I know how to say sorry in Mandarin but not Hokkien, which is the Chinese my family speaks. That should tell you a bit about my family life.
That’s also why, up until a few weeks ago, I didn’t consider Hokkien my mother tongue. All I know of Hokkien are orders—as in, go there, come here, don’t do that, bring this, let’s eat—domestic things, an insult or two, and questions—as in, what time is dismissal tomorrow, how could you.
But since settling down in Switzerland and seeing droves of kids return home for lunch, and then again in the late afternoon once classes are done, I hear my mom’s voice. Hwai hakseng be tsia lo. Bang heh lo.
This makes me soft. Although my school days looked vastly different from those of the kids in my neighborhood, recalling words my mom used to say—and saying them to myself—takes me back to her picking me and my brother up from school. She always had wet hand towels and warm merienda ready for us. How my head leaned on her supple arm when I slept on the way home. How, years later, my head reached past her arm and rested snugly in the curve of her neck and shoulder.
When my mom was raising me and teaching me to speak Hokkien, she would mention how Guakong, her dad, who migrated to the Philippines from China, believed that one day, everyone would be conversing in Chinese.
Her conclusion and order: Gong lannang uwe.
Looking back, I wish I could’ve asked: Kokgi asi Hokkien? All the Mandarin I had to memorize in school was about stories and values featuring bamboo and animal characters, some propaganda about Sun Yat-sen, and survival things like how much is this? where is the toilet? I don’t understand.
None of them led me closer to my grandparents or helped me express myself.
Was silence the point?
Swiss people seem to take multilingualism seriously. A lot of the websites I’ve visited, from government websites to online pet stores, allow users to choose German or French as the site language. I’ve seen a few that included Italian and Romansh, the other two national languages in the country.
In his book The Art of Not Being Governed, James C. Scott considers Switzerland a shatter zone, calling it “a mountain kingdom at the periphery of Germany, France, and Italy.” In the 16th and 17th centuries, around the time of the Reformation, people in these parts of Europe who felt threatened by their governments or the Vatican fled to higher altitudes—the Alps—for refuge. Dukes or religious leaders back then would have had to spend loads of money and men to search for alleged heretics through rough terrain, so they didn’t. Success wasn’t guaranteed either. Because different tribes or communes have settled in this hilly zone for centuries to escape oppression and coercion, what has emerged, eventually, is a confederation of smaller states called cantons. There is an understanding of and tolerance for each community’s customs and language.
While this sounds close to the diverse, free, and egalitarian society of my dreams, their level of multilingualism is intimidating. Multilingualism to me has meant code-switching, peppering my sentences with English, Tagalog, or Hokkien words. Here, probably because of the absence of a single enforced national language, the many polyglots can say what they want to say in at least three languages. This means they’ve spent time and effort to learn. So could I really fault my electrician-neighbor for scolding my husband for not speaking any Swiss language? I can still call her mean, since she snapped when he was only asking for help to get our stove to work. But I can also see how immigrants like me could change this multilingual landscape of Switzerland, which could be something she’s proud of, or at least has had to reckon with for years by learning other languages.
Keine Sorge, Oma. Ich lerne Deutsch.
When I was little, learning Hokkien was a grueling exchange of asking what the Hokkien word for something was, saying it and saying it until my mom was satisfied, then saying it in the sentence I’d wanted to say—but by that point, I didn’t feel like talking anymore. And because I detested the strictness that came with learning Hokkien, my mom and I would eventually strike a deal: that I would just respond using the language I was addressed in. This made chatting more natural again. But little did I know that I would teach myself to speak only when spoken to.
Years before the said deal, when my mom spent mornings at work, I loved babbling to our katulong at home. While they prepared lunch, they indulged my aimless chatter and my singing of Disney songs, where I spat syllables I’d picked up but hardly recognized as words.
Yaya Gene Gene was my favorite. I could tell her what I wanted—“Gusto ko yung headband na may tirintas!”—and she could tell me when I was being a whiny pain or too duwag for my own good. When she would braid my hair into various styles at 4:45 in the morning, an hour before going to school, I’d teach her the Hokkien words I learned from my mom. Why shouldn’t we learn to speak another language together? We were living in the same house. “‘Pag sinabing ‘Lannang,’ ibig-sabihin ‘Chinese.’ Pag sinabing ‘Huan-a,’ ibig-sabihin ‘Pilipino.’”
My mom overheard me one day and was not pleased. The point was to speak about Pinoys in front of them without them understanding a word. She would switch to her broken Mandarin to shame me to my brother and my dad. But being othered doesn’t need a language. To be othered is precisely to lose touch without your consent.
I was 16 when I realized that my mom is fluent in Tagalog. When I was struggling to read a Tagalog translation of Noli Me Tangere, the Castilian-language novel that sparked the Philippine Revolution, for school, my mom offered to help. So every night after dinner, she read the Tagalog text aloud, then explained every paragraph in a mix of Hokkien, Tagalog, and English. The first time she read Noli to me, I was shocked.
“Mahilig ako magbasa ng Tagalog komiks nung bata’t dalaga ako!” There was pride in her voice.
At her dad’s wake 14 years later, I’d learn that she too was raised to always speak in “Chinese.” How her dad insisted, “Gong lannang uwe!”
In another life, I would have really liked for Chinoys and Pinoys to let each other be.
When I was 18, a college freshman, I learned that “lannang” didn’t mean what I thought it meant. In the context of dating and the “Great Wall of China,” I was ranting to Chinoy friends about how the Chinese Filipino community discriminated against Filipinos. One of them told me that even what we called ourselves was exclusionary. “It comes from lan lang, us people,” he said, gesturing at us both. “And huan-a doesn’t mean Filipino. It translates to barbarian.”
My Airbnb host Eliza had invited my husband and me to a Jehovah’s Witness event. She told us that Filipinos were going to be there, so that made us more eager to attend.
At the event, a few Germans and Swiss asked me, “Do you speak Tagalog too or another Philippine language?”
How do these people know “Tagalog” and have the decency to say it right? Ta-GA-log, not Tag-a-log or Teg-e-log. One person opened his question by saying, “Philippines is so big, you guys have so many languages.”
Another, an American, asked, “Kumusta ka?”
“Mabuti!” I said. “Ikaw?”
“Mabuti rin!” She looked pleased with herself.
Is it a good joke or a bad joke if I said the Jehovah’s Witness hall felt like heaven? Because I have never felt that level of warmth and acceptance about being Filipino. In Manila, especially since 2016, since the influx of mainland Chinese people due to POGO, since the Chinese government continued to station ships on the West Philippine Sea, and since local media kept attributing such aggression to “the Chinese,” I’ve been accosted with “Ching chong chang,” “Chinese ka?” or “Intsik ka?” when I’m alone. In an elevator, in a cab, or when I’m just walking to the toilet at the mall. I know Chinoys haven’t been the nicest people to Pinoys. But racial slurs barked at someone can unmoor them. They rob me of my certainty of home and deny my essence as a person as I’m reduced to skin. And there’s a special kind of ache when the people you identify with don’t accept you and other you. That Pinoys will gladly adopt or claim some white person who’s never lived in the Philippines to be Filipino has, admittedly, made me wonder, “Do I have to be white to be Filipino?”
Some people at the event did ask about my heritage. But they understood that you could be many things or lean more toward one culture or the other. I learned that it was the same for some of them, whose parents or grandparents came to Switzerland from countries I’d never heard of. Like me, they had languages only they could speak and understand at home.
Swiss German is also spoken in Switzerland, and immigrants like Eliza (who came from the UK) also learned it, albeit with great difficulty. Paul Jorgensen, founder and creator of Langfocus, found that the rise of Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of WWII made a number of Swiss people speak more Swiss German to distinguish themselves from Nazi Germany. I like the distinction, this awareness of High German and Swiss German: what’s taught in schools versus what they’ve made for themselves. And because the German-speaking locals have inherited both from their families and communes, they have a choice.
There’s this joke that my husband, his friends, and I have. Ask us what we learned in all our Chinese classes, and we’ll tell you: wo xihuan chi mangguo, intentionally butchering the tones. My cousins, who are Gen Z, know it too and have said it at mealtimes, even exaggerating the chi for churrrrr. Our parents and grandparents don’t laugh. They don’t seem upset, which makes me wonder if they hear the irony, the implied criticism.
I’m sure Chinoy parents are proud to put their kids in “Chinese schools.” But all those years spent learning a language foreign to us and our immediate families, a language we can barely use to speak to each other, much less do business with—we could’ve spent it in each other’s presence. Letting ourselves be known through our speech.
But culture, too, works against this idea. Given their interpretation of respect and filial piety, Chinoy parents wouldn’t feel like having children who commanded Hokkien is in their interest. All the musical tones of the language, how it not only accommodates rage but lets it resound in our bodies, are reserved for the patriarch or matriarch. Silence is the default. We dilute our feelings by code-switching to sorry or love you. We don’t say gua thia di—the word thia, love, a throat swell away from thia, painful, which is again another swell away from thia, listen.
Please don’t tell me “At least you’re fluent in English.” This is often used in the context of employment: “You’re more competitive,” “There are more career opportunities for you.” I know other people want to be articulate or fluent in English for those reasons. And I too spent my summer breaks, especially those before college entrance exams, combing through English grammar books to write “more complex” sentences and reading classics to beef up my vocabulary. But does one need to be fluent in English, or are we using language to exclude people by calling some languages “official” or “formal”? Did I want to be fluent in English for the sake of it, or did I just need a vessel to give shape to my voice, which my younger self felt was silenced? English became the default because of how accessible it was to me, growing up with American cartoons and having English as the mode of instruction at school. And because it appeased my mom, who came of age and started a family at a time when anything American was covetable in the eyes of the average Filipino, or Chinoy.
My job search in Switzerland is limited to English-only-speaking roles. Hiring websites ask me to select my level of English: mother tongue, A level, B level, C level. In my applications, I choose “mother tongue” even if I’m not so sure. Can your mother tongue be a language your own mother doesn’t confidently speak? No other option seems to accommodate “colonialism” better than “mother tongue.”
As much as I would like to, I can’t work in the service industry or in customer service until I can understand and speak a Swiss language. And I’m genuinely happy for the locals for that. So used to an environment where I (and other Pinoys) have had to accommodate a foreigner by speaking a foreign language, I’m grateful for people who can assert something so vital to their identity and culture, without telling me to go back to my country. How I wish that firmness were innate in me.
To help me learn German, my notes don’t just bear the English translations. Tagalog words have sprung up too. “Move as in galaw = bewegen. Move as in lipat = ziehen.” When I found myself using Tagalog because I couldn’t instinctively summon English synonyms to help me, I knew, without a doubt, that English is a borrowed tongue, one that cost other people’s blood; and Tagalog a native tongue, one that underpins how I understand the world around me despite my Taglish and Tagalog-Hokkien, despite my writing in English.
The probability of losing the Tagalog I know is slim. I speak to my brother, whom I’m very close to, in Tagalog. We only code-switch to Hokkien for Chinoy things like pwationgchu. There’s a bigger chance I’ll lose Hokkien because it’s a regional language and the only people I know who speak it are immigrants or from immigrant families. My parents’ generation seems to be the last to use Hokkien outside the home, with their friends. No standard system of writing like pinyin exists to help us pronounce the words or let us DM each other and be understood.
Not that a system should exist. Orality and oral cultures wield the power of community because speech is shared with others. They have a bodily connection where our tone, silences, and facial expressions, among other physicalities and intimacies, reveal our meaning, our fronts, and what we bury in a given moment. Unfortunately, my family doesn’t have stories or songs in Hokkien to pass down. Those could’ve created the positive environment I needed to be fluent. The safe, playful space all of us needed to be vulnerable. All the Hokkien I seem to know has come from the unremarkableness, necessities, and frustrations of the everyday. Stringing words together means unearthing from my mind each relative’s voice and the mundane or heated moments I witnessed or shared with them.
In the grand scheme of things, the value of a mother tongue is a construct. The same goes for being multilingual as the Swiss know it to be and being able to pass down a language. We each get to define and rank what matters to us, which reveals the absence of a universal set of values.
I speak and think in fragments. It’s something I don’t particularly like about myself when I think about how I struggle to write straight. But who told me it shouldn’t be so, that this can’t be a flow of its own? A way to remember the conflicts that came before me, to hurl this mess upon the world as evidence of its own mess, to recognize difference and know better than belittle. Bue iau kin, says a voice in my head. It’s my grandmother’s. The phrase’s lilt, how the tone curves and speeds upward like an arpeggio, embraces me whole.
Mei Wen is a Chinese Filipino writer who explores her relationship with herself, her family, and art through essays. Her works have appeared in Spellbinder, The Lumiere Review, Anak Sastra, The Ekphrastic Review, After the Art, and 11 x 9: Collaborative Poetry from the Philippines and Singapore, among others. She enjoys nurturing communities, film photography, and watching cat reels. Born and raised in the Philippines, she now lives in Switzerland. Mei Wen is a pseudonym. Instagram: @houseblessing_