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Language and Identity: Beautifully Insightful Reflections from Seniors

In the IB English "Language in the Cultural Context" part of our syllabus, the HL students were asked to simply observe their surroundings and reflect on how language impacted their identity over the Mid-Autumn Festival break in October.  I simply wanted the students to keep up with writing practice, not expecting anything grandiose or complex.  "Just write," I said, "of what you notice; be cognizant of what makes you you as you spend time with your family, friends."  
When they came back, I didn't even require them to turn these in.  But they wanted to... and these are what came in.  Thank goodness they wanted to share these with me, because I am sure that I am a better person for having read these.
Take a read.  These are the voices of eight very unique 17-year-old seniors, international TCKs.
#ilovemystudents

"I hope to be caring and empathetic, not only to those who I know face struggles, but for those who remain silent." ~Hajira Kamran

Living in a international and culturally tolerant community has prompted me to expel the use of derogatory language from my vocabulary, for the sake of political correctness and to develop an identity through language that I am proud of. The language an individual uses can say a lot about them: their awareness of the connotations certain words hold and whether this will affect them enough to reform their diction. When I was in the sixth grade, I developed the habit of using the word ‘gay’ as a synonym for anything unappealing. At the time, my twelve-year-old self was more excited about the new addition to my adolescent jargon than about the true connotations of the word. From then on, the word ‘gay’ and its equally offensive counter-parts, such as ‘retard’ and ‘faggot’, made a permanent residence in my mind; only recently have I considered the true implications of this language. When I made the decision to move past such words, I took a step towards developing an identity that is both more socially aware and proves that I am a person who knows better –– and can do better –– than using language that hurts a person or group of people. 

Growing up in a tight-knit community with people of different backgrounds has helped me come to a conclusion towards the person I want to be when the effects of my actions are much more obvious. My identity, shown through the language I use, should not hinder or put down another person’s identity. Unlike my pre-teen self, I now have a larger spectrum of experiences; seeing my friends struggle with their own sexual identities has urged me to see the true implications the term ‘gay’ has. When the people I loved felt put down or isolated through micro-aggressions in casual slang, I was prompted to watch my own language –– it is now obvious to me that even in small communities, such as a high-school class, marginalization is possible. Isolating people further through ignorant language gives off its own identity; those who use 'gay' as a synonym for negative adjectives are doing so without realizing that there are hundreds of other words that can be used that do not carry the same amount of social unawareness and offense. I hope to be caring and empathetic, not only to those who I know face struggles, but for those who remain silent. Language is an open means of expression, and whether we realize it or not, it can carry an impact farther than just a conversation.

"Contrary to popular belief, most of the Arabic speaking people are not even Jihadi Islamic (Jihadi Islamic people tend to be the terrorists); many are actually Christian, Bedouin, Shia or Sunni." ~Nitay Bar-El

Recently, I have learned that language is a large factor in shaping an individual’s identity. Language is extremely interconnected with religion, culture, and ethnicity which is why it makes each person a special individual with their own identity. Israel, being the multi-cultural, multi-racial, and multi-religious country that it is, has a plethora of different languages spoken all around. The official languages of Israel are Hebrew and Arabic, and unofficially, English. 

The majority of non-Islamic people, the ones who speak Hebrew, English, Russian, often get tense when they are around someone who speaks Arabic. Historical events in Israel have given the non-Arabic speaking people a reason to tense up, especially when tension runs high on the border. The rather racist views the non-Arabic speaking people have towards the Arabic speaking people are based on the identity we perceive through the language spoken. The stereotype that is perceived mainly consists of some Islamic sadists who wish to re-conquer the Holy Land in the name of their religion. Yet in fact, most of the Arabic speaking people are extremely courteous and do not wish to inflict any harm—just live in peace. Contrary to popular belief, most of the Arabic speaking people are not even Jihadi Islamic (Jihadi Islamic people tend to be the terrorists); many are actually Christian, Bedouin, Shia or Sunni. Their language is a large factor in making up their identity, but one language can be shared amongst many different cultures, ethnicities, religions, or races.  

The lesson I personally learned is not to make shallow stereotypical judgements based on language, but to truly get to know the person’s identity.

It is my firm belief that different cultures can and should exist in harmony as the world continues to globalize. ~Lily Li

It is in the opinion of many that languages are tools for individuals to communicate and medium through which countries connect with each other. Most academic curriculums require students to learn more than just the language native to their land; the second or even third language that is taught at school is held at equal academic importance as their native language as a symbol for their nations’ development and globalization. China, the country I currently reside in have always done the same in the past as it teaches English as a vitally important second language in all its local schools. However, this is about to change. A recent bill was passed for all Chinese local schools to stop teaching English until third grade and for the full mark for English during the National Examinations (Gao Kao) to be reduced by fifty points starting from the fall of 2016. In contrast, the full mark of the Chinese section during the National Exams are looking to gain an extra fifty points—the points that have been shaved off from the English section. The importance of English has been reduced within the nation; it is widely predicted that some academies that teach English will have to shut down due to the decreasing demand and the already doubtful quality of English teaching in the Chinese local schools will soon experience a further decline.

I’m fully aware that this new policy is a method to prevent the elite social group from moving out of China and to inspire the youth to take more pride in their Chinese heritage. It is true that China experiences the problem of brain drain and it is also a fact that most local Chinese people tend have high levels of respect those with proficient English skills, but is reducing the incentives for youth to learn a new skill a right solution? First of all, it’s in our nature as human beings to migrate to nations that can offer better living environments and broader career opportunities. Put aside the fact that this country is not democratic, there are so many more push factors such as unchecked pollution and the lack of health insurance. But instead of choosing to examine what is wrong within the nation, China pins the blame on the teaching of foreign languages and argues that the citizens are under the false influence of American and European cultures. From a cultural angle, as an individual whose mother tongue is both English and Chinese, I personally can’t help but feel offended. It is my firm belief that different cultures can and should exist in harmony as the world continues to globalize. If China chooses to go through with this policy, this will only be seen as an act to isolate itself from global development. Only when China accepts and respects the existence of other cultures can there be diversity, which will eventually lead to the development and innovation this nation needs.
"At the end of it all, my senses appeal to me and assert that my identity is not stagnated. My identity does not become a single defined term. It constantly evolves..." ~Anirudh Padki

Identity is simply a perspective of how an individual or the world distinguishes and understands another individual. Our identity is what defines us, being who we actually are and how we portray ourselves in front of society. As separate individuals, submerged in a world with seven billion other faces, I believe it is imperative to be disparate and showcase the distinctiveness that each of us possess. As Descartes once stated, ‘ I think, therefore I am,’ we as  human beings are the sole focus of our individual world, where we place central importance on our ourselves. Our sense of identity must bud right from childhood, from within rather than being mentored and instructed for what we should become. The real meaning for identity holds a greater value when there is a sense of pride integrated with it. Essentially, the pride comes from a culmination of a multitude of things put together but it can be truly expressed when cultural backgrounds play a role.

With regard to myself, my identity has been majorly influenced by the culture I reside in, the languages I speak and the traits that I hold, hopefully emulating each one to showcase who I am as an individual. Different cultural backgrounds bring about a diverse group of people with unique identities. Cultural identity is what I believe will mould us and set us apart from the rest. Furthermore, with heavy influences such as cultural background and language, the identity of a person must be preserved and given respect. Our identity is extremely important as it differentiates us from the rest of the herd an because it is who we are a beings and we like to be accepted as the person within.

An individual’s comprehension of both their own and the others cultural identity develops right from childhood and is amped by the various attitudes and values prevalent at home or the surrounding society. Although I am cognizant of the fact that identity represents a person, I have come to the conclusion that one’s identity does not have to stagnate. Rather, I believe that is is constantly evolving, shaped by new languages that is being acquired and being exposed to various cultures. Pertaining to myself once again, I hold an Indian passport but I have spent the majority of my life in China. At times, I get a sense of feeling that I inherently belong to the Chinese culture more so than the Indian. A majority of the traits that I have picked up over the years have come from China while at other times, I choose to reinforce my Indian background and heritage. In many ways, I notice that the two identities have become interwoven. The Indian culture to which I belong to is complex in the sense that it requires us to do so much that over time, it’s become difficult to quantify. The existence of specific rituals and various complex acts prompts us to question who we are as people. In addition, the demands for carrying out certain things such as praying or chores are exceedingly high. Languages which are fused into the scripture are simply too many to count. The constant combination of cultures and languages made me question who I am at one point; what is my identity? At the end of it all, my senses appeal to me and assert that my identity is not stagnated. My identity does not become a single defined term. It constantly evolves with knowledge, different behavior along with beliefs that are obtained from the surrounding society. A myriad of cultural aspects to which I am continually exposed to is what shapes who I am as an individual, a person and eventually, my identity.
"Home." ~Ji Ho Lee

Our home is where we are; the place we were born, or the place of our origin, is not relevant; our home, our identity, is where we choose to go. Throughout the week, I had to go to the SAT academy every day; thus, it was not necessarily a ‘break’ for me. I struggled for a couple of days, as I did not have time to rest after the fatiguing volleyball trip in Hong Kong. At first, I thought I was just making excuses, so I continued to study and work; I continued to struggle. That was when I had realized that I let my struggle become my identity. It was hard and tiring, but necessary for the upcoming test. But was it worth it? I’m not so sure anymore. 

Even though I was surrounded by my native language in the academy, I did not feel at ‘home’. It sounded awkward to hear and speak in a class, as if I was a foreigner trying to learn another language. Yet, despite the difficulties involved, I thought about the possibility that we  might become different speaking another language- even if it is our ‘mother-tongue’. Regardless if the words and language do not echo from our childhood, where the vocabulary is not associated with our childhood connotations, language enables us to look at our surroundings in a slightly different way. We talk differently, gesture differently, move differently, and possibly even think differently. Although it was internally difficult for me from time to time, this new identity, away from the language that I normally speak everyday (English), was somehow liberating. It was another personality within myself; sometimes, when the teacher asked me, “너는이제 뭘할꺼야?” (what will you do now?) I would respond: to continue to be me. This was when I realized that my identity is the most valuable possession I could ever have. Protect it. Because once I discover who I am, I will truly be free.

"Language is the foundation of first impressions, mental images that form in one person’s mind when he or she first encounters another." ~Annie Sun

It is a given to not judge a book by its cover. Yet, first impressions are inevitable when an individual meets another for the first time whether it is a business acquaintance or a new classmate. Language is the foundation of first impressions, mental images that form in one person’s mind when he or she first encounters another. The mental snapshots influence the future treatment and perceptions of the person, as well as the immediate conclusions about that person. The diction of an individual categorizes him or her into schemas which have been previously formed from experiences, hinting the brain to make assumptions regarding the personality and background of the person. Profanity gives off a sense of unprofessionalism whether it is in a business situation and even a casual party. With no specific meaning and lacking a point, profane diction often makes an individual look uneducated and unsophisticated. Along with hinting possible negative personalities such as irresponsibility and frivolity, the individual will also seem not worthy of trust and shallow. With such first impressions, there is little possibility for the individual to win trust and reliability, which further influences the way they are treated in the future, whether it may be disrespect or ignorance. 

On the contrary, sophisticated diction as a first impression allows the individual to seem literate, informed, and intelligent. Individuals who hold such impression would be much more successful in the future compared to those of profanity, because people often categorize those with sophisticated diction as respectful, reliable, and responsible. While first impressions are important, the word choice in all conversations during every day life is significant because it frames the impression others have regarding the specific individual and shapes his or her identity.

Language, a system of linguistic signs and words used for communication between human beings used by an individual, reflects the cultural background, traditional norms, and race stereotypes of that individual. Each culture has its own peculiarities and there are often meanings to ideas that are attributed to language cultural-specifically. While the word may remain the same through various languages, the meaning changes according to the distinct cultural values.

For instance, the word dog (狗) is perceived differently in the Western and Chinese culture. In the Western culture, the word dog is perceived with a positive connotation, used in words such as top-dog or old-dog, to explain individuals that are dominant and victorious or haven’t been seen for a while. However, in the Chinese culture, the word is used to represent a negative connotation through words such as 走狗 (meaning “a lackey and evil person”) or 狗杂种 (meaning “son of a bitch”). Although the word dog does mean the domestic animal that many have as pets in both culture, when used in order to directly call out an individual, it is perceived very differently. The relationship between culture and language is that language is used as a foundation for culture to exist in the society, and hence, language largely reflects the culture it is used in. Without the sensitivities in cultural differences, language may wrongly portray the intention of an individual.

"I’m glad that my name is Javier, it’s not everyday that you meet a Chinese American named Javier." ~Javier Wong
"Hi, my name is Javier."

“Hahahahahaha. Javier? 

“Yeah.”

“What’s your actual name?”

“Javier is my actual name.”

“Isn’t that a Spanish name?” 

“Yeah, it is.”

“But you don’t look Spanish.”

“Yeah my Mom grew up in Spain, she speaks Spanish.”

“But you look, like 100% Chinese.”

“Yeah I know, my Mom and Dad are both fully Chinese.”

“Wait, so your Mom grew up in Spain and is fully Chinese?”

“Yeah.”

“Does she speak any Chinese.”

“Hahaha, no she doesn’t.”

“So she speaks Spanish and English fluently.”

“Yes.”

“That’s so COOL.”

“Yeah, I guess it is.”

“What language does your Dad speak then?”

“English, Chinese, and Cantonese.”

“That’s so cool! Did you live in Spain!?”

“No, I grew up in China.”

“Wait, why is your English so good then?”

“I went to an International School.”

“Oh, but why do you have an American accent?”

“I lived in the US for 4 years.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah…”

A sort of trend that I noticed when I first introduce myself. I noticed that, this sort of conversation happens more often in the US. To many people it is something that is unusual, but to me it was just my name, it wasn’t something that I really thought as unusual. My name is Javier Wong. Javier being the eleventh most popular name in Spain. Wong being the most popular name in China. It wasn’t that my name was extremely uncommon, it was that I didn’t look like a “Javier”. Maybe if I introduced myself by saying my name was 王伟宽, it would get a more understandable response. Yet, I’m glad that my name is Javier; it’s not everyday that you meet a Chinese American named Javier. I feel like your name shows a lot about who you are. My brother was born in the US, so the name that was given to him was Justin. My parents took a trip to France and decided to name my sister Isabelle. It sort of makes sense for such diversity to reside in the names of my family. We are multicultural children, growing up in different places, meeting different people, and growing up with different cultures. A sort of backstory is behind the names that we are given. Behind every name, there is a meaning. Though we do not choose our name, the name in some shape or form define us. 

Four languages are spoken in my household: Chinese, Cantonese, English, and Spanish. It can get confusing at times, but it was what I grew up with. I was used to it, it was not something that I found out of the ordinary. I go to my grandparents’ house in New York for their 80th Birthday and I realize that there is so much going on with cultures. So many different languages being spoken. It’s as if we are at a UN meeting, without the translators. The only solid similarity is that we all look very Chinese. Our family goes to eat Yum Cha, everyone is continuing to speak Spanish, Cantonese, Chinese, and English, yet the acts that we are committing are all extremely and traditionally Chinese. We sing Happy Birthday to my grandparents, in Chinese, English, and Spanish. We go back to my grandparents home and we eat moon cakes and Dreyers Ice Cream, a mix between Chinese and American dessert. How strange. My grandma tells me she loves me and that I should take care of my parents in Chinese, since her English is not great. We finish our goodbyes and it hits me. Now a days, finding identity is something that everyone is chasing after. They define themselves by the language and culture that they are surrounded by. My case is a little different.

I am Javier, I look Chinese, I speak English, I enjoy eating lajiao noodles and hamburgers, but I belong to no single culture. I am a TCK. 

"These two “me”s can be divergent. So, who am I? I don’t have a definite answer myself either; all that I can tell you is I have two identities." ~Nicole Cheong

Unlike most Third Culture Kids, I am not confused about my nationality, my ethnicity nor where my ‘home’ is. I know for sure that I am a Malaysian Chinese, and my home is Penang. I am a proud Penang-ite who has lived in Penang for ten years; Nanjing (China) for three years, Yangon (Myanmar) for three years, and Shenzhen (China) for two years. No matter where I live or how long I have been away from home, I will always look forward to the day I go back to Penang 

and reunite with all my family members. Nanjing, Yangon and Shenzhen are all my second home, my ‘home’ away from home. 

I am Nicole Cheong, also known as Cheong Wan Sin. Only my family members call me Cheong Wan Sin. These two names represent a different part of me; Nicole Cheong reflects the me when I am with my friends and Cheong Wan Sin is the me when I am with my family. These two “me”s can be divergent. So, who am I? I don’t have a definite answer myself either; all that I can tell you is I have two identities. If you are lucky enough, maybe you know both Nicole Cheong and Cheong Wan Sin. 

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