Home gen z speaks Gen Z Speaks: A language barrier separates me from my grandmother, but I love her all the same

Gen Z Speaks: A language barrier separates me from my grandmother, but I love her all the same

Gen Z Speaks: A language barrier separates me from my grandmother, but I love her all the same
Hana Chen

When I was a child, conversations about watering the plants or common household chores were elementary. I’d jabber away in a mixture of Mandarin and English, and Ah Ma would simply just understand.

Life was a lot simpler, so communication was also easier.

But as I grew up, it has become difficult. Talking to my Ah Ma can turn into an extremely unsatisfying game of broken telephone, going back and forth as we try to decipher the meaning behind each other’s words.

This only gets worse with more complex topics, especially social issues that youth are passionate about.

Understanding mental wellness, for example, is not as simple as using the Mandarin word or phrase for the topic.

Things get lost in translation when I explain to her about the importance of mental health, and how it permeates our emotional, psychological, and social well-being, even in a language that she knows well.

Time and time again, I run into the same issue — trying to explain why something matters to me as Ah Ma looks on in patient confusion.

It’s not that she doesn’t care, or that she’s not smart enough, because she certainly is. But I think she doesn’t understand it the same way I do because we were brought up differently.


Ah Ma was born in 1941 in tumultuous times. She was the eldest daughter in a poor family that lived in a kampung and has no formal education. She became a seamstress by trade, and eventually married my Ah Gong, a construction worker who hailed from Fujian.

As my family tells me, Ah Ma grew up worried about earning money, about sending her children to school and making sure that there would be food on the table each day.

I am fascinated by the stories of her life because they tell me about Ah Ma before I was born.

She was the strict mother who pushed her children to study, the thrifty wife that ensured that her family’s needs would always be met.

To me, she has always been my sweet grandmother, and it’s so strange to imagine her going through the long, hard life she had before I came along. At times, I wonder how she sees me in return — will I always be the baby she first held years ago, no matter how much I’ve grown? 

I was born in 2003, just over sixty years later. I’m also the eldest daughter and my family lives in an apartment.

I’ve never had to even consider giving up my studies to support them, and I can study what I’m passionate about and look for a job in that field.

My concerns are more abstract, in a sense. I’m worried about small things, like which university I’ll go to, and how much schoolwork I have, and I’m worried about big things, like global warming and social media addiction and all those other issues that seem to keep popping up.

We both care about current affairs or the world around us, but I think it matters to us both in a different way.

Ah Ma’s life centred around her day-to-day struggle, and even now, she only remembers historical events in the way they relate to her life.

So, the rise and fall of the Berlin wall? To her, it is irrelevant, despite it being a major historical event. Singapore’s “Two is Enough” campaign? Well, it happened when my uncle was born, and she recalls being told off by nurses for having a third child.

I can’t blame my Ah Ma for not being interested in the issues that I feel so strongly about, in the same way that she doesn’t blame me for being able to empathise with the problems she had in her life.


Is it selfish, I once asked a friend, to want her to care about the same issues as I do? Should I just confine my conversations with Ah Ma to banal retellings of what I did over the week?

A part of me recoils at the thought. Ah Ma has always been the person that I’ve gone running to when in trouble, and she’s always significant in my life.

I want her to know about the things that I care about. But as I grow older, I also want to learn about her view of the world too.

It is about mutual respect, and love, and wanting to do the best thing for the other in our own way.