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If I go back to where I come from, it means going back to Toronto.
If I go back to where my parents were born, that country no longer exists.
My parents were born not in Dutch Guiana (Suriname), or French Guiana (Guyane française), or Spanish Guayana (Venezuela), or Portuguese Guiana (Brazil), but in British Guiana (Guyana), a small coastal country located in the north-eastern region of South America.
Guiana is an “Amerindian” word meaning “land of many waters”; however, the exact Indigenous nation who provided the region’s name has not been identified in any text that I could find.
The Guianas’ population was composed of Indigenous, enslaved, indentured, and migrant peoples from countries who had pre-existing ties to each of the respective colonial powers. The recruitment of people from regions in India, West Africa, China, and the Portuguese-controlled island of Madeira was primarily done on the basis of their resilience—their ability to fare well in the tropical conditions of South America. This is, perhaps, why the English enlisted the Scots to oversee their affairs there, rather than do the surveying themselves.
I am the product of several generations of exogenous marriages who, according to my grandmothers, have lived in the Americas for over 150 years. Although my blood quantum will show lineage from the Americas, Asia, Africa, and Europe, almost all of my ancestors grew up chirping only the birdsong of English.
Whereas other colonial settlements in the Americas, like Brazil, have established a complex framework for citizens of mixed identity or, like Mexico, have developed an entire culture around their mestizo population, England has remained relatively tight-lipped about the diverse peoples who built her empire across the pond to the south.
The vanity involved in creating an English-only space on Indigenous land with people from across the globe meant that regardless of where my ancestors were *really* from, they were colonially instructed to speak English—not their own languages—and were encouraged to believe in some version of Christ, rather than maintain their own belief systems.
Generation after generation, my ancestors were the “good immigrants” who integrated by believing in one God and in one language.
And what advantage did all these years of integration proffer unto me, their Anglophone Catholic descendant?
I can only respond to such questions in the reverse: What am I not? Where aren’t I from? Why do I only speak English?
I have no understanding of or connection to any of the languages, religions, or sociocultural mores of the many ethnic groups which comprise me—they have essentially become foreigners to me.
What makes me quintessentially English, therefore, is the fact that I have no knowledges other than an English one.
I have an outsider’s perspective of the histories of my ancestors, whose blood runs through my veins.
Within their respective ethnic groups, they’ve most certainly never seen anything like me before, and have never shied away from questioning my membership to them.
“But you have eyelids, and your hair is wavy,” said a fellow Asian student to me while scanning over my features at the Summer Language Bursary French program in Montreal back in 2002.
“How are you Chung?”
Without knowing their histories, languages, or customs, what legitimacy can I really claim to have among “my” peoples?
Growing up in Toronto, I never questioned my ethnic identity.
Toronto is as multiethnic as me, and most everyone I met spoke English.
In what way could I ever feel out of place?
But moving to Montreal changed everything for me.
Never before had I been pressed so repeatedly to identify my ethnic origins.
Never before was I questioned about the authenticity of my membership to Anglophone society—by both native and non-native speakers alike.
It took me awhile to realize that I didn’t look like the language that I was speaking, I sounded like another race.
« Ben comment ça vous êtes pas hispanique?! Vous avez même un accent espagnol quand vous parlez français! »
« Chui pas Espagnole, et j’ai aucune connaissance de l’espagnol. »
Unconvinced by my Anglophone identity, folks would “hallucinate” an accent and assign me a new ethnic identity (Lippi-Green, 2012).
Now as a mother, I ask myself how I will pass on my multi-ethnic, Anglophone settler identity to my bilingual child whose features appear far less ‘exotic’ than my own.
How can I pass down to my child knowledges which I lack?
The only histories that I can faithfully render unto him are those of the Englishman who stomped their boots and stormed the shores of Urin Abya Yala (South America) and Turtle Island (North America), carving a country into her back.
He has learned, because I have already taught him, that the descendants of England’s colonial legacy who come in shades that look like his mother are often told that they don’t count. At least, that’s what all the questions surrounding my “true” identity have led me to believe.
This continued invisibility of stories from very visible people like myself can be referred to as a “hidden curriculum” (Apple, 1979), whereby an education system tailors its curriculum to centre certain sociopolitical norms while purposely omitting other histories.
And if exemplar theory has taught me anything, it’s that items not readily found in the input are rarely, if ever, learned.
If it does not exist in the input,
it cannot be perceived, meaning
it makes no trace in human memory.
That which is abundantly frequent in the input, however, is considered ‘normal’, and anything which deviates from this norm is categorized as an outlier.
The mind treats outliers in one of two ways: either excising the data immediately, deeming it to be useless input, or fast-mapping the item to memory because of its novelty.
Nothing seems to polarize our memory-making minds more than the existence of outliers.
And if outliers don’t raise a ruckus, if we don’t make some noise, do we even exist in the input?
Instead of asking an “outlier” to adapt to social “norms”, perhaps we would be better served by asking how a normative viewpoint can adapt itself to be more inclusive of its outlier members, as they are part and parcel of our very environment.
A speech community is, after all, an ecosystem, and new flora and fauna are constantly breaching borders, and being incorporated into the bubbling mass.
Aspirating forth from our hot, living, breathing mouths is language, which undulates invisibly through the air and spirals out waveforms, connecting us to each other right here and now, but also to spoken histories that existed well before us. The only way to make sense of it all is to keep talking to one another and listen to all the stories. Stories like this one from my paternal grandmother:
Apple, M. (1979). Ideology of curriculum. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Lippi-Green, R. (2012). English with an accent: Language, ideology, and discrimination in the United States (2nd ed.). New York, USA: Routledge.