HOW TO SPEAK OF SILENCE
"I don’t have a true home.
My mother culture is that of Shanghai, China. My entire family, immediate and extended back for the last three generations originates from there. Shanghainese people have just as much pride in being from Shanghai, if not more, than even Beijing people, who at least had the stated privilege of calling their city the capital. Shanghainese people have a strong sense of distinction between insider and outsider, between their business and that of others’.
To this culture I am an outsider by all rights, overstaying my welcome under someone else’s roof. Each time I visit those aunts, uncles, grandparents, great-aunts and great-uncles, I know my “not-actually-Chinese” brand is all but stamped on my forehead from the way they tiptoe around and over me with delicate care, lest I get confused and lost.
My birthplace is Windsor, Canada. After 3 years or so of marriage in China, my parents immigrated to Canada and then I was born there. We lived so close to the Detroit River that on the days between July 1st and July 4th, Canada and the US’s national holidays, I used to watch the fireworks by the bridge with my 阿公 (āgōng), my maternal grandpa.
But other than that, I could not tell you the first thing about Canada. Other than what my professional career in business dictates, I have zero awareness of the country’s on-goings, and zero interest to learn. There is nothing of Canada to my name save for a birth certificate and a dual citizenship.
My “hometown”, the place I physically grew up in, is Michigan. We moved from Canada to Michigan for good when I was about four or five for my dad’s job. The city we lived in has an abnormally high population of Asian-Americans - in other words, a city of scions who wore the same faces of Asian blood but spoke an unsteady mash-up of American and Asian culture.
Being a bilingual household, my house was not meant to have a single background by design. My parents encouraged me to practice Mandarin, because they said that was the language that would benefit me the most professionally. Not only would I not carry the burden of immigrant language barriers like they did, I’d rise above with an advantage of being bilingual in two of the most powerful languages used in the world today.
They didn’t realize – and neither did I until years later – that what I absorbed weren’t the Chinese ideals they expected. Instead of speaking to me in the stilted, heavily enunciated formalness of Mandarin, they spent more time trading words with each other in their natural Shanghainese accent, a rhythm that ended as lilts that sounded like questions and slurred words at every end. They played on their lips excessive repetition of the simplest connecting words in every sentence, in the Shanghai way of trying to speak as fast as humanly possible. To me, this was a cadence more natural than any Mandarin recording would bring, and I would carry this music forward forever in my tongue."