From the Canadian Prairies to Taiwan: How Learning Mandarin Helped Me Discover My Chinese Identity

Learning the language of our heritage can help close the cultural gap for North American Asians.

When I was 13, I asked my best friend a simple question:

“Do you think people can tell that I’m Chinese?”

I vividly recall her strange look and slow yet affirmative response of “yeeeesss”. And that was that. We moved on to other topics of conversation. Yet, so many years later, I still remember that moment. Unknown to me at the time, it must have served as a defining moment in my identity at that young age, bringing me to realize that how I defined myself was very different from how others saw me. As I grew older, I realized that part of my identity would stem from the fact that I am Chinese, the meaning behind which was a vague concept to me. Little did I know, years later, when I would sign up for my first Mandarin course in university, it would have the power to change both my perspective of myself and the world in general.

I’m a CBC — short for Canadian Born Chinese, a term I only learnt of in university because there were no others like me growing up. I grew up in a small town on the Canadian Prairies, mine being the only Asian family in town. Typical of small towns scattered across rural Canada, there was one Chinese-Canadian restaurant, which my family owned. I spoke English at home with my parents who needed to learn the language for the sake of survival. There were no English language classes available, and no services for new immigrants like those offered in big cities, simply because there were so few immigrants. There was also no network of people who could share similar experiences, or for me to relate to as a kid. My idol was Mandy Moore and my favorite characters were the blonde twins from my favorite Sweet Valley High books. I had no idea who Teresa Teng was (widely considered to be the most famous Chinese singer in history), and those old Chinese songs of hers my dad would play on his cassette tapes sounded shrill and odd to my ears. To say I didn’t really feel Chinese growing up would be an understatement. I just knew that I was different from others around me. But I didn’t know a single word of Chinese and I’d never been to China.

In university, I met my first Asian friends. I soon realized that a lot of them could speak the language of their heritage, and they almost all spoke it at home. It was around that time I started to feel a sense of curiosity and longing. I decided I would start learning Mandarin. This was my effort to become more in tune with my Chinese roots. My goal was very simple. I just wanted to “catch up” to other Chinese-Canadians, to someday be able to speak fluently enough that people would assume I spoke it at home. I didn’t care if they knew how hard I’d worked to get there. Finally, I decided to move to Taiwan to dedicate one full year to my dream of learning Mandarin.

Yet, in this process of trying to “catch up” and simply learn the language of my heritage, I stumbled upon so much more. Learning Mandarin became my hobby, my passion. I started to watch Chinese dramas, developed an appreciation for Chinese music, and even learnt how to sing those old Teresa Teng songs at Chinese Karaoke that my dad used to listen to. I learned a rich culture that was drawing me in, a new perspective with which to see the world, a beautiful language which I could now use to communicate with billions of people, and probably most importantly, I never expected how much I would learn about my parents, or myself.

Taipei, Taiwan: Photo taken when I first arrived to Taiwan, 2012.

Growing up, my parents would do and say things which I always attributed as their quirks. Why did we wear sandals inside the house? It must be because we lived in a restaurant. Why did they give me money for my birthday? It must be because they don’t have time to go and buy a present. And why don’t my parents ever say they love me? It must be their personalities — they’re just not the emotional type. And they would make strange analogies I’d never heard of when they lectured me. It was only after starting to learn the Chinese language, which inevitably inspired me to travel to Asia, that I started to understand bit by bit …

Upon meeting my relatives in Hong Kong for the first time, I suddenly understood that wearing sandals in the house wasn’t a quirk of my parents; it was the culture. Over time, I realized giving me money didn’t mean my parents didn’t care, but rather, is a cultural norm that signifies the exact opposite. And traditionally, Chinese parents simply don’t say they love you, but instead, express it through telling their children to wear more clothes and eat more food. Most importantly, however, I started to understand my parents’ thought process, and how they see the world; I could feel their struggle to express these views in a language and culture that was foreign to them. I understood that when they lectured me, they were trying to translate age-old Chinese idioms into English. Only through understanding the Chinese culture could I now truly start to understand my parents’ hidden meanings and their unsaid intentions. And learning the language was my bridge to start to fully link together all those pieces of their culture.

As I continued to learn Mandarin, I realized that I had changed.Through the language, I made local friends in Taiwan and could communicate with my relatives in Mainland China, leading to a more intimate understanding of life there, which ultimately changed my perspective of the world and the people in it. I realized that English has its limitations; some emotions that simply cannot be communicated in English can be expressed beautifully in Mandarin. Learning a language humbled me, pushed me into situations where I often got laughed at when I said the wrong thing; and it made me more empathetic of the billions of people around the world trying so hard to learn English. The language also opened up a new world for me that I didn’t know existed before, with intriguing dramas that taught me about Chinese history in a more interesting way than reading a textbook, opening up a world of Emperors and martial arts, of beautiful songs I could now understand, and presented idols that looked more similar to me than Mandy Moore. Perhaps most importantly, it gave me a new way of thinking and expressing myself that never existed before.

Learning the language of our heritage — or in fact, any language — isn’t just about trying to communicate and get by. It isn’t just about physically speaking the language. It’s so much more. It means opening yourself up to the culture and its people, and genuinely making an effort to see the world through their lens. And when you do that, you inevitably start to learn about yourself in the process.

5 Language Learning Tips to Keep in Your Back Pocket:

1. Create goals just like in any other aspect of your life. Reflect on why learning this language is important to you. This will become your constant motivator when you feel discouraged or face setbacks in your language learning journey.

2. Visit the country in which people speak the language. Only then will you truly understand it and gain a deeper appreciation for it, and realize first-hand that learning a language isn’t about memorizing vocabulary or taking exams.

3. Find ways to integrate the language into your daily life. By watching TV, listening to songs, or meeting new friends who speak the language, you will find yourself learning both the language and its culture without even feeling like you are studying.

4. Stop Translating. When you stop yourself from translating words you hear into your native language, only then do you start to truly gain a feel for the language and how to use it. You start to use your heart and not just your brain.

5. Forget the myth that you can’t learn a language as an adult. You can.

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