Thoughts on adding to my heritage language
It’s been years since I’ve lived in my parents’ home, but—I’m slightly embarrassed to say—my childhood bedroom is still full of my old things. Recently, my parents sent me a box of stuff, mostly books, and at the bottom I found something that I’d totally forgotten about: a Ukrainian-Chinese dictionary.
Ukrainian is my heritage language, the language I grew up speaking at home and still use to communicate with my family. Saturday-morning Ukrainian school was a part of my life until I was in high school. I secretly really liked Ukrainian school and was fortunate to have a teacher who was a grammar master. It was in the church rec room we used as a classroom that I first learned about noun case and verb tense—those lessons triggered my fascination with language.
When I started learning Mandarin in earnest, my attention shifted away from Ukrainian. My university years were all about Chinese. And at some point I began to feel a deep sense of guilt that my “second” language had subverted my “heritage” language. I felt that I should have been devoting time to studying Ukrainian and continuing to connect with my family’s history. I had grown up with a deep sense of Ukrainian identity, and language proficiency was a significant element of that identity. So not pursuing Ukrainian felt like a betrayal. I felt like I was a bad Ukrainian.
Trying to balance things out, the summer before my last year of university I went to Ukraine for a language study program. I loved my time there, meeting extended family, seeing what modern Ukraine was like, taking language classes every day. And one Saturday afternoon, walking through Kyiv’s huge book market, I found a Ukrainian-Chinese dictionary. I had never before seen Ukrainian and Chinese on the same page, and as I flipped through the dictionary I realized that my Ukrainian and my Chinese could coexist. They could both survive in my English-dominant brain, and they could both help shape my identity.
I bought the dictionary, and I started looking up new Ukrainian words there before I checked my English-Ukrainian dictionary. I eventually also found a Chinese-Ukrainian dictionary, and I did the same with new Chinese words. I started writing Chinese sounds in Ukrainian instead of in Pinyin. I started writing poems with both Chinese and Ukrainian embedded in English. I started having a whole lot of fun with my three languages. I decided I wanted my first tattoo to be a dictionary entry from that little green book I found in the corner of a used book stall in Kyiv.
I still haven’t gone through with the tattoo, but the guilt is definitely gone.