Stickiness of language and culture: Identity in the making (by Sunny Man Chu Lau)

Sunny Man Chu Lau is Associate Professor in the School of Education at Bishop’s University in Quebec, Canada. Her interest in and advocacy for critical approaches to second language (L2) learning can be traced back to her English language experience both as a learner and as an educator in Hong Kong. Born and raised in this former British colony, since very young, she came to know and experience the hegemonic power of ESL, “English as a superior language” (Pennycook, 1998), in everyday life and how it impacted learners’ relationship with the language as well as with their life chances. For more about Sunny see our Active Members page.

Affect is an impingement or extrusion of a momentary or sometimes more sustained state of relation as well as the passage (and the duration of passage) of forces or intensities. That is, affect is found in those intensities that pass from body to body (human, nonhuman, part-body, and otherwise), in those resonances that circulate about, between, and sometimes stick to bodies and worlds, and in the very passages or variations between these intensities and resonances themselves. (Seigworth & Gregg, 2010, p. 1).

Seigworth and Gregg (2010) describe how affect is fundamentally visceral and material, circulating between bodies and environment, shaping and shaped by different political, economic, and cultural forces. This material and social view of emotions prompts to ask how one is affected, by one’s experience with language, into action or non-action regarding language learning. Our emotional attachment, the “stickiness” (Ahmed, 2004) of certain language and cultural practices is a “product of history and society” (Busch, 2015). My language portrait attempts to show the bricolage of my experiences, past, present and projective, and how they get attached onto my body:

Moving to Canada, I quickly adopted a new identity, though it was not much of a choice. Before, I was just ME, and now I’m Asian. I wasn’t even Chinese most of the time. There were times when people mistook me for Japanese or Korean, assuming that I spoke the language or that I naturally understood those Asian languages. Some would think I knew Mandarin by default, not knowing that I took classes and chose to listen to Mandarin songs to learn to speak it. These Asian languages/dialects got tagged onto my body, patching up a second skin layering onto and morphing into mine as I hazarded myself in the refashioning of a new self for a new home.

When I first met my White husband, he was (and has always been) very discreet with how he described my skin colour.  “Olive!”, he determined. “It’s so evenly-coloured and saturated with warmth”. In my portrait, I painted my face olive as a reminder to myself –despite everything, somehow, somewhere, if not to everyone, I’m special and precious to someone. Of course, I struggled when I came across people who had difficulty getting past my olive façade. So much of me was distorted, buried, and stifled. My inner being beseeched them to grant me a second chance, to make known who I really was. But the funny thing was, since my arrival, I experienced changes in me. Like an old tissue or a movie ticket tucked away in a winter jacket pocket, I forgot how it got there. Growing up in Hong Kong, I was a never a big fan of canton pop or Kung Fu movies. The first year I came to Toronto, I frequented the Pacific Mall in Markham, digging up bootlegged movies of Jackie Chan’s and devouring them on the weekends.  I rebuilt my Hongkonger identity one pixel of the kungfu star at a time. I hide in my core a remake of a Hong Kong flag, with the five-petal Bauhinia flower in red rather than its original white colour — Hong Kong became part of me when I ceased to be part of it.  My identity of a Hongkonger came alive the moment I left the place — It dis/appeared at the same time.  How IRONIC!

The fact that HK is now part of China hasn’t really registered for me. When people asked me if I’m from China, I often said, no, I’m from HK. It took me a while to figure out why I insisted on this. I’d never felt connected to China, nor Great Britain, as my mother country. But I yearn to belong, to feel part of a “bigger me”, as the Chinese saying goes.  My parents fled China when the communist government took power in the 1950’s. My father spoke many Chinese dialects such as Hakka, Chiuchow, Shanghainese, and Mandarin but he and my mom decided not to teach us those dialects, which they deemed useless in the Cantonese-dominant territory. They would, however, use Hakka or Chiuchow as a secret language between themselves. Now I only have remnants of these dialects—I don’t know how to speak them but I recognize them. The past winter when I was in Hong Kong, occasionally when I heard passers-by speaking those dialects, they brought back heart-warming memories of my dad who passed away three years ago, and of my mom in her younger days.  I felt like a child again.

I filled my whole body green to stand for English as my life force—it is a whole body of green. My interest in and success with English have opened doors for studies and for work; it brought me here to Canada. It is connected to what I do (right hand) but also to what I regretted doing. For a long time, I have taught English in the same way I learned it: I pursued an idealized accent; I judged my students against a “standard” of English; I reproduced in them the same colonial relationship I lived through. Now, my life is devoted to the mission of disrupting its hold on me and on the teachers I work with.

If my relationship with English is mainly professional, like that of a marriage of convenience, my feelings for French are totally different. I learned it out of my curiosity, my love for its sounds, how the vowels and consonants are so connected and can be rolled off the tongue in such a smooth way. When I got my job in Quebec, very quickly I came to identify myself with the Quebec French culture. And it didn’t take long for my “olive” face to reveal me to be no pure laine. When I walk around the park in my small town with my White husband, people would stare at us, well, mostly at me. I have learned to just smile back, reminding them of my humanity, and theirs too. When going shopping, I would use French with the staff, but they would only look at my White husband and speak to him. Not all Quebecois treat me as if I were invisible. Some would change to English to accommodate my accented French. Well-intentioned or not? I persuade myself to believe the former. French is a language I have fallen in love with, yet this love doesn’t seem to be returned, at least for now. I drew a Quebec flag to represent this second paradoxical relationship, inversing the blue and white colours of the original flag. It is painted across with red stripes. Red stands for English Canada – my English-speaking identity is thrown into the mix, which has given me an advantage on some occasions while setting me back on others. As an Asian, English-dominant academic in Quebec, I feel so out of place in most social and institutional settings. Yet, I have come to love staying on the margins and inhabiting the interstitial spaces, to always remind myself of what it feels like to be seen as the Other and not to have the language or the “right” accent to speak and to get listened to.

Envisioning my future, I see the interlacing of all these languages and cultures in me, a mélange of everything, of all homes, of extended families, of friends, students and colleagues from different places in Canada and in the world.  In my language portrait, my legs disappear in the hybridity and all I cling onto are some basic values of respect, integrity and love that my parents have passed onto me that I associate with Confucianism. If I could not pass on the Chinese language or Cantonese through the generations, and if my son decides not to speak it with his children, at least this is something I can proudly say: I have done my part to impart these values to him.

The author would like to thank Gail Prasad (2008) for her linguistic portrait template.

References

Ahmed, S. (2004). The cultural politics of emotion. New York: Routledge.

Busch, B. (2015). Expanding the notion of the linguistic repertoire: On the concept of spracherleben—the lived experience of language. Applied Linguistics, 38(3), 340–358. doi:doi:10.1093/applin/amv030

Seigworth, G. J., & Gregg, M. (2010). An inventory of shimmers. In M. Gregg & G. J. Seigworth (Eds.), The affect theory reader (pp. 1-25). Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

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