Jenny Liao is relearning Cantonese after years of rejecting it, saying she was inspired by the sense of community resulting from pandemic-fueled anti-Asian hate crimes.
She is like many who, amid a 339% rise in hate crimes, want to feel more connected to their culture, including re-embracing their Asian names, languages and identities.
“By relearning Cantonese, I feel closer and closer to my parents,” said Liao, 32. “And that’s a gap that could take a lifetime to bridge.”
The Los Angeles-based Asian American writer grew up speaking Cantonese at his New York home. But her fluency slipped away as she prioritized English due to the racism she experienced as a child, she said. Now she can barely speak Cantonese beyond basic sentences.
“It cost me the most important tie — to my culture and my parents — which is the ability to communicate with them and talk to them.
Her mother, Huizhen, says she understands why her children would prioritize English over Cantonese. Although she did not understand English, she was aware of the racist teasing her children received at school and their urgent need to show that they belonged by speaking only English.
Now, since none of her three children are fluent in Cantonese, much of their conversation is done using translation apps.
“If I don’t have my phone or my laptop handy, it’s a bit like a guessing game.” Liao said.
To study Cantonese, she uses a language-learning app to rebuild her vocabulary, calls her parents more often to practice with them, and immerses herself in Cantonese movies. Liao hopes that one day she will have a sophisticated conversation with her parents without relying on translation apps.
“And for me, prioritizing my ability to talk to my parents is my way of telling them that I love them and that they mean a lot to me.”