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
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
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
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
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
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
If only there had been a course probing