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VIDEO: A Daughter's Journey To Reclaim Her Heritage Language

Emily Kwong is host and reporter of NPR's <em>Short Wave</em> podcast.
Michael Zamora/NPR
Emily Kwong is host and reporter of NPR's Short Wave podcast.

NPR Short Wave host and reporter Emily Kwong is a third generation Chinese American, but she's never spoken her family's language.

Until now.

At age 30, she's trying to learn the language for the first time, and unpacking why she never learned it in the first place.

Emily's father, Christopher Kwong, stopped speaking his first language — Mandarin Chinese — when he was five-years-old. Born in New York City in 1958, he struggled to communicate with his kindergarten teacher and classmates.

Emily's grandparents, Hui and Edgar Kwong, were worried he would fall behind. They stopped speaking Mandarin to Christopher at home, and dedicated themselves to teaching him English.

"I realized I had to engage in a different world, a world in English," Christopher Kwong says. "You have to integrate, otherwise you're going to be really in a terrible place."

I realized I had to engage in a different world, a world in English.

In turn, Emily never learned her family's 'heritage language' growing up. In a conversation years in the making, Emily and Christopher process what it means to stop speaking a language — the generational cost of assimilation.

Emily will explore how being 'Chinese enough' gets tied up in language fluency and the feeling of racial imposter syndrome, in conversation with sociolinguist Amelia Tseng. She also discovers how language is a bridge that can be broken and rebuilt between generations — as an act of love and reclamation.

This story is part of the Where We Come From series, featuring stories from immigrant communities of color across generations, in honor of Immigrant Heritage Month. Find more stories here.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Emily Kwong (she/her) is the reporter for NPR's daily science podcast, Short Wave. The podcast explores new discoveries, everyday mysteries and the science behind the headlines — all in about 10 minutes, Monday through Friday.
Michael Zamora
Anjuli Sastry (she/her) is a producer on It's Been a Minute with Sam Sanders and a 2021 Nieman Journalism Foundation Visiting Fellow. During her Nieman fellowship in spring 2021, Sastry created, hosted and produced the audio and video series Where We Come From. The series tells the stories of immigrant communities of color through a personal and historical lens.