Wanwan Liao’s story

“I felt like I had a superpower with my Hakka. It meant that I had a special language that others couldn’t understand.”

Wanwan Liao talks about her relationship with Hakka, Mandarin, and Taiwanese Hokkien.

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Kia ora, my name is Wanwan Liao! My connection to Chinese languages (Hakka) starts where I grew up: Taoyuan City in Taiwan.


I grew up with my Ah-ma and Ah-gong (paternal grandma and grandpa) and my brother in the countryside while my parents worked in the city. Ah-ma and Ah-gong spoke Hakka with me. My parents speak Mandarin and Taiwanese Hokkien to each other and us (My mother grew up speaking Taiwanese Hokkien), since marrying my father, my mother also learnt Hakka. Hakka is my mother tongue.


When I went to primary school, most kids spoke Mandarin. I felt like I had a superpower with my Hakka, it meant that I had a special language that others couldn’t understand.


My father believed that learning English would give my brother and I more opportunities in the future. This led us both to move to Palmerston North, New Zealand for study. I was an international student in Palmerston North for two years.


In high school, some people (especially teachers) assumed that international students wouldn’t be good at English. I remember a dean advising us to take subjects like statistics, tourism and information management even though I really wanted to take media studies.


But I proved them wrong. I ended up getting good grades in media studies and, with the support of my host parents, made the most of my time in school.


My experiences at high school inspired me to go into teaching so I could help kids like me believe in their potential. As a teacher I wanted to help children be proud of their own languages and heritage.


When teaching in a classroom, I make an effort to promote the use of their home languages. One way I do this is by greeting my students in their own languages. I also want other teachers to look beyond a student’s ability to speak English.


Although my Hakka proficiency is declining, it’s a language that connects me to my grandparents. Growing up, I slowly learned Mandarin and English, which now connect me to other parts of my identity. As a full-time teacher working closely with bi/multilingual children (ESOL), my goal is to help them embrace their “superpowers!”


Illustrator’s process and reflections

Choosing to tell Wanwan’s story came naturally for me: we were both Taiwanese, both Newtown residents, and her passion for bilingualism in the classroom was fascinating to encounter.

We bonded over our connection with Hakka/Mandarin, racism in schooling systems, diasporic guilt, and our fading mother tongues. As much as I helped bring Wanwan’s story to life in pictures, her passion, commitment, and vision was also a source of inner healing for me.

I have hope for future migrant and bilingual children in Aotearoa, knowing that there are mentors like Wanwan leading the way.

Ronia Ibrahim