Where Am I From?

March 22, 2017
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I remembered that on the first day in my high school HFI, my roommates and I chatted a lot and tried to know more about each other. Then, one of my roommates asked, “Hi, Karol. Where are you from? I cannot figure out your hometown from your accent.” The question “Where are you from?” is simple and common; however, I hesitated as to which place I should answer: Hong Kong, Shenzhen, Guangzhou, or Huangchuan? Where is my identity? I felt lost. The question always confuses me and brings me into contemplation.

My family background is complicated: my hometown (the place my grandfather and other ancestors lived before) is Huangchuan, a small city in Henan. Due to the policy of reforming and opening up in the Pearl River Delta, my parents taken by their parents went to Guangdong to contribute to the development of the city. After graduation from university, my father got a job and was sent to Hong Kong, while my mother moved to Shenzhen. I was born in Hong Kong in 1999, but I grew up in Shenzhen from one to twelve. Due to my father’s job, our family moved to Guangzhou and I have stayed in Guangzhou since then.

When being asked questions related to my identity, I am puzzled, and I hesitate. Where am I from and where are my roots? I have no idea. According to Chinese tradition, people come from the place where their grandfather and ancestors lived, so Huangchuan seems to be the answer to this question. However, I don't think that I have a tight relationship with Huangchuan. I used to think that the language a person speaks represents the identity of the person. Nevertheless, I knew nothing about the dialect in Huangchuan, since neither my father nor my grandfather is able to speak in Huangchuan’s dialect. Moreover, throughout my eighteen years, I have been to Huangchuan for only a few times. The only memory I have in Huangchuan was having fun and relaxing in the little garden at the back of the house and pumping water into the bucket from the well. When staying in Huangchuan, I did not feel like I belonged to this place due to its long distance from Guangdong and the unfamiliarity of Huangchuan’s language to me.

Maybe I belong to Hong Kong, which is my “official hometown,” because I was born there and I am the citizen of Hong Kong. Nonetheless, I only spent the first year of my life in Hong Kong and I could barely speak Cantonese. From my point of view regarding language and identity, how could a person who cannot speak Cantonese like me be considered as citizen of Hong kong? Inability to speak in Cantonese makes me feel isolated from other people in Hong Kong. Thus, when visiting Hong Kong, I often force myself to speak in Cantonese if possible in an attempt to show that I belong to this place.

For example, when passing the customs between Hong Kong and mainland China, the customs always asked, “What is your name?” and checked the ID photo at the same time.

It was nearly my turn. I got nervous, and I was afraid that the customs would look down at me when he heard my nonstandard Cantonese. I asked my mother to pronounce my name in Cantonese again and again to make sure what I say is correct.

“Lei Kai Lou.”

I tried, “Lei Ga Lo.” Obviously what I said was deviated from the standard, since I was unable to pronounce the correct one. Despite that, I still insisted saying my name in the nonstandard Cantonese. It seems that if I can speak with the customs in Cantonese even if it is not completely correct, I am more like a citizen in Hong Kong. Though my Cantonese is poor and nonstandard, speaking Cantonese still gives me a sense of “belonging.”

What’s more, when I went to the reception of a local hotel to check in, the manager enthusiastically greeted me and said “Lei Ho,” which means “Hello” in English. I was so eager to prove my identity that I just couldn’t wait to respond to him with “Lei Ho” immediately, even though there were merely two words and they were really simple.

It seemed that Hong Kong is not yet the suitable answer to my question of “Where Am I From?” I felt like I was losing the sense of belonging in Hong Kong, and Cantonese seemed to be the only thing that could strengthen the sense of belonging. I could not feel relaxed and carefree when speaking Mandarin in Hong Kong, so I don't think I am part of Hong Kong.

Shenzhen, a neighboring city of Guangzhou, is the place I stayed for the longest time from one to twelve years old. During the twelve years, I began perceiving and knowing the world as well as society around me; the concept of the world, societies, and people developed from zero to one. Also, I figured out my interests during my time in Shenzhen, such as painting and dancing. More importantly, as an immigrant city, Shenzhen has people from various regions, so their languages are various, like Cantonese, Mandarin, and dialects from Chaozhou, Kejia, and so on. It is the place that I have some sense of belonging on account of the use of Mandarin here. Shenzhen might be a fit answer to “Where are you from?”

But what about Guangzhou? I have been in Guangzhou for nearly six years. Even though people use a lot of cantonese in Guangzhou, in these six years, I have grown up into a mature person and improved a lot since I was 12. Guangzhou is an equally significant place for me, compared with Shenzhen. Besides, at HFI, it is common for students and teachers to speak in Mandarin; therefore, I can easily find myself part of the community of HFI.

After thinking about all the places that have some relationship with me, I found that it is difficult to recognize the exact place I come from and find the “correct” answer to the question “Where are you from?”. I gradually realized that multiregion is exactly my identity. I am unique because I was from Huangchuan traditionally, and I was born in Hong Kong and moved to Shenzhen and then to Guangzhou. I do not need to hesitate or concern when I am asked this question again. There is also no need to feel lost while speaking Mandarin in Hong Kong. The sense of belonging is not just based on languages, but how we feel about the place or the community. It depends on whether we recognize and respect our own identity.

Indeed, as time went on, I became proud of my complex family background. As the world developed, people are less likely to settle down in simply one place. It is the world’s tendency for people to move around and explore their own life. Once, moving to new places was challenging for me, since I had to give up what I had currently and started a completely new journey; however, I am no longer uncomfortable any more. My complex family background constantly encourages me to move to new places, learn different languages, and explore various cultures.

It is my unique and complicated identity that makes me myself.

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