An open letter to my family: How it feels when you can't speak your mother-tounge

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By: Ashwini Selvakumaran

I was born in Selangor, Malaysia. Immediately after two months, my father, a UN employee got another posting. A two-month-old baby, getting on a plane for the very first time!

16 years and 5 postings later, I’ve finally settled in Ontario, Canada. I can’t say that I’m ungrateful. I owe everything to my parents for being able to live in an amazing, real life action movie. I’ve visited more than 10 countries in a lifetime!

But when we visit Malaysia every two years to see the rest of our family, I get that dreaded feeling in the pit of my stomach. It’s not that I don’t love seeing my grandmother and family, I do!

But what I dread, the single question that always haunts me as soon as I hop off the plane.

“Why can’t you speak Tamil?”

This question has been haunting me ever since I was a young girl. It’s not that I refuse to speak Tamil, it’s that I don’t know how. I don’t know why and I don’t know how but somehow with moving all over the world, I had just never picked up the language.

My family, I love you, but please please stop asking me that question. Though you are probably trying to make small talk with me, and you don’t realize the impact of those few small words, you don’t know how bad it makes me feel. Yes, I regret that I will probably never be able to properly communicate with my grandparents, or understand Tamil jokes.

But I do have strength in English. No, I am not “an English girl.” But I do have beautiful, wondrous writing skills in English. I’ve published a book! I’ve written for more than three magazines!

The feelings that lay inside me jump and fight with each other, whenever I get off the plane. As soon as I see your smile, I smile too! I haven’t seen you in ages for goodness sake.

I love you so much. But there comes the moment, with those five dreaded words slipping out of your mouths. And my heart sinks.

I know you try hard to understand me. I appreciate that. I know you love me and haven’t seen me in years. I love you too.

But I can’t help the sinking feeling that washes over me. While I wish that I could’ve picked up Tamil when I was younger, I didn’t, and that’s okay. Because there’s a variety of other things that I am able to do.

But at the end of the day, the question still hangs in the air. So I’ll try to put these feelings aside, though I can’t help it if they bore in me sometimes. I’ll endure the question, because I guess it will always be a part of the visit.



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