A Course Probing Self-Identity

Who am I?

I have been pondering that question for so long! How I wish there had been a course in school to help me find the answer! The notion came to me this past summer, when Grandfather visited me for the first time since I left China almost six years ago.

Every night for two months, Grandfather told me stories I had never before heeded. I learned that I was born the seventy-fifth generation of a great family headed by Mencius—one of the most celebrated philosophers and educators in Chinese history. According to Mencius, “The people are the most precious, then the state, then the rulers”—a very advanced concept considering he was born almost 2400 years ago in a time of continual civil wars. He had authored one of the Four Books, which along with the Five Classics were indispensables to any Chinese scholar for millennia. His prowess earned himself the title of “Royal Sage”—a title that only belonged to Confucius and him. He also earned his descendents imperial middle names—a royal bestowal to discern his later generations. It was an honour that only three other families in China had received. My imperial middle name, I learned for the first time, is Xiang.

Grandfather also told me stories all the way from his great-grandfather’s time down to my father’s. Many things transformed in China during the three eras under the Qing Dynasty, the Kuomintang government, and the communist regime; inside our family however, in every story that Grandfather told, the Mengs were independent thinkers, challengers of authority, and relentless fighters. That was why after surviving twenty years of political persecution, Grandfather had become a renowned historian. That was why after surviving thirteen years of labour reform, Father had earned a full international scholarship at the age of forty at Simon Fraser University, where he earned a master’s degree at the age of forty-five. That was why I had learned English from ground zero in about six months and led my school musical in a year’s time and am now a three-time French public speaking champion in British Columbia. I felt proud for my family heritage. A sense of belonging it gave me—a buried treasure found.

Having seen a part of my Chinese culture, I was able to assess, for the first time, my Canadian half. The Canadian culture offered remedy to my disastrous personal skills. Humour, sensibility, and friendship had little importance in my old ideology. However, they have become my inseparables now that I have looked back and seen my misery without them. Cultural awareness bettered my sensitivity towards others. I learned the importance of mutual respect and understanding. I realized, that to be able to understand, to learn from, and to appreciate different cultures is one of the greatest gifts and one of the most important skills anyone could ever ask for. I am now convinced that both cultures are equally irreplaceable in shaping who I am today, and who I will be tomorrow.

However, I have only seen pieces of the puzzle—my family heritage and some of the influences the two cultures have had on me. This feeling of partiality surges in me an anxiety to learn more about myself.

How I wish there had been a course to help me out!

Despite the anxiety, having seen some pieces of my self-identity is better than having seen none at all. In retrospect, once I was actually determined to dispose of the China in me.

It all began in March of 1994, when I first came to Canada. I still remember how difficult it was the first few months. Kids made fun of me because I wore knee-high socks and tucked my shirt in my shorts and carried a kid’s lunch box… and because China had taught me little about peer respect. What China did teach me was to always be a proud Chinese. An inner voice said to me: Don’t worry! It’s what’s inside that counts!

However, when my classmates began throwing erasers and balls of wool at me, I became determined to lose the China in me. I tried to be more like the others: to eat like them, to dress like them, to talk like them. During that time, I discovered how much humour existed in the Canadian culture. However, I did not know what was good humour and what was bad humour and that Canadian girls did not like people calling them fat… So, the day it burst out of my mouth, I made a bunch of enemies who swore never to forgive. Just great! Everyone called me a dork, amongst other names. I still remember how my cheeks burned during a parent-teacher interview, when my teacher asked me who my best friend was. No one liked me, I thought.

I was wrong. The realization came some time after a public apology in front of the entire class. I had to muster my all to carry out that embarrassing decision. Worse still, one of my classmates made a big fuss out of it. Ironically, things went uphill after that. People began to accept me more, and I actually began to make friends.

However, there was only so much I could learn in elementary school. Friendship made me discover how much China had deprived me of it. As I entered high school, I made yet another attempt at becoming a complete Canadian, devoid of my Chinese counterpart, which had given me so much distress and sorrow. Ironically, my impulsive imitations of Canadianism as I saw around me and on television left me with even more agonizing moments. People ostracized me for the partiality in the Canadian culture I had acquired. What I saw as humour they saw as eccentricity; what I saw as self-presentation they saw as boasting; what I saw as confidence they saw as pride; what I saw as persistence they saw as annoyance… Everything I did seemed to shift my personal skills closer to a point of calamity. I can never forget how my English teacher of two years ago denounced me “insufferable” in front of the whole class when I implored her to correct a mistake in my term letter grade. Be it due to innocence or foolishness, my reputation and popularity took a terrible plunge several years ago, which transitioned to a slow revival as I finally saw the truth: I can never become a complete Canadian, because that would mean the removal of an irremovable part of myself—my Chinese cultural heritage. In being who I am and accepting it, I began to make friends, friends from all cultures and of all ages, based on mutual respect and understanding. In fact, not so long ago, when I referred to my once catastrophic personal skills, my current English teacher broke into laughter then in disbelief.

As the Chinese proverb goes: “He who sees into others is clever; he who sees into himself is wise.” I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to get to know myself, because in that process I have found a comfortable place to stay in the Canadian society. I simply have to be myself, and let it not imitate or transform, but evolve. It took me nearly six years to reach that state of awareness. Still, I know that is only a small part of the answer to my question. I know there is still a long way to go before I can really understand who I am.

Oh how I wish there had been a course to help me out! It would have spared me, let alone time, so much painful memories!

With those memories still fresh in mind, I have been trying my best to help the many people around me who have problems as once I had. Those individuals, like did I, do not have a clear sense of their cultural heritage, and thus their self-identity. A vague sense of ‘self’ decodes into a lack of self-assurance. A lack of self-assurance confuses the mental state and reflects itself through physical behaviour. Some individuals choose to deny this lacking by putting up a fragile façade; some choose to escape by means of drugs, alcohol, or gangsterism; still others choose to conceal themselves. One of my friends wrote about herself this way: “Who am I? I am someone whom no one knows. I doubt you know me well, because I don't know myself.” I wish I could help them because I know how dreadful the suffering could be. However, I had only been able to help a very few, in school and through volunteering. I find that many people do not attempt to understand themselves. Most people simply do not want to listen. They seem troubled by the fact that in doing so, they would face a long and difficult journey.

Fortunately, that journey could become shorter and easier if individuals hold tools to probe into their cultures early. Elementary school is the best starting point for the guidance. In the form of a mandatory course and bearing the necessity of a smoking-prevention program, it should continue well into high school.

I envision a course that would provide tools for its students to probe into their cultural heritage. A ‘Self-Identity’ fair would be held at the end of the program, with every student doing a project and then a presentation on their self-discoveries. Not only would the course help the students to better understand their cultures, render a clearer self-image, discover their true needs, interests, and motivations in life—which over time will translate into confidence—it would also help the economy of the locale where it would be implemented. After all, cultural products and projects do and will continue to generate major revenues for many nations. The course would inspire within its students originality and creativity—two appealing qualities for consumers anywhere in the world, today and tomorrow.

If only I had the chance to take such a course! Not only would I have avoided needless struggles as an outsider and a confused rebel, I would have realized so much sooner the importance of understanding my cultural heritage and the necessity of looking into myself.

If only there had been a course probing self-identity!



Tai Meng | 孟泰 | Last Updated: May 12, 2019