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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.

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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.

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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.

Video reporting, production, and editing by Michael Zamora. Anjuli Sastry created and produced 'Where We Come From' with additional editing and production by Julia Furlan and Diba Mohtasham. Additional video editing by Ben de la Cruz, Nicole Werbeck, and Keith Jenkins. Fact checking and research by Candice Vo Kortkamp. Our director of programming is Yolanda Sangweni. contributed to this story

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Emily Kwong
Emily Kwong (she/her) is the founding reporter and now co-host for Short Wave, NPR's daily science podcast. Her first homework assignment in kindergarten was to bring in a leaf to class. She's been looking at trees ever since.
Michael Zamora
Anjuli Sastry Krbechek
Anjuli Sastry (she/her) is a former producer on It's Been a Minute 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.