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  • Writer's pictureRKPROST

"Traditional" Language & Culture

A discussion by a Canadian radio program about the “attempt to maintain traditional languages as a way of maintaining traditional culture” made me think about how being adopted from Guilin, China has impacted my perspective of what my “traditional” language and culture are. I grew up in a rich and predominately white community. English is my first language and I am part of American culture, but that is not how my life could have unfolded. Although I am appreciative of where I am, I wish I had the opportunity for my “traditional” language, Mandarin Chinese, and “traditional” culture to be a larger part of my identity growing up compared to exploring it just now as a young adult.

In the summer of 2018, I had the opportunity to return to China through the CCAI Heritage tour. After three years of trying to learn Chinese in high school, I recognized maybe fifteen percent of the characters I read on street signs, buildings, and in Buddhist temples. I ran into problems when people approached me and tried to speak to me. Using one of the few memorized phrases from class, I responded with, “I’m sorry, but I do not speak Chinese,” and they’d walk away, but part of me knows that in an alternate reality, I could have. While touring the country with other Chinese adoptees, we received strange looks. I assumed they found a bunch of Chinese girls all speaking fluent English to be quite odd.

One night the tour group went to see a Sichuan opera performance in Chengdu. I was entertained and amused by the various talents and acts, but I could only make sense of what was happening and why through my field of experience. I may have looked like the locals, but I felt isolated from them as they laughed at something a character said which I did not understand. In moments where I do not comprehend my “traditional” language and fully appreciate my “traditional” culture, I feel robbed of part of my identity. Although artwork and photographs of Guilin hang in my home, I cannot fully understand the wisdom and significance of the proverbs in Mandarin as its meaning gets lost in translation back into English.

Like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis proposes, I was born into the English language which shapes the way I perceive and make sense of the world. That does not mean I will stop learning about how “traditional” Chinese culture and language impacts where I came from, who I am, and where I am going.

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