I was only 7 years old when my family went to New Zealand to live there for a while. I was 7 and I wasn’t aware of what was about to happen to my life. As I sat in the plane, looking out of the window, I was wondering whether this was all just a vacation and that I would see my home country again in a few days’ time. I knew nothing and I couldn’t seem to pry anything out of my parents.
I wasn’t disheartened or sad. If anything, I was excited. The stewardess handed me a colouring book to fill in for the long flight and it showed a map of Australia and New Zealand.
I remembered that we were staying at a temporary apartment for around two weeks. After that, I had wondered if we were going to go back.
Then, my parents started talking about school for my siblings and myself.
School? I thought. What about the school back home? My classmates were all there. I didn’t think I’d classified them as friends — I was always a bit of a loner, but I had sought comfort in familiarity.
I was in the kitchen of the temporary apartment, eating my breakfast and listing down the names that I could vividly remember. At that precise moment, I would never have thought that those names, to which I could match their facial features and their personality so clearly then, would be completely forgotten forever from my mind in the years to come. That was the last time I would ever utter their names.
With feelings of reluctance, I went to a public school and that was when I discovered that I was different. A minority. A notion I wasn’t familiar with. There were kids with white skin, blonde hair and blue eyes. Kids with darker skin, wiry hair and brown eyes. Kids that didn’t look like me. Kids that spoke differently than I did.
I knew English by then; however, it was limited and conversational. I probably had a strange accent to begin with, but that was about to change quickly. Fortunately, my new classmates were friendly.
I wasn’t the best student and I was slow at certain subjects because of my limited knowledge of the English language.
I remember coming back home from school, and my sister had given me a bunch of books to read to improve my speech and writing. Books like Sweet Valley Kids. I cringe a little, remembering them. Although over time, I had a better selection of books that were more of my type than hers. Nevertheless, I was rather obedient and I began reading aloud the books she gave me in my own room.
As the year went by, my parents still spoke to me in our native tongue, but I somehow found out that I couldn’t answer them back in the same language. I spoke English to them and they understood what I was saying. If they could understand me, then why should I bother trying to converse in a language that was gradually becoming more foreign while I was in an English-speaking country? Unaware of the consequences, I pressed on speaking in English.
I was fully adapted to the culture and language by the time I was 12 years old. My accent was heavily twanged like the New Zealanders’ and I could not stop it.
5 years living in New Zealand and my father dropped the bomb and announced that it was time to head back to our home country. For good. Wait, what? I had just gotten comfortable in this earthquake-y country and we were already leaving?
Landing in the humid country was an unfamiliarity that I wasn’t sure how to deal with. The local language surrounding me didn’t feel too foreign, but distant. I could still understand the language, but I realised that I couldn’t speak it.
After a few months of settling down in our old house, relatives would drop by and catch up with mum and dad. They would ask me questions and I struggled to reply in the same language, but quickly became disappointed when all I could croak out was a single word, badly mangled with my New Zealander accent.
I felt devastated and unsure of myself. I wasn’t aware of how that could have happened. I had kept thinking that I was so good in my native language five years ago and I wondered, how could it have disappeared in the space of just five years? I was frustrated with myself.
The talks of school came up once again and I was enrolled in a public school, a half hour drive from where we lived. The kids at school had light brown skin, black hair and dark brown eyes. They finally looked a lot like me. I wasn’t a minority anymore, at least in appearance. But, I was a minority. I wasn’t the same as them anymore. I was different. We didn’t share the same language anymore.
They spoke to me in our native language and all I could do was answer them back in simple English. Fortunately, they understood me, but they regularly side-eyed me.
How could this girl not know how to speak her own mother tongue?
This particular thought had always kicked me low to the ground and I felt a deep sense of shame.
My parents kept reminding me that I had to improve if I were to do well in school. My biggest obstacle at that time was the final year exams in high school and I was nagged repeatedly by almost everyone that I had to pass the local language exam, otherwise my future would be ruined.
Pressured, I went for extra classes and attended tuition schools and frankly, I felt demoralised. I worked hard just to pass the exams for my native language, but I never had the passion to speak the language properly. I catered too much to the exam-based written questions that I never bothered improving my speaking.
Was I surprised that I passed my exams with a good grade? Not really. I was too bitter to celebrate. I still lost my native tongue.
A decade has passed and my attitude for the language has shifted. I’m no longer pressured to re-learn my mother tongue, so I’ve embraced it wholeheartedly with open arms. I’m a lot better now with my vocabulary — but that doesn’t really mean I can speak like a rocket scientist in said language.
I had lost my native language.
But I finally found it again after a long, arduous journey.