Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals: Katherine Chen

This is my sister’s Chinese-American ex-coworker, Katherine. Kat is the life of the party, quick with puns, and a lover of chunky bracelets and rings. She even gives out “Chen Points” if she thinks you’ve done something super cool.

What’s your name (accents, characters and all)?

English: Katherine Jean Chen. Chinese: 陈燕情 (Chen Yan Qing, or Chen[3rd tone] Yan[4th tone] Qing[3rd tone] – I can’t figure out how to do the tone symbols on a keyboard, apologies!)

Where were you born?

Hong Kong

What languages do you speak? What’s your mother tongue?

I speak English and Mandarin Chinese. I would consider English my native tongue, however I didn’t learn it until I was 3 or 4. I spoke Chinese until then. It’s hard to figure out which one’s my mother tongue!

When/how did you learn to speak English? Was it a hard and painful process?

I only learned when my mom put me in an English-speaking kindergarten. I grew up in Beijing, and both my parents and everyone around me spoke Mandarin, so that’s the language I learned before English.

What language do you think in? Dream in?

I think and dream in English, but when I’m speaking in Chinese, I think in Chinese. It’s weird but my brain flips between the languages, depending on what I’m speaking then.

What sort of things do you associate with your mother tongue?

Family. It sounds abstract, but I think of my family, I think of where I grew up (China), I think of being a kid. I get very nostalgic with Chinese. I also think of food, haha.

What language do you feel most comfortable speaking in?

Generally, English, but there are certain situations where Chinese is most useful, and not just talking to other Chinese people. There are certain expressions, for example 丢脸 (diu lian), which means to “lose face” or experience extreme public embarrassment, that really fit situations but that aren’t in English.

Are there certain things you can’t feel you simply can’t translate into English? Like what?

Hm. The term 关系 (guanxi) tends to be misconstrued – it means generally “relationship”, but it connotes as having a deep personal or business relationship that allows for shortcuts to be taken. Other than that, it’s pretty expressive.

Do your parents speak English? What do you speak with them? With your siblings?

Both my parents speak English and Chinese. They mostly speak English with us, but once in a while they speak Chinese to us – especially in big family gatherings.

Do you feel different when you speak your mother tongue?

I do feel different speaking in Chinese and in English – there’s a difference between communicating and expressing yourself, you know? I feel like I can express myself fully and more detailed in English, but I can communicate and engage just fine in Chinese.

Do you feel awkward speaking your mother tongue in front of your friends?

Not really – I feel proud, mostly. Although I can tell it sounds surprising to them, haha, because I don’t “look” Chinese yet I do speak it. I think they think it’s cool, though.

Do you think people who speak your mother tongue natively can see that you’ve spent a long time outside of that country? Do you think you sound foreign in your mother tongue now?

I definitely think my accent has gotten a lot less strong now that I’ve lived full time in the States for a while. On a trip back home recently, people said it took a few days for my grammar to get back up to speed and for me to speak as fluidly as I did before. I don’t want to lose being able to speak the language, because it’s so important to me, so I’ve made more of an effort to call my grandmother more often (her Chinese is better than her English) and speak to my parents mostly in Chinese, because I don’t want to lose that connection.

Can you teach us a word/expression in your mother tongue? What does this mean and why did u choose it?

慢慢来 (man man lai). It means “go slowly” or “take it easy”. It’s awesome and is used in any number of situations in Chinese.

A naughty, naughty word please.

牛逼 (niu bi) – it means “really cool” or “badass”, but I think the literal translation means “cow’s vagina”. I could be wrong, though. In written slang people write NB when they mean that.

About alicestockwellegan

Language and culture enthusiast from New York living in San Francisco.
This entry was posted in America., Conversations with Real Live Bilinguals, Language, Multilingualism, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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