Christopher Antila

Part of My Identity

I talk about some of the reasons I decided to learn a Chinese language.

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.

Part 3: Part of My Identity

This was something unexpected. I didn’t start learning Mandarin because I thought it would be a way to find my own identity, yet my thinking in the “My Whiteness Is a Lie” portion only started within the past few months. So far I’ve had two thoughts about this. First, that while investigating and exploring my own identity does involve answering for my Whiteness, it also means I have to consider and answer for the influences of other people in my lives. That is, both my family and friends are constituent parts of my identity. Second, that I wonder if there are ghosts hiding in the closet of my Whiteness.

What makes your identity

The first issue is related to the idea that our identities are made of parts of the identities of everyone else we’ve interacted with. I’ve been thinking about this for several years now—a personal application of Foucault’s thinking. He believed that a person’s subjectivation happens as other subjects act power on the subjectivated, and that the result of the power actions are what each person’s subject is “made of.” (I don’t claim to have written that in the clearest way possible, but I’m sure you can see why I didn’t start this paragraph with that phrasing!) So my identity at any moment is the result of a process involving everyone I’ve ever interacted with. The idea that “nobody’s just white” applies therefore in two ways: first, I’m not just white, I’m from somewhere, I have an ancestral history; second, I’m not just white, I’ve interacted with plenty of people who aren’t White Canadians, my subject is partially made up of them.

This sounds a little like I’m claiming to be trans-racial, or multi-racial, as Rachel Dolezal has. The complexities of Dolezal’s issue are well beyond the scope of this article series, but either way it is not my intention to claim a trans-racial or multi-racial identity. Rather, I believe many people would agree from experiential knowledge that someone’s identity and modes of thought are significantly affected by the people around them. I can see a philosophical justification for why this happens, and it suggests we have a responsibility to our peers to learn about their identity processes, since we participate in them. I need to think about this further, and I might come back to revise it here, or I might simply write another article about it.

But consider this. I grew up in a neighbourhood of Toronto (okay, Mississauga) with a large proportion of people who aren’t White Canadians. As a result, many of my long-time friends (or their parents) left China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, etc., in the 1980s or ‘90s. When I was younger, they would tell me facts about what those places are like (just as I would tell them facts about what Calgary is like, where my own parents are from). But I realized about a year ago that all of those friends and me, we grew up together in Toronto, and we don’t really know anything about those places except what our parents tell us. And not only are we missing that first-hand experience, but the second-hand experience is from a time that doesn’t exist any more. So when a friend warned me that public transit in Taipei means taking a lot of busses that are hard to understand, and I should probably take taxis… the reality is that Taipei now has a wonderful subway system!

I admit that’s a trivial example, but it leads me to wonder how many other things I know about Chinese society that are outdated and no longer useful.

Whiteness Closet

I was watching a documentary several months ago called “From C to C“. It’s basically about the first wave of immigrants who moved from China to Canada (thus “C to C” instead of “sea to sea”… lololol) in the late 19th and early 20th century. The documentary talks about the aspirations, achievements, and difficulties of these early immigrants to Canada. After going to Vancouver in 2014, and visiting a few historic sites, I already had some ideas about this period, but I didn’t grasp the extent of racial tensions in early 20th centry Vancouver and Calgary. Oh, “and Calgary” indeed. In particular what wasn’t mentioned at the sites I visited in Vancouver (or at least, if it was mentioned, I forgot it after) is that there were several Kristallnacht-like race riots in Vancouver, perpetrated by White Canadians against Chinese Canadians. More than once, White Canadians destroyed and stole from Chinese Canadian stores for no reason other than their being owned by Chinese Canadians. Curiously (for my 21st century sensibilities) this was not apparently an “anti-Asian” thing either, since Japanese Canadian stores were mostly left alone.

After watching the documentary, I was telling my brother about it, and we wondered how our direct ancestors participated in this situation—perhaps in race riots directly, but more likely (because of where they lived) in encouraging racism against Chinese Canadians more generally. Chances are that we’ll never find conclusive information on this, but these questions suggest another point of contact for me. So I’ve decided to approach and investigate this from both cultural angles. What were White Canadian media saying about these race riots? How did they participate? What were Chinese Canadians saying aobut this to their friends and family in Canada and China? Are there surviving personal letters between White and Chinese Canadians sent locally at the time? Are there surviving records of Chinese Canadian media?

Given these two historical points of contact, what will I be left with? On the one hand, I have influence from the Chinese-speaking world in the 1980s and 1990s, and on the other from Western Canada in the 1910s and 1920s. I can and will approach my existence in the present through both of these perspectives. I don’t know what I’m going to find, and I guess that’s the point!

Next in This Series

  • 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.