Bildungsroman: Sturm und Chung (by Rhonda Chung)

While packing away the mounds of leftovers last night, I wondered why I hadn’t properly prepared my fridge for all this party food. And that’s when it dawned on me: I had never had a birthday party before.

I am now 40 years old. Officially middle aged. My youth is now behind me. And apparently, this is the perfect time to throw a party.

Bildungs (education) roman (novel) is a German compound word that has entered the English literary vernacular, describing a character’s coming of age tale. The child leaves herself behind and sets foot in a new direction.

And when has travel not been exciting?

Welcome to the end of my Bildungsroman. Memories are the souvenirs of our voyages.

My voyage started in Toronto, reported to be the most diverse city in the world by the BBC. My idea of normal is principled on the sociocultural mores of this diversity. My sociocultural reality was one where vast amounts of different-looking people spoke different languages, ate different things, and we all did most of our interactions in a common language: English.

Toronto is home.

At home is where I feel seen and where I feel known. How I grew up informed the very lens through which I navigate this world.

Toronto is where all three generations of my family are: my sibling, my parents, both sets of my grandparents, and even most of my aunts and uncles.

And in my family, everyone looks the same, but in different ways. Maybe one aunt is a bit more Chinese-looking than the other, maybe another is a bit more Portuguese-looking… everyone looks different, but in the same way.

My sociocultural familial reality is one where vast amounts of similar-but-different-looking people eat different foods (the essence of West Indian cuisine), and we all do our interactions in a common language: English. But it was not always like this.

Antonio, 18 years old, saw his Bildungsroman unfold when he watched the Portuguese shores of Madeira fade into the sunset.

When he put foot to soil again, it was on British Guiana: the ‘land of many waters’, according to the Arawak—an Indigenous group linked to the Lokono of South America and the Taíno of central America.

Mathilda used her parents’ Portuguese to help Antonio integrate into his new Anglophone environment; however, she would choose to raise their four children to be unilingual Anglophones. This would become one of the first English-only homes instituted by one of my ancestors—and that, you see, is where all this trouble began.


Mathilda and Antonio

Mathilda’s youngest child is my grandmother. At the age of 90, Julie has now outlived all of her siblings and has given me these stories and photographs. Julie knows a few words of Portuguese and she smiles when she says them. It’s a linguistic souvenir of a culture she should know, but doesn’t.


Like her mother before her, Julie was educated according to British customs. Every exam she and her children took floated up and down the Atlantic corridor to certify their knowledge.




“ ‘Write a creative piece about the four seasons!’, they told us once,” my dad chuckled and scoffed. “I mean, what four seasons? We’ve got two: the rainy season and not the rainy season.”

“So what’d ya write?,” I asked after him.

“Well, I gave them what they wanted, of course! Elaborate tales of snow! You mustn’t forget snow!”, he laughed.

Such was the absurdity of British colonial rule: success is commensurate with how well you can verbalize the mores of a culture that has nothing to do with your own; the alternative is certain failure.

Although born in Canada, I have felt this British gaze all my life. By all accounts, I should not know English as well as I do; but it is my linguistic blueprint, it is all that they intended for me to know.

As Creators are wont to do, England made me in her own image: I am an island, but I am also comprised of many people. I am the inevitability of cross-Atlantic and cross-continental voyages. I am the consequence of Empire and I have lived for 40 years in her aftermath.

When I set foot in Quebec twelve years ago, I took a train, not a boat. Despite staying within the borders of the country that I was born in, I became a migrant all the same. Like my great-grandfather, I learned a new language (another colonial tongue, no less), and our partners shepherded us through the process of second language acquisition.

Researchers have long known that the first language influences acquisition of the second (Corder, 1967); but this cross-linguistic influence also moves backwards: our second language also influences how we use our first (Pavlenko & Jarvis, 2002).

When I learned my second language, not only did I see the colonial spectre that hung over my first, but this backwards transfer also took me to a place beyond my first language. I was transported to the space of my elders, where I came to appreciate their past voyages, and to understand just how strange this anglicized island of mine is: an uncharted territory, impenetrable to balkanization by colonial hands, which has given me passports and lines of travel to unlimited destinations.

The end of my Bildungsroman has given me a new weltanschauung: I’ve places to discover, roots to unearth, and new languages to wrangle.


Corder, S. P. (1967).The significance of learner’s errors. International Review of Applied Linguistics 5(4), 161-170.

Pavlenko, A., & Jarvis, S. (2002). Bidirectional transfer. Applied Linguistics 23(2), 190-214.

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