Speaking in the native tongue

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Wong Geen Yun!” I’d hear one of my counselors yell down the hall. “Hey, Wong Geen Yun!”

“What?”

“Uh… I forgot.”

Ever since some of my counselors found out how to say my Chinese name, they’ve been solely calling me using that name. At first, I felt a little embarrassed. “Stop calling me that!” I’d say. “It sounds so weird having people outside my family call me by my Chinese name!”

After hearing it a couple more times, I got more comfortable. I’d respond in Chinese. We’d have a conversation. I even began feeling proud of the name that I had, that people knew me by that name and not just by “Cindy.” 

I felt special.

I remember as a camper at Day Camp, I was never proud of my Cantonese roots. I refused to speak the language, because I wanted to be like the cool kids who only knew how to speak English. I wanted to fit in. I didn’t want others to know that I had such an inferior language under my belt. 

Now that more people at camp have been openly speaking in Chinese at camp, I felt more confident, I felt more accepted, and it almost seemed cool to speak in my native tongue at camp.

Since when did speaking in Cantonese become “cool”?

At the same time, why wasn’t it ever “cool” before? Why wasn’t I proud to know more than one language? A couple days ago, I had to call a parent to ask about an absent camper by speaking in Toisan. It was strange for me, speaking that language in front of my co-director and volunteers in the staff room, but they were accepting and even commented on my ability to speak different languages. I felt so proud in that moment, but if only I had felt that way when I was younger. I remember always wanting to speak English perfectly; I wanted people to see me as intelligent and cultured. But what does it even mean to be cultured? Does it count as being cultured if I understand both American and Chinese culture simultaneously? 

A couple of other counselors picked up on my Chinese name and started referring to me by that name. 

Wong Geen Yun! Nay hai do jo gun mut ye?

Mo ye ah. Wun ngo jo mut ah?

It almost felt like a special code between us. It makes sense to speak in English at camp because there are counselors who can’t speak Chinese, but when I hear my counselors, the younger generation, begin speaking in Cantonese to me, I can’t help but smile. I’m glad that people aren’t as embarrassed as I was of my native tongue. I’m glad that people are actively using their native language, and I’m encouraged by their confidence in using that language as a means of communication outside of the familial context. 

I’m glad that speaking in the native tongue is becoming cool at camp. 

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