My New Year’s resolution for 2018, as I’ve been jokingly telling my friends and family for the past month, is to “be more Asian.” That’s an oversimplification, of course, but the intent is there. For the next 12 months, I’m focusing on different ways that I can embrace my Asian heritage through concrete goals.
In the spring of 2017, I visited China for the first time as an adult. It was an amazing, immersive, food-filled experience (have you ever had those deep fried mochi balls with taro filling? They’re divine), but it felt different to be there as an adult than it did as a child. Amidst all of these dynamic, accomplished people who looked like me … I found myself acutely lonely.
It wasn’t a new experience. Like many overseas Asian youth, I am not unaccustomed to loneliness. I grew up in a city where the average person is tall and Caucasian, with family roots going back a multiple generations. But in China, I felt a different kind of loneliness: a kind where you should, ostensibly, fit in, but you don’t. I looked the same, and I could act the same, but I was missing a deeper cultural connection.
Embracing your cultural heritage isn’t a change change that happens overnight. So, in order to keep myself from getting lazy (er … I mean, “to connect more fully with my cultural heritage in a definable way,”) I’ve set myself three goals for the year.
My main priority is to focus on basic language acquisition — I’d like to be able to introduce myself and exchange pleasantries in Mandarin by December. My second goal is to begin recording my oral family history, both maternally through my grandmother and paternally through my father. And my third is to engage more with Chinese literature and art in order to enrich my cultural knowledge alongside my linguistic growth.
I’m a 2.5 generation Chinese-Canadian, and I didn’t grow up speaking Mandarin. My maternal grandparents came to Canada in 1958, and my mother and her siblings grew up speaking English as their primary language. My parents fell into a storybook romance when my mother went to Shandong University to study Chinese, where my father was studying English and linguistics. In short, there were a lot of languages tossed around in my household growing up, but English was the only one that we could all understand.
Language and culture are intrinsically intertwined, however, and it’s tough to engage with one but not the other. Some parts of language are based in emblematic cultural values, like levels of bluntness or openness; others are based in word choice. A great example comes from the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg: depending on where you are in the world, wishing someone a “good day” can mean either that you hope it’s sunny out (as with most Western cultures), or that you hope it rains (as in some African cultures). As U Wit’s writer notes, “the term ‘good’ is interpreted differently by these two cultures.”
When I was in the first grade, I remember asking my mom why the Chinese people at our favourite dim sum restaurant always seemed so angry with each other. She had laughed, and she explained to me that they weren’t angry — they were speaking Cantonese. At that age, I didn’t understand that different languages had different inflections and prosody, and my six-year-old self had heard the plentiful staccatos of the Cantonese accent and worried that its speakers must be very, very cross with each other. In order to understand the cultural aspects of a language, you need not just linguistic training, but also cultural acquisition. It’s about why something is said, not solely what has been said.
I believe in setting goals that you could reasonably meet, so my goal for 2018 is to begin learning. I’ll know that I’ve achieved this goal if I am able to exchange pleasantries and understand small talk by the end of the year, so that the next time I visit my Chinese relatives, I’m able to greet them and chat a bit without my mom tied to my side to act as an interpreter. It may be years before we can have full conversations, but a small start is still a good start.
Beyond language acquisition, my second goal in achieving my New Year’s resolution is to begin digitally recording my family history. My dad tells a lot of wild stories at the dinner table, and each one reveals something about his cultural heritage that is different from my own experience. He once told a story about a woman in his village exhibiting strange behaviour, and he framed it as the woman having “a weasel inside of her body.” (I’m still trying to unpack that one. Dad swears up and down that he physically saw the weasel run out of her body when it was banished, and my sister and I have a running bet on whether or not he meant it literally.) At best, each story will increase my understanding of folklore and the cultural assumptions from my family’s hometown, and help me grasp the intricacies within my family itself. At worst, I get a recorded version of my family history that I can one day share with my grandchildren.
Finally, in the second half of the year, I’d like to tackle a short “2018 Summer Reading List” to build upon this knowledge. The list, which I’ve attached below for my fellow book-lovers, contains cultural cornerstones that I’ve never experienced. It’s a mixture of classical books, poetry, and artwork:
Classic Chinese literature:
“Journey to the West”, translated into “Monkey” by Arthur West
Li Bai’s poetry, translated by Ezra Pound
“Tao Te Ching” by Lao Tzu, translated by Gia-Fu Feng and Jane English
Modern Chinese literature:
“Red Crag”, by Luo Guangbin and Yang Yiyan
“To Live: A Novel” by Yu Hua, translated by Michael Berry
Pre-20th century artwork, with a focus on Ming dynasty artwork and Qing dynasty paintings
Redevelopment artwork, from the 1980s-1990s, with a focus on Ai Wiewei
Contemporary artwork, with a focus on Liu Ding
As a Chinese-Canadian woman, I’m not satisfied with quietly embracing the fact that I’m Asian. I want to achieve the same cultural privileges that my peers have had access to their entire lives, and I want to be proud of it. Like my fellow NextShark contributor Nadya Okamoto, I grew up in a culture that rewarded me for minimizing my own “Asianness” and punished me for showing it. I’ve spent the last 25 years having my culture suppressed and objectified by the mainstream, and it’s time for that to change.
By making it my 2018 New Year’s resolution to “be more Asian,” I’m hoping to develop the cultural-linguistic knowledge that I never had access to as a youth. Now, the only question is: who’s with me?
About the Author: Rae Chen is a Canadian beauty blogger who hails from Edmonton, AB. A freelance writer by day, she’s been publishing theNotice since 2007 with a focus on beauty, sex, and lifestyle content. Be careful with your dogs around this blogger, as she is likely to try to steal them.
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