“My relationship to my identity has definitely shifted over the years, transitioning from a partial rejection of it to a rediscovery and embracing.
I went on a graduation trip after I finished my undergrad with my dad to visit our extended family in Hong Kong. And I think just something about being in the city and hearing stories about my dad growing up and just walking in the streets where he had grown up kind of sparked something in me where I just felt like my parents made more sense in this context. I felt like I understood them better all of a sudden – just seeing a different side of them. Your siblings will always treat you a certain way, so it was kind of funny to see my dad’s older sisters teasing him a little bit. And seeing my dad with my grandma was just a little bit different than the dad that I had grown up with.
I also started doing a lot more babysitting, and I just started thinking about raising children and thinking what I would want for my kids. I had this realization that if I didn’t do anything, my children probably wouldn’t be able to speak Chinese. And that really upset me. I just really disliked the concept of losing something like that. I think if you want your kids to learn a language, especially if you’re a second generation Chinese-Canadian, you have to be intentional about it. And I think the other part is tapping into the community. The more context you can give a language, the more likely it is that they’ll learn it. If you visit a Chinese grocery store and they get to speak Chinese to someone or they get to do a Chinese cultural activity like lion dancing or calligraphy or Tai Chi, that’s another context. So I think if I have kids, I would have to be pretty intentional about creating these opportunities and interactions to give them a reason to be speaking Chinese.
The sense of identity is definitely pretty tenuous. It’s hard to label it sometimes, but I think for me, at the base of it, you can’t change your DNA or who your parents were or the country that they were born in. So I think at its essence, whether or not you consider yourself to be part of a culture or part of a cultural group, that is genetically what you are. Whether or not you want to be called Chinese or Chinese-Canadian, or just Canadian, no matter which title you personally embrace and call yourself, other people who don’t know you will still look at you and assign you as Chinese. So I think at this point in my life, I would rather claim it for myself than have someone give that to me. I would rather call myself “Chinese-Canadian” and be proud about it and embrace it. I think it’s who I am. I was born in Canada. I’ve never lived in any other country. But to leave out that first part would be to deny who I am, who my family is, and who I hope to continue to be.
Learn more about June’s research into generational immigrant families and preserving heritage language here: “Mind the Generation Gap: Heritage Language Often Lost by Third Generation”
All photos provided by June.