Graphic by Ciara Uysipuo
Words by Crissia Po
Minnan Yu (闽南语), also known as Hokkien or Lan-nang-oe, is a Chinese dialect that originated from Fujian province in China. Both the Chinese locals in Fujian province and the Chinese diaspora living in different parts of the world still use this dialect. In the Philippines, Minnan is widely spoken among the Chinese-Filipino community; it is the preferred language used in making business transactions, buying and selling goods, and settling important affairs.
Although I come from a Chinese family whose roots can be traced back to Fujian province, I cannot speak Minnan fluently. Because of my inability to articulate my ideas in Minnan, I have had several unforgettable experiences which taught me the importance of learning this age-old language. One of these instances involved a visit to my physician’s clinic.
When I was eleven years old, I had a high fever that greatly weakened my immune system. I lost my appetite to eat; I became very sluggish and pale. I could not do household chores as efficiently as I used to. I couldn’t concentrate on my studies, understand my lessons in school, or finish my homework on time. Anxious about my worsening condition, my father quickly booked an appointment with my Chinese pediatrician.
After greeting us warmly, my doctor asked me in Minnan, “Di leh lao phi ba?” (Do you have a runny nose?) Bewildered at her short question, I replied hesitantly, “Uh…Bo.” (No.) She repeated her question — I gave her the same reply. At this point, mucus had started to form in my nose. For the third time, she asked me the same question, this time mimicking what a runny nose looked like with her hands . Finally, I understood her question and said, “Oh. Ho, ho. Gua leh lao phi. Pai it kai si lao phi.” (Oh. Yes, yes. I have a runny nose. It started last Monday.) I quickly got some tissue out of my bag and blew my nose. Nodding, she wrote a prescription, gave it to my father, and instructed him to give me the medicines after meals and before bedtime. After glancing at the prescription, my father looked at me, smiled, and shook his head.
While driving home, my father sighed, “Now you know how difficult it is if you can’t speak Minnan Yu, Crissia. That is why I’m always telling you that you have to learn how to speak. Otherwise…” And he shook his head. “Help yourself, Crissia.”
Nearly five years have passed since that incident, and every time I remember it, I can’t help but laugh at my own foolishness. I did not give much effort in learning Minnan Yu because I did not see the importance of it in my life. I rarely used Minnan Yu to converse with others.
I am sure that others who cannot speak the native languages of their elders feel the same way. You may find difficulty in motivating yourself to learn the mother tongue of your ancestors because you seldom use it in everyday life. For example, because the medium of instruction in most schools is English, you may hardly use it to converse with your teachers, classmates, and friends. However, learning the native language of your ancestors is important because it shows that you have respect for the culture in which you were born. It also helps instill pride and love for your culture. Albeit funny, that experience made me realize why it is important for me to learn Minnan Yu, the native tongue of my parents, relatives, and ancestors. Not only does learning Minnan Yu help me appreciate my family’s culture, it also helps me converse with other Chinese-Filipinos with confidence and ease. Since then I have been striving harder to learn Minnan Yu, in the hopes that one day, I can be as fluent in Minnan Yu as my parents.
Mastering a language does not happen overnight: it requires a lot of time, effort, and determination. You must first have the willingness or initiative to learn. In other words, you must set your heart to learning the language. Then, you can start by talking to people who are fluent in the language, for example, your grandparents. Do not lose heart when you make mistakes. Do not feel shy or ashamed of yourself. In learning Minnan Yu, I have been through those difficult times myself. Keep persevering and practicing. Remember that constant practice increases your knowledge and builds your confidence in speaking the language. Becoming an expert in a language is worth all the effort you put into it, for it will enrich your life.