What Does It Mean To “Be Chinese”?

This month we published Language, Culture and Identity in Two Chinese Community Schools by Sara Ganassin. In this post the author talks about the book’s discussion of identity in contexts of migration. 

The past decade has seen a growing international interest in China, Chinese language education, ‘Chinese culture’ and Chinese communities including Chinese migrants. At the same time, often media attention has contributed to an enforcement of stereotypical constructions of a collective Chinese identity by depicting Chinese people, including Chinese migrants, in particular ways: successful, hard-working, but also conservative, unwilling to integrate and often ‘invisible’ in their new countries.

This book offers a snapshot of Chinese migrant experiences in Britain. It is important to acknowledge that ‘Chineseness’ is not necessarily related to an affiliation with a particular political entity, but it is rather related to the complex nature of the ‘Chinese world’ including its multinational and multicultural dimensions.

Chinese homework from a child at one of the schools in the book

This book is located in the context of Chinese community schools in the UK. These are educational and social spaces where migrants nurture their language, cultures and identities and transmit them to the younger generations. The question ‘is there more than one way of being Chinese?’ is addressed from the perspectives of children, parents and teachers attending two Mandarin schools. These perspectives include both those from ‘new’ migrants from Mainland China and those from more ‘traditional’ Cantonese, Hakka, and Hokkien speaking communities.

The book explores how ‘being Chinese’ covers a complex range of political, ethnic, linguistic, and cultural positions and identities that play out in the context of language community education. With their focus on non-dominant languages and ‘cultures’ community schools represent a space for adults and children to explore who they are and what ‘being Chinese’ means to them.

Postcards at the Librairie Avant-Garde in Nanjing

The topic of ‘Chinese’ and, more broadly, ‘migrant’ identity is central in the book. However, the book is not just about ‘being Chinese’. Identity is a crucial and controversial topic in any context of migration and displacement. Social-constructionism enables us to see identity as a process constructed through the relationships that we establish with the world around us. Our sense of who we are, especially but not exclusively as migrants, is shaped by our sense of identification with particular communities, but also by our self-understanding of our own unique personal journeys and family histories.

Furthermore, identification and affiliation with certain groups — e.g. ‘being native speakers of a certain language’, ‘being citizens of a certain country’ — afford us privileges and opportunities others might not have and, at the same time, shape how we see ourselves and the world. A key message in this book concerns the importance of acknowledging how different life trajectories are a source of enrichment rather than obstacles as people move, settle in new contexts and negotiate who they are in relation to the ‘other’.

I hope that readers — those who study and have an interest in intercultural and migrant education, teachers and learners of Chinese or any other community language — may engage with the narratives reported in this book and enhance their understanding of their own personal and professional stories in intercultural spaces.

For more information about this book please see our website.

If you found this interesting, you might also like Learning Chinese as a Heritage Language by Guanglun Michael Mu.

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