My parents were part of a later wave of Chinese immigrants who came to Australia, so I missed out on a childhood of gatherings with family friends where there were kids my age with whom I could play and speak comfortably.
Since I first moved here when I was 6 and even now in my 20s, numerous times at dinners with my parents and their friends, I would be asked: “Do you understand what we are saying?” in Mandarin. It was a shock to me that people from my parents’ generation would assume that since I grew up in an English speaking environment, that I would forget my mother tongue.
At first, I felt like I was being mocked, sitting at a table, where others thought that I had no idea what was going on around me. However, I realised that these adults knew other children similar to me, and were probably concerned whether I was feeling left out and enjoying myself, because I tend to be a fairly quiet person in group situations.
I feel very fortunate to be bilingual, mainly thanks to my parents being determined that I keep speaking Mandarin at home, as well as learning how to read and write. Despite being more confident at expressing myself in English, I also have no problem reading food menus (without photos of course) or books in Chinese, so I hope such quick judgments aren’t made on first generation Asian-Australians anymore. We understand more than you think!