When You’re Biracial But Not Bilingual

For those with a dual heritage, languages are about more than words

Photo: Mario Gogh

a mixed-race person, I can just about find myself on Google. I see myself in articles and the odd documentary episode (still not enough, but that’s a bigger conversation). But as a mixed-race person who cannot speak both languages attached to both of my cultures, I’m nowhere to be found.

This is fairly disheartening for someone who, upon lamenting her painfully slow acquisition of Cantonese, is looking for reassurance; a consolatory pat on the knee or knowing nod of the head. Recently, I searched for ‘mixed race but not bilingual’, hoping for a five-page thread or the quotes of a prominent author who once faced the same situation. All that came up was a load of parenting forums debating how to correctly raise a bilingual child (an almost comedic kick in the face). I typed in variations of the phrase, certain that I had posed the question incorrectly, done something to offend Google’s buzzword algorithm, but the results remained the same. Oblivious.

I have read many (fantastic) books by biracial writers, unpacking the confusing experience of belonging to two starkly different worlds. I have identified with their binary existence, understood their conflicted relationship with seemingly alien customs and the difficulty with which they teeter on the border of two races. But I am soon left out in the cold when they recall speaking in one tongue to their mum and another to their school friends. I have never read about the biracial person who simply does not have full access. Whose landscape is an unbalanced mix of arid and lush at the same time. Who cannot find themselves anywhere on Google.

There’s no blame. I’m not blaming any parties involved in my inability to exhale a language. Because, really, it’s not about language. It’s not about vocabulary and tutors, textbooks and helpful cousins — I have those things. It’s about a missing link. As a linguist on podcast Code Switch once said, people see language as a very strong part of identity. In English, words and, therefore, moments are bountiful. In Chinese, I don’t have the lexicon, ergo minimal memories. I didn’t speak in a secret tongue with my siblings or listen to a grandparent retell the same old story. I can’t hear the long, unapologetic vowels of my aunties and uncles when I close my eyes.

When I was around 7 years old, my teacher asked me to say ‘hello’ in Chinese in front of the class. The blood rushed to my cheeks and I shook my head. I was shy but, more fundamentally, I couldn’t do what she was asking me to. Despite the impatience in her voice, I couldn’t magic up the words I didn’t know, although strangely (or perhaps naturally, given human intolerance for embarrassment), I tried really hard in my head. Eventually, she gave up and moved on. But I didn’t.

This episode, among others, has contributed to a sense of shame about being devoid of something that, according to the raised eyebrows and rising ‘really?’s, should have been part of the package. It’s alienating enough to be different, but to be ill-equipped to be it ‘properly’ is a real blow.

I know many mixed race people who can do just the trick everyone expects of them, bilingual excellence flowing out of their mouths like fresh water, each drop purified with memories and culture. I know many mixed race people who can provide a decent outpouring before running dry. My faucet is faulty, and forces out solitary soupçons, empty of meaning.

Luckily, despite Google’s sparse offerings, I now know that there are others like me. Since seeking reassurance, I’ve met at least three of them. Fellow half-Asians searching for something that is no longer something they fancy, but something they need.

I can’t turn back time, change my situation, recreate special moments punctuated by language. All I can do is keep learning and hope that it leads to some collection of memories I can’t remember yet, just waiting for the right linguistic key to free them.

British-Chinese writer exploring culture, identity, wellness, language, and travel. Based in Hong Kong. www.sarahkwong.net