friend, or foe? (Every Hakka person knows for themselves that no one in their right mind would list them as foes) Sometimes this confusion affects our ability to find jobs, as with my sister’s case; that story now is just a humourous anecdote I pick on her with. “You speak Cantonese?” “No.” “Sorry no job!” She learned the hard way not to try and find a job at a Chinese restaurant, she always tells me.

It’s customary for us Hakka to sit around a dinner table and pick out as many ironic, dark and humourous stories to tell about our lives. Sometimes it was gossip – we’re humans after all – but most of them were us living our lives. Many of them were strange epics repeated over again, but at different angles. Grandiose fights on the evening streets of Calcutta (pardon me, Kolkata), the great breakdown of the tanning industry, or the ironic creation of the famous “Hakka Chilli Chicken”. All, of course, filled with cynical insults and saying “aloo” when potatoes and idiots came into the conversation.

But when we all part, what lives do we really live? Being Hakka myself, no life would be less than the impact of a typical Hakka epic. Of course, you’re speaking to one that could make any incident into an epic or a mundane event at my will. Whether or not you figure that it’s cultural is primarily your judgement call. I grew up in a very poetic family, after all, that could tell stories as they create them and still captivate you. Dad would do that, with a straight face, when I was barely through elementary school. Did I ever mention that I, too, was known for being a natural creative writer as I was growing up? I’ve always thought that was bullshit, though, because no Chinese – Hakka at that – was capable of writing a good story in English. At least not without a good fight and scars.

I can’t help but hear a resounding “amen” when I say, “it’s difficult to be the immigrant in any country; it’s just as hard, if not harder, to grow up as the first generation after immigration.” There’s always a struggle of cultural values; people around you tell you to eat a cheeseburger with your hands, but your grandmother would slap your hand with chopsticks if you were using your chopsticks in a lopsided position; one country may tell you to sleep around, while your culture tells you that sex is meaningless. One country might tell you the goal is to make all of the money you can, while the other tells you it’s the work and the ability to use your mind and hands are what really pays – a Hakka person is considered fairly “dead” if they aren’t doing something. But most importantly, other dialects tell the women to never meddle with “man” situations, but it’s the Hakka mothers, sisters and wives that call the shots, hard or mundane. It’s not like it’s unusual for men and women to sit at the same dinner table with equal composure and the power to talk (and it’s never without playful shouting because we’re all equally stubborn and pugnacious).

I suppose that’s why my pharmacist mentor told me I nurture my culture fairly tightly despite being a CBC.

But if we’re a powerful, proud and hard-working race in ourselves, why are we all still hiding? There’s nothing to inhibit us, after all.

Maybe it’s just the part of life we live in. There’s no need to fight for a battle not worth fighting, because the important part is that we’re still alive – we all haven’t “passed through the spirits” just yet, and collectively never will. Being victims of culture cleansing, that’s enough for a prosperous life.

Soi, chi, hon, miang.