From The Editor
A couple of years ago my friend was telling me about the word ‘Teng’, a special word for love in Chinese. The primary character is the same as hurt, combining ideas of love with ache and pain. It is most often used to describe the relationship between a parent and a child. There is no English equivalent. When people ask about my relationship with my dad I describe it as gentle and uncomplicated. But the truth is, my dad and I don’t speak the same language. I speak English, and he Cantonese. In our linguistic Venn diagram, there’s a small Chinglish overlap where we cobble together our relationship.
Most of what I know about dad has come to me secondhand. Our conversations have always been restricted, limited to the formalities of day to day life. To stray anywhere further feels like returning to infancy. No matter how much you twirl your words in your mouth, you can’t help tripping over your tongue. We learn the words we need most, but vocabulary limits not just how well you speak but how well you listen.
Early on, like most other Chinese Kiwis, dad enrolled me in Chinese lessons. At the time, I saw no worth to being bilingual. We were living in New Zealand where most people speak English anyway. Growing up, I would regularly see customers and other kids get frustrated at his lack of English. He experienced much difficulty formulating the sentences he needed into English, his knowledge and language only extending to the daily necessities. Every now and then I’ll catch him opening his mouth as if to say something, only to then see it shut and his lips fall back into a tight line. On Sunday he would wake me up early and drive 40 minutes, just so I could listen to some Chinese woman read rhymes for three hours.
During these car rides, he would ask about what we had been learning in class and suggest that we go over it together. I always refused the invitation and instead changed the radio station until I found something I liked. He continued doing this every Sunday for seven years. But my interest in reading and writing Chinese quickly waned, and soon, every weekend, I was throwing tantrums because I was hell-bent against going. By the time I was thirteen, dad had finally given up. The final straw was me slamming the car door shut and telling him I never want to learn this dumb language. He agreed that it was wrong for him to force me to do anything I didn’t want and apologised.
Throughout my entire adolescence I showed no interest in what it meant to be Chinese. Only now am I grappling with how little I know about my parents as a result. Lately I’ve been told I’m incredibly similar to dad, but it’s hard for me to see and know in exactly what ways. I feel as if there is something missing, something unwritten in all of this. It’s difficult for me to navigate this space without feeling either guilty or lost. And while my story is unique in individual experience, I believe intergenerational loss of identity is a universal experience.
This issue of Debate is themed Unwritten Stories. When I initially pitched this theme I was interested in capturing narratives from all walks of life. Our team was interested in hearing how identity, physicality or positionality impact interactions and behaviour. This issue was an absolute pleasure to edit, so it goes without saying, thank you to all our contributors for their incredible mahi.
Ngā mihi nui,