Your Mentality, Your Identity
A dilution to the unconscious belief in the importance of defining one’s national identity.
By Tsang Grace Cheuk Wan
“Is Hong Kong part of China?” he asked.
“Geographically yes?” I answered.
“Then it’s a certain ‘yes’. You have ‘Chinese’ as the nationality in your passport, isn’t it?”
It was a snowy evening, my friend and I entered a glassblowing studio in Quebec City. As the only customers in the shop, our prolonged examination of the glassworks sparked the shopkeeper’s interest in talking to us. He asked the question you always ask when meeting someone new – where do you come from? Should you go with where you were born? Where you grew up in? Or your ancestry? If they are different, which do you choose to answer with?
I used to say I hate China and its people, and I even hated myself for having “Chinese” genes , which have given me black irises, black hair, and yellow skin. I was overly fond of foreign cultures, everything outside the border was fantasized. The Japanese are the most polite; their articles and commodities are exquisitely and meticulously designed. England is home to many real or fictional characters of fame at different times - Geoffrey Chaucer (the “Father of English Literature”), William Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter. Egypt was once an advanced civilization – they excelled in many fields such as mathematics, geometry and astronomy, and the precision in how they built the pyramids is mysterious and amazing. India’s development of yoga and Ayurveda to maintaining health and healing diseases is sacred and brilliant. France offers the best patisseries and bakeries, people dress up with a sense of fashion, with a hint of love and romance diffused in the air.
But clearly, I was naïve and did not see the other side of the world...
The politeness of the Japanese is culture, is habit, but is also a form of suppression; the delicate packaging of goods is environmentally unfriendly. The weather in England is reportedly depressing according to many friends of mine who have studied abroad there. My sister who went to Egypt said it was a once in a lifetime journey – while it was an invaluable trip, it was a difficult one (in a way she could not adapt to the exclusively bean-based food and scorching weather), and she will never go again. The pollution and environmental problems in India are intimidating. France is subjectively the closest to my idealism, but definitely not without faults.
Do I still hate China? Right now, as I see the place with five thousand years of history, I cannot deny that I do appreciate quite a few elements of its ancient civilization - Chinese literature, calligraphy, artworks, folk dance... just like I imagined the good sides of all other countries. The prejudice I had only came from my living here, experiencing the bad sides of it first hand. Citizens of other places have their own problems just like we do. As a person who has been indifferent towards politics, being called a Chinese is not a big deal to me, not anymore, because that is how others view me, not how I view myself - unimportant. Like the shopkeeper, who didn’t know much about the political status or the different cultures we have, it was unimportant to him whether we are Chinese or Hongkongers, just like we are ignorant to other countries’ business, more or less.
View the world not as an imagination of your own, but with collective objectivity.
My friend once told me how angry she was, that when she joined a program, she and other Hong Kong students got assigned to the Putonghua group. I could understand her frustration in not having Hong Kong’s culture differentiated from mainland China’s by other people when the two are so different, especially with language being a critical factor. But my opinion? What is the importance of having yourself exclusively differentiated in the crowd? Shouldn’t it be your pride if you can be assimilated into a foreign group without being distinct? If you have mastered a foreign language, and speak it so fluently that a native speaker of the language feels comfortable to talk to you like he does to his homely friends, it is indeed a reward to yourself, of being allowed the chance of earning yourself a dear friend and of commendation for your effort in acquiring the language and understanding the culture that were previously alien to you.
To many language learners, I believe, and including myself, we share a deadly fear which makes us hesitate to speak in the language(s) we are learning – our accent. It does not only make you sound awkward in front of a native, but it also divulges where you come from. So does the accent matter? I would say “yes, to a certain extent.” You cannot deny that you always listen to your Hong Kong friends speaking Cantonese with more ease than to a foreigner speaking Cantonese with a foreign accent. Such awareness distresses me so much because if I have difficulty understanding someone trying to speak in my language, others probably do not understand me when I speak in theirs. Yet, one day, when I was taking a Linguistics course at my host university in Canada during my exchange, the professor talked about dialectal variation in his lecture on phonetics: “English dialects differ a lot in how vowels are pronounced”. (One of the examples he gave was: do ‘cot’ and ‘caught’ sound the same when you say them?) This appeared as a notion that really struck me – suddenly, the different accents are not much more than social phenomena to me, indeed there are no better accents. In the end, the purpose of having languages is to communicate, if your pronunciation, intonation, stress, and rhythm allow effective communication in the language you speak, and do not often cause misunderstanding, you are pretty much good to go, unless you be a perfectionist pursuing certain native standards for your own pleasure.
View your language not as a symbol of your identity, but as a tool for communication.
You may have heard that humans, more specifically Homo Sapiens, are about 99% genetically identical. (Although in recent years, scientists have found more differences in terms of the number of copies of our genes, which make us more different than they previously thought.) A few years ago in 2016, there was a famous advertisement The DNA Journey by a Danish travel site momondo, which illustrates the reactions of people receiving their DNA testing results that come with an estimation of their ethnicity in percentages. Taking one of the participants, Carlos, as an example, who, before the test had thought he is 100% Cuban. What he got was:
Native American 17%
South-Eastern Africa 16%
Great Britain 8%
Ivory Coast/Ghana 3%
Eastern Europe 2%
The Middle East 2%
As the estimations are based on the existing database of the human genome, the results may not be totally accurate, but the important message behind is that there is no clear cut between different races, we are more connected than we think we are. According to the theory of evolution, we all have the same root, the same ancestry. Probably, at some point, be it by chance or by natural selection, mutation of genes caused the emergence of our species Homo Sapiens.
The question is – is your genetics important in defining who you are?
As a Biology student, I do regard DNA as the determinant of our appearances and the basis of our inherent dispositions, which is important on an individual level, in defining one’s strengths and weaknesses, as in talents, personality, and health condition et cetera. Environmental factors are not to be ignored in shaping who you are, but with possibilities contained in your nature – every reaction and decision made is the product of your inherent disposition and accumulated life experience.
It is, however, not quite a wise thing to define our nationalities based on the genes we have, or based on appearances (as a partial reflection of the genes we have). For genes appear as DNA codes, and just because of the different combinations of DNA we have, we are different from each other, as well as from other species. The book Sapiens talks of our ability to compose fiction. Indeed, we must remind ourselves a lot of things are only created by us, and should they be created in other ways, the world would go on without any of us questioning it. For instance, why do we need visas to go across some borders? – because we are separated by borders created by men.
View your genetic composition not as an indicator of your race, but as a connection to the world.
Your will shapes who you are
A few years ago, when I was still a naïve child, expressing my self-hatred as having a Chinese identity to a friend, she said: “don’t see yourself as a Chinese, see yourself as Grace.”
As I travel to more places, as I meet more people, I found that compatibility is the key to nurturing any attachment. For every place I went, there is something I like, it could be the gastronomy, the architecture, the history, the cultural etiquette… For any relationship that lasts, there must be a source of motivation for both sides to put in the effort of maintaining the relationship – common values, tacit understanding, mutual attraction… Whether the combination of the factors pleases me is a solely subjective matter, but we don’t have to take it all - each of us is like a piece of a puzzle looking for the other pieces that match with any one side of ourselves, no one piece satisfies all. In whatever you encounter, extract and adopt the elements you want that help to enrich your life and contribute to your happiness, nothing else matters so much as to be worthy of your time and emotion; if developing a sense of appreciation for them is too demanding, an attitude of indifference may help to keep you calm.
One day, I will be cooking Japanese recipes, watching Shakespearean plays , listening to Egyptian music, practising yoga, dressing like a French woman…