Cantonese has become a forgotten heirloom of my past.
I’m sitting in a hospital bed, staring blankly at a nurse, who wants to know if I’ve picked a name for my son. “We’re still arguing about that,” my husband jokes. I pull at the gown that’s bunched up around the sweat of my back and laugh a little too hard because I don’t want her to think we’re actually fighting. The nurse smiles, places some paperwork on my bedside table, and tells us we have some time to come to a decision. About forty-eight hours.
Our son was born a month early and is upstairs in the NICU. Just a few hours ago, his skinny body was covered in slime, pressed against my chest. Wailing, I kissed his small, screaming face. Next thing I know, I wake up here: in a small, latex-smelling room where I chew on ice chips, try to move my toes. I look over this paperwork and wonder: What will our son’s name be?
My last name is Wong, and although it’s a name that comes from my grandfather’s side of the family, which nobody knows much about, I’ve always felt a connection to it. It reminds me of my mother, of the stories I’ve heard about her growing up in Hong Kong. Or of my great-grandmother, who would pluck juicy bugs out of rice bins and exclaim, “look at this fat worm, eating all our food!” Or the uncle, generations back, who built the railroads in the very state where his future descendent would be born.
When I found out I was pregnant, it became even more important to hold onto this history. I wanted to re-learn the language I had forgotten, the language that my family spoke, that my ancestors spoke. I decided to take my Cantonese lessons more seriously. I signed up for a class. I listened to a language app every day. I talked to my uterus. Nei dzo mat ye? Ngo oi nei. What are you doing? I love you. Cantonese was my first language, and I’ve been trying to remember it for a long time. But like a game of telephone, its original form slowly becomes less recognizable.
My husband and I have been debating the name thing for months. I want to hyphenate—a way of keeping both of our names but also combining them into something new, the way I’ve always thought a marriage should be. My husband wants to keep both names separate, with his at the end. Of course, this means my name will disappear into the middle. “It’s called a double barrel last name,” he says. “Like Helena Bonham Carter.” I have to roll my eyes and laugh, even though it hurts.
“I’d rather have another C-section than talk about this,” I say, turning on the television in the corner of the room. I tell him this is about the patriarchy, and maybe it is. But mostly, I fight for my name because giving it up feels like erasing something. I don’t want to lose my last name the same way I’ve lost my language.
Languages are far more vulnerable than people realize, says James Griffiths, a journalist who studies endangered languages. I found Griffiths after signing up for an online Cantonese class during my second trimester. On the first day, six or seven of us gathered in a virtual meeting room and swapped awkward, pixelated introductions. Our teacher told us that, in China, most people don’t speak Cantonese; they speak Mandarin. In some ways, he said, Cantonese was dying. “But anyway,” he continued, “Let’s get started.” While our teacher explained the six tones of this seemingly doomed language, I opened a browser window and asked Google, “Is Cantonese really dying?”
I don’t want to lose my last name the same way I’ve lost my language.
Griffiths’ story came up: Welsh and Hawaiian were saved from extinction. Other languages might not be so lucky. In it, he writes about how other cultures have had to fight to keep their language alive. Welsh, for example, was banned in schools during the late nineteenth century. Students were forced to wear heavy wooden planks around their necks if they were caught speaking Welsh instead of English, and even in the mid-twentieth century, the language was considered second-class compared to English. For over a hundred years, activists and politicians fought to keep Welsh alive, eventually making it the official language of Wales in 2011.
Months after I read this piece, I call Griffiths and ask him about it. How do languages go extinct? Why does it happen? And is the language I grew up with really endangered? “I wouldn’t say it’s becoming endangered,” Griffiths tells me. “I don’t think this stuff is going to happen tomorrow. But looking at the history of other endangered languages, we can see this trend,” he says, “and I think it’s a very dangerous one for Cantonese.”
Back in the hospital room, I drag my body into the tiny, yellow bathroom and look at my pale reflection. Why even bother fighting for my name? I’m not that Chinese to begin with. My father was white. I was born in Maryland. And anyway, isn’t this my mother’s history? And her mother’s history? Why am I clinging onto something from which I’m so far removed? These are the things you say to yourself when your ethnicity has always been in question. “You don’t really know what it’s like to be Asian because you’re only half,” someone said to me once. And now, squeezed inside this small bathroom, I’m saying it to myself.
While I brush my teeth in the tiny sink, I think about the last time I saw my grandmother. I was a teenager, and my family was gathered around the dinner table, everyone speaking Cantonese. I had stopped speaking it a long time ago and while the tones and inflection sounded familiar, I couldn’t understand. My grandmother sat in a chair by the wall with a plate of food, shouting something at my mother and laughing. Like an old song, I knew the words but I couldn’t sing along. “I should re-learn Cantonese,” I told my uncle later that night. “Why bother?” he laughed. “You should learn Mandarin. Now that’s a useful language.”
And is the language I grew up with really endangered?
Why bother, I say to myself, shuffling out of the bathroom in my hospital socks. I sit down in the bed and stare at reruns of The Fresh Prince from the television in the corner of the ceiling. The paperwork is still on the table next to me. Even if our son has my name, how much of my lineage will he carry? Cantonese has become a forgotten heirloom of my past. When I teach it to him, he will likely only know a few words. Any fluency he has will be little more than a novelty. He’ll tell friends he knows the Cantonese word for beautiful or worm. Maybe he can speak a few phrases. His friends will say, whoa, you’re Chinese? Or maybe even, what is Cantonese? If it’s so hard for me to learn the language I grew up with, what hope do I have for my son to learn it? If it’s so hard for me to hold onto my heritage, why bother imposing it on him?
It’s easy to think languages die simply because they fall out of use. That they become less practical and people simply stop speaking them. It doesn’t quite happen that way. “Languages are not lost, they are taken,’’ Griffiths writes in his book. “They are uprooted by malice or neglect, their speakers assimilated into a new tongue, or left to struggle in the space between the fading old and the out of reach new.”
Griffiths lives in Hong Kong, where rising political tensions have some Gwong Dong Yan—Cantonese speakers—concerned about the possibility of their language being replaced with Mandarin. Language has since become a central part of the pro-Hong Kong movement, and many activists use Cantonese as a symbol for their autonomous identity from China. One professor called it “a language of the resistance.”
Griffiths tells me that language is a grouping of words but it’s also a grouping of people. Like a name, it becomes symbolic of history, of a cultural identity. Destroying a language is also a way of destroying a culture.
“One of the best ways for any society to assert its unique history, community, and culture is through language,” says Gina Tam, a history professor at Trinity University and author of Dialect and Nationalism in China. “I think diasporic communities feel an affinity towards their mother tongues for a whole number of reasons. Sometimes it’s family—the ability to speak to older generations for whom the language of their new home is unfamiliar. For others, it is a connection to a space and a history (I think this is true for a number of members of the Hong Kong diaspora). For still others, it is an assertion of a kind of Chinese identity that they feel ownership over,” she says.
Extinction doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not a meteor that comes down from the sky and wipes out an entire language. It’s a gradual process. UNESCO puts these languages in different categories according to how close they are to disappearing. A language is extinct when there are no speakers left, but it’s considered “critically endangered” when the youngest speakers are grandparents who speak the language only partially and infrequently. When a language is spoken by older generations who may understand it, but don’t speak it to their children, it’s considered “severely endangered.” And a language is “definitely endangered” when it’s no longer the mother tongue in the home. Some are worried that Cantonese is what UNESCO would call vulnerable—most children still speak the language, but it’s restricted to certain domains.
“Anyone who lives in a diaspora knows this instinctively,” Griffiths says. “They know how hard it is to pass on your language when your children are living in a different language environment. You see this very rapid escalation in how the language is diminished.”
We sit down to what the hospital staff calls our “celebration meal.” That is, the meal to celebrate our new life as parents. To ring in this milestone, my husband gets a small, rubbery steak. “Nice,” he says, picking up his filet mignon with a plastic fork. I open a carton of orange juice, set it down next to the grey Portobello mushroom in front of me and reply, “This hospital food tastes like hospital food.” After being stuck in this room for three days worrying about our son, it feels good to complain about something stupid. On the other hand, debating our son’s last name, while he’s upstairs learning to breathe, also feels stupid. Someone comes to take our empty trays, and we settle in for another night of reruns. I pull out the form from the stack of paperwork I’ve tucked into the bed next to me. On it, I write down both of our names. No hyphen.
I still can’t move very much. So my husband goes upstairs to drop off a tiny bit of milk I’ve extracted, then Facetimes me. Our small son is asleep, swaddled in a striped hospital blanket. “Hi buddy,” I whisper, wondering if he recognizes my voice. Is it comforting to him? Is he scared? “Can you put me closer?” I ask. My husband rests the phone inside the NICU bed. I look into our son’s barely open, baby bird eyes. His lips like a little duck. “Buddy,” I whisper into the phone, into his tiny ear, “Ngo oi nei.”
Kristin Wong is a freelance writer and journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Times, ELLE, Travel + Leisure, and The Cut among other publications. She frequently writes about behavior and identity and is also a staff writer and researcher at Hidden Brain Media, where she contributes to the Hidden Brain podcast and radio show.