Lost In Translation

My name is Sidney. I was born in Lower Hutt—a fairly unremarkable city. Sometimes I wondered why my parents chose to settle there when they left Hong Kong. I guess they moved there because it was a sensible place to raise a young migrant family. It was also close to the rest of my family in Aotearoa. I grew up in a suburb called Taitā. A suburb that was defined by its hundreds of state houses nestled in the northern reaches of the valley. I always thought my childhood was typical of someone growing up in a migrant family. My brother and I spoke Cantonese at home and ate nothing but Chinese food. At each major festival the backyard would be blanketed in smoke as my parents made offerings of incense and joss paper to my ancestors and the many deities who look over us. I like to describe my home as a slice of Hong Kong in the Hutt Valley. Some of the rules we grew up with included no shoes in the house, no sleepovers, and strictly no dating. No surprises there.

Like most high school leavers itching for freedom, I moved out when I got the chance. I arrived in Ōtautahi nearly a decade ago to study at the University of Canterbury and I’ve been living here ever since. Prior to alert levels and traffic light systems, I still went back at least once a month. I don’t really do much or say much when I do go home to the Hutt. It is an unremarkable city after all and I can only go so far on my learner’s licence. My mum’s love language is food. Whenever I’m home mum cooks up my favourite dishes and I spend most of my time in the kitchen. She uses this as an opportunity to ask me how I’ve been, to which I respond with the usual: “I’m okay,” “I’m busy,” or “I’m tired.” Sometimes it’s hard to let go of your moody teenage self.

I remember once while we were at the dining table she said to me 『阿吉啊 。。。』[1] as she would call me at home 『。。。你應該要學點樣溝通自己。』[2]. I was confused why she suggested I should learn how to communicate myself to other people. Those who know me know how bizarre this sounds. I have always thought I am a good communicator. I’m passionate about languages and I’m a competent public speaker. On the home front, I call her more than once a week like the good Cantonese child I’m supposed to be. I tell her in excruciating detail what I had for tea and the meals I’ve planned for the coming days. I report to her my struggles of balancing work and the never-ending deadlines for my assignments at university. I tell her what’s fresh at the butcher’s whenever I go to Church Corner, and I ask her whether she wants me to send her any cuts of meat she can’t get from the supermarket. Does she know I recently started my PhD in Linguistics? Communication is my life. Yet she thinks I don’t do a good enough job communicating myself to her. 

I must admit there are things I don’t tell her. Like how I don’t tell her how much money I spend eating out or the shenanigans I get up to over the weekend. I don’t tell her these things because I don’t want her to worry. Though I don’t think this is the reason. She must know I don’t tell her everything about my life. It must feel suspicious when all we talk about is school or work. I don’t tell her my life as a Queer person. It’s not because she doesn’t know. It’s because I don’t know how to tell her. I have been speaking Cantonese my whole life but when it comes to my Queer identities, I’m at loss for words. I feel disconnected. How do I tell her it is more than just kissing boys? Maybe what she meant was:『你應該要學點樣表達自己。[3] that I should learn how to express myself. I know many children of migrants struggle with this topic. How do we reconcile who we are and who we should be? How do I express myself when the words for my identities, the tools I use to communicate, don’t seem to exist?

In English I can use terms like rainbow, queer, gay, homosexual, or LGBTQI+. They feel hollow and prescriptive, like tick boxes on a form that I need to fill in because I’m trying to renew my learner’s licence for the third time. These terms are what I am, and not who I am. I’m not a「彩虹」[4], or「酷兒」[5], or a「基」[6]. I don’t want to be diagnosed using pathological terms like 同性恋 [7]. I definitely don’t want to say I’m part of the cumbersome sounding 「女同性戀,男同性戀,雙性戀,跨性別,疑性戀,雙性,和相關社群」[8]. It seems these English terms just don’t translate into Cantonese. These words make me feel like I’m wearing a pair of shoes that are a few sizes too big. When I say them, they feel like eggshells in my mouth. And then I have to wonder, why don’t comparative terms exist in my language? Why does it feel like every time I talk about my Queer identities in my heritage language it feels like I’m taking one step back into the closet? 

Don’t get me wrong, words to describe Rainbow peoples do exist in Cantonese. What we would now call Queer identities were an inalienable aspect of everyday life. Poetic ways of describing these relationships like 「斷袖之癖」[9] or 「分桃」[10] disappeared from daily life and only remain in classical texts. Since the 1990s, members of Queer communities in Macau and Hong Kong would refer to each other as 「同志」[11]. It’s loosely translated as “comrade” and describes those with a shared purpose. This term was meant to invoke a similar sense of solidarity amongst party members within the communist regime. It was adopted by the Queer communities to mock and satirise those very members. But this is not my identity. I don’t want to be constantly reminded of the very reason why my family left Hong Kong in the first place—the very regime that continues to colonise and re-colonise.

At this point, you might be mistaken that my communicative struggles only go in one direction. But there are ways I can express myself in Cantonese that  I can’t express in English. In Cantonese, I can use the pronoun 佢 [12]. 佢 is neither male nor female. It is a person standing next to a carpenter’s square. 佢 is a person ready to be shaped and moulded by their experience. There’s no gender when people refer to me as 佢. 佢 means I can freely navigate this world in whatever way I choose to express myself. 佢 means I can talk about the ones I love for who they are and not what we want them to be. 佢 is indeed a personal pronoun. 佢 is a luxury that doesn’t exist in English.

In Linguistics we often talk about linguistic relativity. The theory proposes that a person’s language influences the way they perceive reality. There is some truth to the theory as your language is shaped by your worldview. Does that mean when I speak Cantonese that other parts of identities cease to exist? No. Language is not static. Language is fluid. Language evolves and meanings disappear and reappear throughout history. I think it is time that we came together as a community to create our own language that encompasses our unique experiences as intersectional Queer people. I hope that one day when my mum asks me again if I have learnt how to communicate myself, I can say that I have learnt how to express myself, and that I have the language to celebrate all facets of my identity.


This postscript provides the cultural and linguistic context for this article. Vernacular Cantonese is embedded with cultural, spiritual, and historical nuance. Written Cantonese and the Cantonese romanisation (jyut6ping3) system is used as a form of linguistic disobedience. Translations were deliberately excluded from the text to uphold the values of translanguaging whereby a multilingual person’s full linguistic repertoire is used and honoured.

[1]『阿吉啊。。。』/aa3gat1aa1/ — quote. figuratively “Sidney. . . .” 吉 /gat1/ is my personal name and 阿 /aa3/ is a prefix used before a person’s surname or personal name to express familiarity or friendliness.

[2]『。。。你應該要學點樣溝通自己。』/nei5 jing1goi1 jiu1 hok6 dim2joeng6-2 kau1tung1 zi6gei2-1/ — quote. “. . .you should learn how to communicate yourself.” 

[3]『你應該要學點樣表達自己。』/nei5 jing1goi1 jiu1 hok6 dim2joeng6-2 biu2daat6 zi6gei2-1/ — quote. “You should learn how to express yourself.”

[4]「彩虹」 /coi2hung4/ — n. rainbow 

[5]「酷兒」 /huk6ji4/ — adj. from Mandarin /kù’ér/ phonosemantic matching of “queer” in English; composed of 酷 ‘ruthless, cruel’ and 兒 “child, diminutive suffix.”

[6]「基」 /gei1/ — adj. phonosemantic matching of “gay” in English; composed of 基 “foundation, base of a building.”

[7]「同性戀」 /tong4sing3lyun2/ — adj. Homosexual; composed of 同性戀 /tong4sing3/ ‘same sex’ and 戀 /lyun2/ ‘attraction, attachment, love’.

[8]「女同性戀,男同性戀,雙性戀,跨性別,疑性戀,雙性和相關社群」 /neoi5tong4sing3lyun2 naam4tong4sing3lyun2 soeng14sing3lyun2 kwaa1sing3bit6 ji44sing3lyun2 soeng14sing3 wo4 soen1gwaan1 se5kwan4/ — n. LGBTQI+; composed of 女同性戀 “female homosexual,” 男同性戀 “male homosexual,” 雙性戀 “bisexual,” 跨性別 “transgender,” 疑性戀 “questioning,” 雙性 “intersex,” 和相關 “and related,” and 社群 “community.”

[9]「斷袖之癖」/dyun6zau6zi1pik1/ — idiom. “passion of the cut sleeve” or figuratively male homosexuality. This idiom speaks of Emperor Ai of Han 漢哀帝 /hon3oi1dai3/ and his relationship with 董賢 /dung2jin4/. It refers to the time 董賢 fell asleep on the Emperor’s sleeve, so the Emperor decided to cut off his sleeve as not to wake him from his slumber; composed of 斷袖 “cut-sleeve,” 之 possessive, 癖 “passion.”

[10]「分桃」/fan1tou4/ — idiom. “split peach” or figuratively male homosexuality. This idiom derives from 「分桃断袖」/fan1tou4dyun6zau6/ which probably refers to the story of Emperor Ai of Han 漢哀帝 /hon3oi1dai3/ and his lovers. This idiom doesn’t leave little to the imagination.

[11]「同志」/tung4zi3/ — n. someone who shares similar interests, comrade, neologism for sexual or gender minority; composed of 同 “like, similar, same” and 志 “the will.”

[12] 佢 /keoi5/ — pro. third person singular pronoun

Featured photo courtesy of author.


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