What Determines Identity?

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It was the first day of middle school. My new classmates and I were chatting in the class room and trying to get to know each other. 


“ So, where are you from? ” one girl turned to me with a friendly smile on her face.


There it goes, the question I am most afraid of for all time.


The reason why I am afraid of answering this particular question is that I find it difficult and kind of embarrassing to answer. Normally, this kind of question ends with a sentence with the simplest structure— “I am from” plus a simple noun indicating the location. I, on the other hand, have to answer this question with a long and complicated sentence plus a little uncertainty.


“Er,” I looked at her with a torn expression on my face. She tilted her head and blinked her eyes, which to me was trying to say,“Why are you taking so long?”


  “Well, I was born and raised in Guangzhou, but my parents are from Sichuan, so…uh…” The crowd was hit by a sudden silence. They seemed confused about my answer. And I could see the awkwardness in the air. 


Some people determine where they are from by their birth places, while others base the answer on the places where their parents are from. Ever since I was little, I have been struggling about my identity between  two cities. I grew up in Guangzhou—the city I am most familiar with. However, the fact that I can’t speak authentic Cantonese keeps me from identifying myself as a person from Guangzhou, since Cantonese is the traditional local dialect. And because no one in my family can speak Cantonese, the chance for me to get in touch with the dialect is rare.  But somehow, I learnt how to speak the dialect by imitating the dialogues from a local TV show called “72 house guests.” After I thought I learnt enough words and phrases to have a daily conversation with others and became a true Cantonese — the one that I can be sure without hesitation, my hopes are always smashed when I talked to someone in Cantonese and they responded in Mandarin. Once I was stopped by a woman on my way to school. She came up to me and asked for direction in Cantonese. I didn’t quite understand for the first time, so I turned to her and said, “Excuse me. Would you please tell me again?” in Cantonese. Maybe it’s because of my strange accent, or the fact that I didn’t understand her in the first time, when the woman asked again, she used Mandarin instead. The second time I understood that she was asking for the direction to my school. I answered in Mandarin. Even though I still wanted to answer in Cantonese, I changed my mind right before the words came out of my mouth when I thought about the reason why she changed the way she spoke. Somehow, she detected the uncertainty and roughness in my language. This kind of situation happened many times when I tried to communicate with someone in Cantonese. After those conversations, I always had a conflicting feeling that I felt embarrassed for my accent, regretted that I chose to response in my rough Cantonese, and relieved that I could use mandarin in response.Frankly, those responses in Mandarin did me a favor, since it was much easier for me to understand my mother tongue. However, to me, those people also pushed me away by showing their kindness. Still, I can’t see myself as a real Cantonese.


Things will be much easier if I know how to speak the Sichuan dialect—the one that most of my family use. The truth is I can understand the dialect just fine, but I can’t speak the dialect at all. Therefore, every summer when I go to Sichuan to visit my grandparents, I am always afraid to go to the stores alone, since the only language local people use is the local dialect. Whenever I ask for the location of some places, the most common response I get is, “Ni jiang sa ze?( What did you say?)” And when I sit at the dinner table, I sometimes feel like an outsider when my family suddenly jump into a conversation in Sichuan dialect. I am frustrated, since I can understand everything about their conversation, however, I can't express my idea or simply agree to what they say in the same language they use. How can I say I am from Sichuan if I can’t even communicate with the local people or fit in the dinner conversation with my family? 


After years of struggle for my identity, I  began to realize that my problem can’t be solved by speaking the dialects fluently after I saw a TED talk online. The speaker was an second-generation  African immigrant from America. Her difficulty in answering the question “where are you from” resonates with me. In her speech, she stated that people shouldn’t base the answer solemnly on their race or nationality, the answer should be determined by their experiences. Even though her idea wasn’t about language, it still made me realize that my struggle was caused by stereotyping the connection between language and identity—that language determines identity. Now from a new perspective,  I can see the answer of that particular question clearer. Language is one of the most important parts to define a community. It allows people to bond and to embrace each other. Therefore, if  you don’t speak the same language, it is easy to feel alienated. But language is not the only thing that defines the community. Speaking the language doesn't mean that's the place where you're from. What defines where a person belongs to is the experiences that person acquires. As for me, Guangzhou is the city I am most familiar with. I know the fastest way to get to the biggest shopping mall by metro; I know where to find the delicious local snacks in the alley of the old town. This is the city that I grow up in, where I gather most of my memories; this is the city where I meet all my friends; this is the city that I know instantly that I am home when I get off the airplane and feel the hot and humid air.  Similarly, Sichuan is also a part of me. Those summers I spent buying ice cream at the local store, playing Mahjong with the neighbors , wandering around the local park consist a massive part of my childhood. Those experiences I have in the two cities define my identity. Wherever I am, I am the combination of the experiences I acquire.


I used to let the alienation caused by the inability to speak the language block my eye sight to my memories. Now I can say, yes, I am a Cantonese, and I am also a person from Sichuan. To me, where you are from is not necessarily where you were born,  whether you can speak the local dialect fluently or not , where you are from is who you are, where you gain what makes you the person you are today. So, I guess my answer to that question will always be long and complicated. But I am no longer embarrassed.






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