I had a tongue that held three languages by a single thread.
When I was in second grade, I had a tutor who was the brightest among all. He had a Masters in Animal Science and a PhD in stem cell research. He attended National Taiwan University and graduated top of his class.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, my tutor would come and help me with English, Math, Science, and everything else I needed help with. Every time we had class, he would assign vocabulary homework to help with my weak word choice: “Write the words five times within these lines… Your handwriting is too ugly for anyone to understand… Search and write down the definition of each… Next time, you’ll be tested on spelling.”
My English wasn’t my strongest language at that time; Japanese was. So it was always a struggle for me to get that simple homework done. I was always distracted with the wonders of being a child, not knowing how important English would be later on in my life.
Because Chinese was my second language, Japanese being my first, I never learned how to read and write in Chinese. It was the same for English. I knew how to speak (not fluently) and listen (not fluently) but my writing and reading were my worst. The only language I was actually fluent at, in writing, speaking, and reading, was Japanese.
One day, my tutor got fed up with me:
”Why didn’t you do your homework?”
“I didn’t have time.”
“Don’t lie to me. You had all this time to do it, you wasted it on watching videos on YouTube. You were wasting your time”
“Do you realize how bad your English is? You can’t read or write Chinese. You surely can’t write well in English. All those spelling errors, all those mispronunciations… are you even trying? If you’re not even trying to improve in English and Chinese, you’re slowly starting to forget how to speak Japanese, what language do you actually know?”
Silence followed, as my tongue had been amputated by the sharp but true words my tutor blurted out.
My tutor continued to scold me twice a week, as I grew into my teenage years. I started getting better and better at English. But my Japanese, my mother tongue, faded away.
Meanwhile, my Chinese skills stayed fixed. I don’t speak Chinese well, I never did. And yet it is the only language I share with my Ah Ma, the language I use to express my gratitude and love for her. But the same “我愛你’s” I rehearsed in my head never came out right. The same “I will prove to you how much I love you” never sounded sincere… as Chinese was always the language I got scolded in. Most of the vocabulary I learned are aggressive in tone… lovely in the intentions. My heart sinks every time I try to express my love for my Ah Ma. As I know there are better, more beautiful ways to express this weird emotion. It’s a burden… but it’s all I have. All the love poems I wrote for my Ah Ma are in English. A language that is completely foreign to her. I can only translate my eight-line poem of love into a three-word phrase I can never say right.
I write in English to remind myself how shameful it is to forget my Japanese. I write in English to mock my lack of knowledge in Chinese.
I write in English because it is the only language I know how to loosely string a bunch of words together, in attempts to express my feelings.
I write to cover the fact that… I don’t actually know any language of the heart.
Is it actually good to be trilingual? Can I even be considered trilingual? Isn’t it embarrassing that my mother tongue has become so foreign to me?
An eye for an eye. A tooth for a tooth. I have exchanged my mother tongue for something that used to be foreign. Please let me go back in time and sew my tongue back where it belongs.
To this day, I’m still not so fluent in my mother tongue. But I am fluent in the shadows, in the silence of my mother tongue.
Bow before you eat.
Bow before you enter a room full of elders.
Never be in the right.
Apologize for existing.
I’m still trilingual. Just not in terms of speaking. In terms of culture, I am. In terms of social rules, I am. I incorporate my Japaneseness in my Chineseness. While have both elements in my Americanness.
I miss the times when I remembered how to speak Japanese. I will only rest until I remember how it tasted when a fluent exchange of Japanese felt in my mouth. I will only rest when I know how to speak Japanese fluently.
But for now, I am sorry. I am sorry for my lack of Japaneseness due to this thick wall I built, trying to learn English. I am sorry for my forgotten Japanese.
I am sorry.
Jaja Hashimoto is half Taiwanese and half Japanese.