The Turning Point
It was just over a year ago (early 2015) that I started learning Mandarin. Since then, I've been surprised to realize the extent to which continuing in this effort is a fundamental part of building my self-identity and my relationship with the world.
"But you're white! How can learning Chinese be part of your self-identity?" This six-article series explores my answers to this question.
In the first instalment, I discuss the short-term reasons I decided to learn Mandarin.
Part 1: The Turning Point
My community of friends while growing up is a recurring theme in this series. My family was very fortunate to live in neighbourhoods with balanced or proportions of White and Non-White Canadians, so I grew up surrounded by people whose fist language isn't English. (My whole second post is about Canadian Whiteness, so I won't talk about it yet). Being surrounded by different languages, I had been curious for a long time about learning one of the languages my friends speak. In 2009 (the beginning of my fourth year) I even went to the extent of filling out registration forms for Mandarin language classes at the University of Waterloo. The suggested time commitment was intimidating, so I decided not to do it.
Why now? If I had seriously considered learning Mandarin for at least six years, why did I finally take the plunge? What happened in early 2015?
I simply had the time. After my MA, there was more time for me to fill with activities of my choice. How should I spend the time? I wanted to make deliberate choices to do what would make me the person I wanted to be. This is the reason I almost never watch movies, by the way. I could become a fan of the "Marvel Cinematic Universe" if I wanted, and then I would be that guy who watches movies, just like everyone else. Or I could use the 90 minutes to translate a mandopop song and become that guy who translates Chinese songs, which almost nobody does. The choice virtually makes itself.
I realized I was missing out. When I went to Taiwan in 2014, I already had some idea about the broad themese of Chinese history and cultural identity, but I didn't know any Mandarin or even fully grasp the China/Taiwan situation. (Did you know there's no Canadian embassy in Taiwan? It takes two centuries of history to fully understand why). At some point it clicked: I had no access to Chinese cultural spaces, and I was therefore incapable of understanding a large proportion of the world's history, philosophies, writings, thoughts and ideas in general, events, happinesses, sorrows, and everything.
While English may be the modern lingua franca, Chinese as a written language has been much more prominent through a much longer period of history. While I might read Classical Chinese texts in English translation, reading them directly in English provides an incomparable experience of they way in which some of the world's most important philosophical trends were first thought. The impact is much larger than if I were to learn French or German--languages in which I can already get by anyway.
I take it as a point of fact that interesting and important things have been thought in all of the world's languages, and I acknowledge that I'm missing out on things in all the languages I don't know. Yet from a practical perspective, the impact of learning Chinese is imncomparable (especially how to read, double-especially how to read Classical Chinese).
I tend to date Chinese Canadian women. Moreover, I had just begun another such relationship, and I was tired of having difficulties communicating easily with these women's parents. I don't know how the parents have felt in these relationships, but I always felt embarrassed and disrespectful. By not learning Chinese, it felt like I was choosing to avoid serious and meaningful discussion with these people. It's another discussion to know whether this is justified, but it's certainly how I felt.
No doubt I'm aware of the potentially problematic nature of interracial dating in general, and of "white man with asian woman" dating in particular. I'll certainly come back to this in later instalments in this series, but I haven't found a satisfactory answer yet. On the one hand, the fact I date Chinese Canadian women disproportionately more often than other women is problematic, and suggests attachment to long-standing systemic racial power relations. It would also be problematic to say "I'll never date a Chinese Canadian woman again!" For now I've decided to accept this as it is, and to make sure my lived reality defies systemic racial bias by inscribing biculturally sensitive behaviours. Learning Mandarin is a tool for this.
Reason Four (Part One)
I caught myself doing something seriously and harmfully racist, and realized I was part of the problem. It doesn't really matter what I did (okay--it does--but I don't want to repeat it) but I was pretty upset with myself, so I decided to sit myself down and give it some thought. (This was on a GO bus by the way, which turns out to be a good place for thinking). The discussion in my head went something like this:
If it's true that I believe in fighting racism, why do I make mistakes and do racist things? Mistakes are part of life and I need to move past them, but how am I moving past? What am I doing to fight racism? The best answer I have is well, like, basically I just TRY really hard not to do something bad. What that actually means is I'm doing nothing to fight racism. So I have mistakes plus nothing, and what does that mean? It means I'm making things worse.
How can I take myself seriously when I say I'm fighting racism, but I can't name a single way that I'm actually doing it?
I don't know if you've ever had one of these moments, where you suddenly realize that you can't take your identity seriously any longer. It's not sustainable--something has to change so I'm consistent!
You already know what I decided to do about it.
Reason Four (Part Two)
If systemic racism is a manifestation of a power imbalance between racial groups in society, then we can reduce the imbalance to reduce the racism. But how does that related to my cracked identity and ChineseSkill? For that matter, why would I do something to fight racism for only one racial group? Because I have spent and continue to spend a lot of time in Chinese Canadian cultural spaces, there's a relatively higher risk (for me) of practising harmful behaviour in Chinese Canadian cultural spaces than other hybrid Canadian cultural spaces. In fact, I caught myself in a Chinese Canadian cultural space practising harmful behaviour, so the danger is real. While the lessons I learn here may not be directly applicable to other hybrid Canadian cultural spaces, it's not feasible to fight every battle all at once, and moreover, through my experiences I will at least become sensitized to the types of issues at play, and hopefully to have a broader impact than simply within myself.
So how shall I reduce the imbalance of power in order to reduce systemic racism? I want to help Chinese Canadians gain the same privilege for Chinese Canadian cultural spaces as White Canadians have for White Canadian cultural spaces. Yet there are plenty of examples of White People trying to help Non-White People and ultimately doing harm, so I should ask Chinese Canadians, the "owners" of Chinese Canadian culture, how I can help them. How would Chinese Canadians like me to participate in their culture? If I start by listening, with a discussion, then we can negotiate shared cultural spaces fairely. (Note that I don't mean political negotiations--I'm using the philosophical meaning where negotiating an identity is similar ot making an identity).
Yet there's still a piece missing: why should the conversation be in Chinese? It shouldn't be--it should be mulilingual. Chances are, I'll never become fluent in Mandarin, and it surely won't happen any time soon. For this cultural quest, that's okay--I'm seeking a window on a currently-inaccessible world, a conversation filled with empathy, and the capability to understand not only where the limits to my cultural access should be, but why. Some experiences will remain unique for Chinese Canadian people, cannot be shared with other people, and that's a good thing.
You may still be skeptical that a linguistic programme can have a broad impact on our society. Perhaps you'll understand if I describe another situation where language was used as part of a socio-political agenda in Canada. Consider the balance between French Canadian (FC) and English Canadian (EC) cultural spaces, in particular in Montreal. Many anglophones in Québec complain about the provincial government's laws regarding the use of French, claiming that the laws are arbitrary. If we recast the language laws in the context of FC and EC cultural spaces, rather than the context of French and English as languages, the situation becomes clearer. When FC people felt their cultural spaces were imperiled by the prominence of EC culture, the Québec government decided to use language as a tool to guarantee the preservation of FC cultural spaces. It doesn't really matter if the specific content of the laws is sensible because the specific content is not the point.
And guess what? It worked! Regardless of your opinion on the situation, it's common knowledge that Montréal in 2016 is predominantly a French Canadian cultural space, which was not true in the 1970s. Even within Canada, we have a history of using language as a tool for changing our culture, so it stands to reason that we can do it again, with different languages and different goals.
Drawing It Together
I'm learning Mandarin Chinese as a means of accessing Chinese cultural spaces. Because I have the time; because I realized I was missing out; to help ensure the lived reality of my multiracial romantic relationships inscribes positive behaviour for society; and to help fight systemic racism by recentering Chinese Canadian cultural spaces within society.
There is no conclusion yet, only a sumary. This is an exercise in empathy with no specific, measurable goals. This is an adventure with endless opportunity.
Next in This Series
- Part 2: I discuss the idea of White Canadians, and how Canadians use Whiteness in Canada as an excuse to avoid discussing, learning about, and answering for the ancestry of Canadians with very light skin. This leads me to conclude I should shed my Whiteness and discuss, learn about, and answer for my ancestry.
- Part 3: While blood-related family members are an important part of my identity, my Chinese Canadian friends have also significantly influenced my identity and the ways that I think. In this way, my quest to discover Chinese Canadian culture unexpectedly turned into a quest to discover myself.
- Part 4: Learning a language is hard work, and it's especially easy to become discouraged when you realize that you may be doing more harm than good. In this part I discuss three such incidents that made me reconsider whether to continue learning Mandarin, and why I decided to continue.
- Part 5: My primary goal was to learn about the ways Chinese and English cultural space interact. Just over a year later, have I learned anything? (Spoiler alert: yes).
- Part 6: A summary of the preceding articles and a few "take aways" for those of you reading at home.