Being Part of a Family That Speaks a Language I Don’t Understand

By Jessica Huong

My grandmother’s house is bustling with noise on holidays. The whole family comes to celebrate together. Everywhere I go, I’d hear a relative speaking to another in a cheerful manner. They smile and laugh wholeheartedly.

I wish I could laugh along too, but I can barely understand a sentence.

I was born in Canada to Chinese parents who had both lived in Vietnam for most of their lives. They can speak Cantonese fluently; but to each other, they’d use full-on Vietnamese (their first language), so I can’t understand a single word.

Actually, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – I can understand some words, like khóa cửa (keys) and nước mắm (fish sauce), but I’d be lucky if I can string a single sentence together.

When my parents talk to each other, it’s like hearing a familiar – yet technically foreign to me – language on a daily basis. I’ve grown accustomed to being confused, especially when family members argue. I’m always left wondering, “What did they just argue about? Why is everyone yelling?”

Sometimes, I even notice relatives stealing short glances at me while continuing their conversations. I can’t help but think they’re talking about me – is it my outfit? My hair? My inability to understand Vietnamese?

This isn’t even the worst part. Some of them seem to occasionally forget that I can only speak English and some Cantonese. Take my grandma, for instance. She’s so sweet, but sometimes she’ll just come up to me and ask me things in Vietnamese! She can’t speak English well, and I’m too embarrassed to tell her that I can’t understand her. Those conversations always go something like this:

Grandmother: “Trường như thế nào, Jessica?” (Translation: “How is school, Jessica?”)

Me: Hahaha, yeah. Thanks, grandma. *Wipes sweat*

(Disclaimer: I used the ever-so-reliable Google Translate for my grandma’s Vietnamese line in this. It might make no sense whatsoever to a fluent speaker, but let’s roll with it.)

It’s not too bad, however. My aunts and uncles tend to remember that I can’t understand Vietnamese. In that case, they speak to me in English. This is great, because then I can surprise them with my Cantonese skills (which is broken, but generally better than they expected). Also, luckily, most of my cousins speak English all the time, despite understanding Vietnamese fluently.

Not to mention; when my parents speak to me, they speak in Cantonese or English, so understanding what they say to me isn’t a problem at all.

All in all, having almost everyone in my family speaks a language I barely understand most of the time is definitely interesting. I think that it makes my family unique, and despite what I’ve said in this article, I wouldn’t change it for the world.

By the way, to any family members reading this: don’t change. Keep speaking what language you’d like to.

But, if you’re talking about me, please don’t make it so obvious!

Jessica is a grade 12 student at FHCI and is a Technology Editor for The Golden Falcon newspaper.