We Can’t Speak the Same Language
In this bonus episode of Conversations With My Immigrant Parents, hosts Saraid de Silva and Julie Zhu turn the mics on themselves and talk with their own immigrant mums.
Saraid’s mother Karenza migrated to Aotearoa from Sri Lanka (after a brief stint in England) when she was seven years old. Along with her parents and two brothers, the family moved first to Waikouaiti before eventually settling in Invercargill.
“We were one of very few brown families in Invercargill. Probably you could count them on one hand,” remembers Karenza.
Her father Rienzi passed away very suddenly when she was 19 and after that Karenza and her siblings dispersed to different parts of the country. She now works as an environmental lawyer based in Auckland.
Karenza had Saraid when she was 28 but she and Saraid’s father divorced when Saraid was four. Saraid was raised in Hamilton, Auckland, Tauranga, Christchurch, and Wellington before eventually moving back to Auckland when she was 19 to study performing arts at Unitec. Saraid also has a younger sister Siena from Karenza’s second marriage.
Saraid and Karenza compare their different experiences of racism, from growing up as one of the first brown families in Invercargill to Saraid’s experience growing up in different parts of New Zealand and having both Sri Lankan and Pākehā heritage.
“I think when you’re half white, the shit that is said to you is like people backhandedly complimenting you. And they’re kinda putting you on this weird box or this weird zone of being better than people who are not half white in some ways, they’re kinda like separating you,” describes Saraid. “But I just kinda wanna be brown you know?”
The pair also discuss relationships, divorce for Catholics, and what it means to truly feel Sri Lankan.
The second half of this episode turns to Julie and her mum Jenny.
Julie’s parents came to New Zealand when she was two years old, leaving her in China with grandparents as they tested the waters of Aotearoa.
“We thought we’d just come here for a bit to see. We only brought two suitcases. Like just going for a holiday,” says Jenny.
Keeping in touch through brief but expensive international calls, Julie’s parents expected to return to China after a month or two at most. However, a serious car accident left them both with serious injuries and led them to stay on longer in the country. Two years later they managed to bring Julie to join them.
A big part of Jenny and Julie’s conversation focuses around the language barrier between them. Jenny speaks Mandarin throughout the conversation while Julie replies in English.
“Do you think if I’d grown up in China we’d be closer?” asks Julie. “Like even now how we talk, how we can’t speak the same language?”
Jenny replies, “I feel that’s the one bad thing. All my friends, all their kids can speak Chinese, and I’m very jealous of them. None of them worked, or they worked in Chinese communities or businesses, so they all spoke Chinese. Because I worked in a Kiwi company, I had to speak English every day. So when you would come home from school and speak English to me I was very happy. I thought, great, I can practise my English with you. You can teach me how to speak. But when I realised that you were losing your Chinese, I would force you to speak Chinese to me every day. But by then you didn’t want to. I just felt very sad and like a failure. I felt like it was all my fault.”
Julie’s father Jeff passed away in 2017 and the pair also discuss the different ways they process grief.
“Being wrapped up in the past doesn’t help anything,” muses Jenny. “You might as well focus on a new life. If you always think of the past then that’s you wasting your life. So now I strive to do every day what I think is important. And every day I think about how I can make myself happier.”
Note: The second half of this episode has an English dub of Jenny’s dialogue, translated by Julie Zhu and read by Jing su-Cornall.
Conversations With My Immigrant Parents is a podcast and video series hosted, produced, and directed by Saraid de Silva and Julie Zhu.
Saraid de Silva is a Sri Lankan/Pākehā actor and writer. Her work deals with contemporary feminism and the realities of being a first generation South Asian New Zealander.
Born in China, Julie Zhu is a filmmaker, photographer, and storyteller focused on championing the stories and voices of marginalised identities.