A Mechanical Mixture
I was born in the North York General Hospital on the 13th of May, 2002. Less than a year after that, my family shipped me off to China to live with my Grandmother. Most of my early childhood was spent in the suburbs of Xi’an.
Xi’an was known for many things: being the home of the Terra Cotta Army, having a very pretty drum tower, and historically, being the eastern-most end of the Silk Road. To me, it was memories of waking up early every morning to feed the koi fish at the park, then going to the store purchase a myriad of colourful jelly to set on a table with dozens of other treats and incents and candles of all kinds; to me, Xi’an was just where I was. I lived habitually as a 3-year-old and I didn’t put too much thought into how different life might be.
When I returned to Canada the following year, I remembered the first thing I noticed was that my mom was different. She went back to China with me but had come back after a couple months for work. I thought there was something about her appearance that was foreign, but it must have just been the unfamiliarity of the situation. As a child, there were obvious differences to me: my new environment had significantly less people, the food wasn’t as good (sorry, mom!), and my life no longer consisted of the same daily pattern as it had with my grandma.
As a young child, it was easy enough to adjust. I lived the rest of my childhood in the GTA and as such, had grown accustomed to my new traditions: family holidays at Downsview Park, pho at the nearby plaza, and meeting different people from different places, all with their own rituals. Being in such a diverse area allowed me exposure to the multitude of different cultures and languages. For the first time, I thought about how vast the world is and how our own backgrounds might help shape who we are.
In those days and on occasion, I found myself slipping between English and Mandarin without intent. This confusion tied deeply with my sense of identity. My family heritage and early childhood were heavily tied to my Eastern roots, yet the education I received and friends I spoke with were all in a separate, English-speaking bubble. So, I struggled with placing myself in the Venn diagram of these two groups, sometimes favouring one over the other.
Language is a technology, one that helps us communicate and relate to our peers. It can both unite and isolate. From the way we speak to the words we use, it tells the story of our history, culture, class, age, interest; it tells the story of us. It’s not until I dug deeper into my own Chinese heritage that I truly appreciated the art of it.
In the mid 1800s, over 90% of the Chinese population was functionally illiterate, and most spoke in different regional dialects have appeared. It wasn’t until the cultural revolution that a standardized and simplified script, as well as a standardized language was agreed upon. What was once a difficult and isolated method of communication, is now seamlessly used by billions over the world. The dichotomy of having a local dialect to identify with one’s geographical and social group vs speaking a unified and standardized language to communicate more vastly is very much alive in modern China. Understanding this helped me with my own identity struggles.
Everyone is a strange mish mash of different cultures. Reflecting on my early years, it’s important to carry those experiences and that identity with me, despite how contrasting it is with my current way of life. We all have different experiences, opinions, and stories. Linguistics may be a way of studying that jumble of rituals that make us unique. Whether it be a local dialect or a colloquial picked up from schoolmates, it all works together to make a uniquely beautiful voice.