On Language, Loss, and Generational Love

By Amanda Bourassa (she/her) 

As I write this, my twin daughters are leaning intently over the kitchen table, brows furrowed as they puzzle over an escape room-style card game with my mother-in-law. From my office space, I can hear the muted tones of their conversation laid over the persistent drumming of my younger daughter’s foot (a percussive stim related to her ADHD).

At eight years old, my daughters have had hundreds of conversations with their grandparents. They read to their grandparents. They tell jokes to their grandparents. They effusively explain Pokémon evolutions, card values, and their latest Scarlet and Violet exploits as their grandparents listen indulgently. 

My mother-in-law, a Franco-Albertan, has introduced my children to camping, fishing, making the perfect s’more, diamond dot crafting, cribbage, and the vital importance of creating good playlists for bedtime. My parents have taught my children about drawing, baking, mahjong, dyeing eggs, flying kites, ping pong, taking the bus, crocheting, soap making, and juicing oranges. When the girls were four years old, my dad, ever the cautious one, spent an afternoon reciting my phone number with them so they’d be able to call me if they were ever in a bind.

(Thus far, my daughters have not needed to call me for help; they have instead shared my phone number with school friends and daycamp crushes to expedite playdate arrangements.) 

Listening to my children laugh, banter, and even occasionally quarrel with their grandparents is a gift. For me, it goes far beyond the genuine happiness I feel seeing the mutual affection between my babies and my parents and mother-in-law. It goes far beyond the satisfaction of seeing my children fulfilling the Chinese cultural value of spending quality time with their elders. What makes these moments uniquely special and novel for me is the sheer volume of them, and I use that word intentionally.

My children have something I don’t: they share a common language with their grandparents. It is something that feels as normal to them as breathing the air, but this is not an experience I share. While it fills my heart with joy to hear their rich and sometimes raucous discussions, it also brings floods of wistful longing.

. . .

My maternal grandparents immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in the ‘70s, desirous to give themselves and their three grown daughters a fresh start and to avoid being part of the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the UK to China. Eventually, they all made themselves at home in Edmonton, Alberta. A friend once told me, jokingly, that Chinese families like to live within a ten-minute radius of each other; for my mom and her family, it just made sense to raise their children with loved ones nearby. Because of our close proximity, and because the older generations agreed that we’d get together for every birthday and major holiday, I grew up in the comfort of regular gatherings and quality time with my maternal grandparents; my aunts and uncles; and my cousins. 

Meanwhile, my dad was the only one from his family to end up in Alberta. His mother, Kathryn, passed away two months before I was born, and her name was given to me as my English middle name. I never did meet my paternal grandfather, who died when I was about three years old. My dad’s five siblings and their families ended up scattered across the world, living in places like Ontario, California, Florida, Singapore, Hong Kong.

Back here in Edmonton, my mom’s older sisters had children first. These cousins were raised listening to and speaking Cantonese, our heritage language, in their homes. If my memory serves correctly, my two eldest cousins may have even attended Chinese school on weekends for some of their youth. 

When I was born, my parents gave me an English name as well as a Chinese one: 王嘉言. My parents spoke English and Cantonese at home with each other, but mainly spoke English to me. My mom taught me prayers in Cantonese, and for a handful of years, I even attended Catholic mass at a Cantonese parish. Although I learned some functional phrases and vocabulary, and although I was able at one point to recite an entire rosary in Cantonese, I never did achieve even a modest degree of conversational fluency. My attempts at capturing the tones and syntax of the language were awkward and scattershot, reflecting gaps in my learning. My earnest but clumsy exchanges with elders might have been charming when I was little but grew increasingly embarrassing as I approached my teens. 

As an adult, when I asked my parents why they never pushed me to learn Cantonese more proficiently, they explained that they didn’t know much about childhood language acquisition back then. They were worried it would confuse me to learn two languages in tandem, or that I might accidentally take on the familiar lilt of their own softly-accented English—an aural betrayal of their apparent “foreignness”—and be teased or rejected for it. 

My mom said that when she arrived in Canada as a young University student, she was determined to be a “good immigrant” and to adopt the ways of her new home, including excelling in English communication. Among a variety of educational pursuits, my dad took courses in culinary arts and restaurant management, learning the codified dialogue and politeness of dining etiquette, customer service, and conflict resolution. He taught me everything I know about how to speak and behave in a restaurant, whether I was navigating an ice cream sundae at Dairy Queen, pouring jasmine tea for elders at dim sum, or ordering roast duck in a fine dining establishment. 

 When I was about nine, my mom started teaching me new English words at bedtime. She would lay in bed beside me and introduce a word I’d never heard; it didn’t need to be ostentatious in its complexity, but it would be a word that she believed was worth knowing, such as condone and asinine. I looked so forward to each nighttime chat—a precious stream of whispers flowing between us and through the contours of my youth. These conversations didn’t just bond us indelibly as friends; they also ignited in me the joy and love of words. The new words my mom taught me were treasures; gems sparkling in her open hands and offered to me to keep in my pocket as linguistic and cultural currency.

My dad was the parent who first read chapter books to me. Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden is a novel he read to me when I was about the same age as my daughters are now. Over the course of many evenings reading a few chapters at a time, I learned what “contrarian” meant, what cholera was, and for the first time, I encountered disabled characters (Mary’s uncle is kyphotic and his son, Colin, uses a wheelchair). And while as an adult, I now acknowledge the book as problematic for a variety of reasons, especially in its representation of disability, this was nonetheless the book that made me look forward to one day being able to read challenging novels on my own. As the story unfolded on the waves of my dad’s soft voice, and as he paused to explain unfamiliar words and concepts to me, I came to realize that the magic Mary discovered within the walls of her garden was not unlike how I felt every time we turned the page to a new chapter.

The efforts my parents made to nurture my love of literature blossomed over time as I excelled in English Language Arts classes, spent my free time writing poems and journaling, and borrowing so many library books at a time that we started using a laundry-hamper-sized bin to hold them all.

As time went on, my parents spoke less and less Cantonese to me and my younger sister. I would hear them speak Cantonese when they’d sip coffee together after supper, when my grandparents called, or when they’d make phone calls to their siblings. We watched only English film and television, read only English texts, and listened to English music. We started attending mass in English. Our rosaries were recited in English. 

When my sister, cousins, and I were deemed old enough, we had the privilege and delight of sitting at our own separate “cousins table” during big family dinners. We exchanged stories about school. We bantered affectionately as we played tic-tac-toe, MASH, and SOS. We imagined ourselves concocting mystical potions as we took a single drinking cup and poured into it the last dregs of tea (leaves and all), the oily skims of stirfry remnants and condiments from our bowls, and sometimes—if we were lucky—a rejected maraschino cherry impaled on a plastic cocktail sword skewer. (If I could apologize to the wait staff for this today, I would!) We cackled mischievously at the murky swamp slurry we’d made, daring each other to take a sip. All of this, we did in English.

In most areas of my life, the need to know, retain, and/or learn Cantonese was dwindling. The only compelling force that motivated me to try to hang onto the little pieces of language I still had was my love for my grandparents.

. . .

We spent time with my mom’s parents weekly. Because my mom never did learn to drive, and because my dad’s night shifts often translated to him being unavailable to drive her at her preferred errand-running time of 8:00am on weekends, my Gung Gung (maternal grandfather) often picked up my mom, me, and my sister for errands and outings. He took my mom for grocery runs, picked us up from the mall after shopping sprees, and dutifully delivered us and my Paw Paw (maternal grandmother) to English mass each Sunday. When I started high school, my Gung even picked me up every afternoon and drove me home–a luxury I appreciated then but see with a whole new world of gratitude now that I am an adult. 

My Paw Paw and Gung. Christmastime at my childhood home.

Beyond these more practical encounters, my parents felt it important to pay social visits to my grandparents regularly and not simply to limit our quality time to Lunar New Year or family celebrations. We’d sometimes ride our bicycles over just to wave hello from the sidewalk. If my Paw Paw needed help configuring her VCR so she could record her beloved Chinese dramas, my dad would head over there to troubleshoot and we’d accompany him to visit. Sometimes my Gung would beckon me over to his reclining armchair and I would stand behind him massaging his head while listening to the adults converse in a language I partly understood but couldn’t replicate myself. When he or my Paw Paw would ask me questions or invite me to join the conversation, I’d try to keep up, but the words disintegrated into dust in my ears and ballooned into cotton in my mouth. 

Eventually, I’d turn toward my parents, defeated, awaiting their translations.

People like me belong to the club of Canadian-born Chinese kids whose shortfalls in their heritage language are described with the phrase, “Sik tang, mm sik gong (Can understand, can’t speak).” Apart from relying on my parents to translate or even to simply answer for me, I eventually gave up entirely on trying to respond in Cantonese. Instead, I did what many people in my position have become accustomed to doing: I let them speak to me in Cantonese (and sometimes in simple, limited English) and would respond to them only in English.

By the time I was in high school, my grandparents had learned enough English to get by. They clearly made an effort to have conversations with me and never expressed disappointment that I hadn’t learned enough Cantonese to meet them halfway. To compound this dynamic, I was in a stage of my life—and, frankly, in a stage of internalized racism and desire to be “whitewashed”—that I had little motivation to start learning. It just seemed like so much work.

In my English life, my vocabulary was growing rapidly. But in the company of my Gung and Paw Paw, I was dwarfed by the oceans of lexical meaning I couldn’t interpret or convey. I could not read books to them. I could not tell them jokes. Any hobbies I had would have to be relayed to them by my parents. Speaking Cantonese made me feel stupid and inept. So, I opted out.

Because conversations were not easy, I doubled down on my nonverbal efforts. I showed my love by being present during our visits, by holding my Paw Paw’s arm when we crossed the street or when sidewalks were icy, by massaging my Gung’s head, by baking banana muffins, by always giving them hugs and kisses, by asking my mom to show me the characters for Gung Gung (公公) and Paw Paw (婆婆) so I could make them birthday cards when July rolled around. Over time, our relationship was blanketed in quiet, stitched together with simple greetings and phrases, and embroidered with gestures of affection that I hoped would carry my love to their hearts unimpeded.

My Gung showed his love by bringing me soup and, occasionally, savoury treats of cooked turkey gizzards and salted cod, which my mom would later serve up warm with rice. He would invite himself in after bringing me home from school and sit quietly on the couch until he was certain that I would be okay on my own. He’d tap the deadbolt with his finger before he left to remind me to lock up. My Paw Paw showed me her love by mashing her nose into my cheek and drawing in a hearty sniff and by holding and kneading my hand in hers as we sat together at church. Sometimes, in the middle of a homily in English that she certainly didn’t understand, she’d clasp my hand in hers and slip me a five dollar bill or a candy. Then, she’d return to her rosary, methodically pushing bead after bead across the crook of her index finger with her thumb, silently working her way through Cantonese prayers that I still remembered the words to but rarely spoke aloud anymore.

This love was quiet love, but it belonged to us. It was enough.

. . .

One winter day in 2001, my Gung and Paw Paw came to pick me up from high school and they turned with interest when I climbed into the backseat of their car and a white boy in a yellow ski jacket crawled in after me. “Hi, hello,” my Gung said, greeting the unfamiliar passenger.

“H’lo,” my companion said, shyly.

“I am Grandma,” my Paw Paw said.

“You are Amanda’s friend,” my Gung said, issuing more of a statement than a query.

“Yes,” I replied for us both.

My Paw Paw turned to me and lowered her voice. “男朋友? (Boyfriend?)” she questioned, eyeing me knowingly.

I shrugged. She smiled, and as she turned back around to face the dash, I heard her murmur the phrase one more time, this time so my Gung could hear.

Seven and a half years later, this same boyfriend was with me as we visited my Paw Paw—now a widow, and now very, very sick—in the hospital. This was the last time I would see my Paw Paw alive. I squeezed myself next to her in bed and we did what we had become so good at over the years: we sat together in companionable silence. She was tired, and we didn’t stay long. As we prepared to leave, she beckoned to my boyfriend and took his hand. “You are part of this family,” she told him.

She nodded for emphasis. “You are part of this family.”

For my birthday the following month, my boyfriend—whom I would go on to marry in 2011—had a photo of me with my grandparents printed and framed. My grandparents are in their early sixties. They beam from their spots on the couch, and I, maybe a year old, am propped up between them. I have precious few photos with my grandparents and the ones I do have, like this one, mostly date back to the ‘80s. It actually didn’t even occur to me until I started writing this post that I have no photos with my grandparents as a teenager or as an adult. Technology wasn’t what it is now when they were alive, and perhaps that coupled with the ubiquity of their presence in my weekly goings-on as a child caused me to overlook the importance of documenting our time together. It fills me with resolve to ensure that my daughters will one day have thousands of photos and videos with their grandparents, whom we spend time with weekly just as I did with mine.

The grief I felt when my Gung and Paw Paw passed away in 2006 and 2008, respectively, has settled comfortably over the years. But there is a different grief—one that has only presented itself as I have stepped into my thirties and learned so much more about colonialism, linguistic oppression, cultural erasure, and silencing—that still catches me off-guard and takes my breath away. It’s like walking past a painting that has hung on the wall of your living room for several years. You practically don’t even notice the painting is even there anymore until one day it falls off the wall and you discover that there was another painting hiding behind it all along. 

Reckoning with my grandparents’ deaths was one thing; trying to make sense of the losses I unknowingly incurred while neglecting my heritage language in the years they were alive is entirely another. It is a kind of retroactive grief I know I might still be blissfully unaware of if I had never become invested in equity and anti-oppression and representation.

I don’t begrudge anyone, feel resentment, or harbour regrets that I never really felt at home in my heritage language. I understand how and why it slowly slipped into the shadows of my life.

I am learning to give myself grace. I am proud of the education I pursued, and of the skills I have cultivated as a teacher of English literature. I love what I do and being a racialized teacher is an important part of my identity that also guides my pedagogy. It means something to me when I can share representative and diverse texts with my students, and when my students feel that they get to encounter a literary experience that resonates with their lived ones. 

It is cathartic and healing for me to fill my daughters’ bookshelves with diverse texts and to share my struggles, hopes, and dreams for them as we step into narratives together. Even before they were born, I was building a collection for them and fantasized about a future where I would teach them to love reading just as I’d been taught.

I teach them new words just like my mom did; I read chapter books to them, just like my dad did. I want my children to love reading always, to love discovering the patterns of language, and maybe one day to become fluent polyglots. When I purchased Drawn Together, a masterpiece of a children’s book authored by Minh Lê and illustrated by Dan Santat, I attempted to read it to my children and quickly dissolved into quaking sobs. (Let’s be honest: I have read the book dozens of times in the four years we’ve owned it and I have never been able get through it without tearing up.) The book bore out an experience so much like my own: a grandchild and grandparent find themselves separated by the barrier of language but find a way to each other, bridging the chasm with nonverbal communication. It was heartrending and validating to see something that felt so personal and lonely presented in this way. It reminded me that I’m not the only one who has had to learn that it’s okay to just sit quietly with one’s grandparents.

. . .

In April, as part of the Culture Week festivities at my school, morning prayers were presented over the PA system in different languages. One morning, a student recited the words to “Hail Mary” in Cantonese. I was able to recall the opening line to the prayer, but quickly fell silent as the rest of the words evaded me. Like so many other words, these ones were now gone. Because I could not remember the syllables and sounds, I listened instead. I remembered my Paw Paw and her silent rosaries.

I have dreamed of my Paw Paw only once since she died, and it was close to ten years ago when I had it. In my dream, I was at some kind of huge party or reception and I spied her sitting in a booth across the ballroom. I was vaguely aware, even in this dream state, that this sighting was impossible, and that my Paw Paw could not be sitting at an event I was attending. I frantically pressed my way across the room anyway, afraid that I wouldn’t get my chance to see her again. I slid into the booth beside her… and woke shortly thereafter.

In my dream, we did not speak.

We didn’t need to. 

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Donald G. Nicolas (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).

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