Li: Holding my heritage in my hands

Grant Li, Columnist

I’m a senior, but I only started studying Chinese at Northwestern last year. Sometimes, I wish I would’ve started earlier, but then again, I can’t think of any way I could have found the motivation to learn. Many of my Chinese American peers grew up going to Chinese school. My parents never forced me to. I’m quite grateful, because I believe things like the desire to learn the tongue of my heritage come on their own, always at the right time. Had I been forced to engage with the language any earlier than I eventually did, I feel like I would have developed some resentment.

With every word I learn, I feel as if I’m building a dingy little bridge across the Pacific. On the other side are my parents’ hometowns and my grandma — my only surviving grandparent. One thing COVID-19 reminded me of was that all things have an expiration date. I don’t have forever to build a closer relationship with my grandma: Both distance and language separate us.

Aside from wanting to be closer with family, there is also a lot of history to be accessed through language. History is best learned through primary sources. The events that seem unreal when read through books were experienced by my parents and my grandma. What feels almost abstracted as they appear on Wikipedia or in textbooks are part of my personal histories. I just need to be able to ask and understand what my grandma has to teach me.

I’ve also come to the realization that what’s left of my cultural heritage in the United States is entirely up to me. To a certain degree, any culture will die if the next generation fails to live it out. But when you’re Chinese in China or American in America, the larger cultural currents and momentums will carry you along — one barely has to make any movements of their own. I don’t feel any particularly strong impulse to preserve American culture in the sense that I already live it out subconsciously at practically every moment. On the other hand, there is nothing to carry me along in terms of my Chinese cultural heritage on this side of the Pacific: What I manage to learn, remember and preserve now will be all there is, whether to give to children or to keep for myself.

Beyond that, I must consider what exactly it is I am preserving. In many ways, the Chinese culture that I grew up in was the one frozen in time from the ’90s — when my parents first left — fused with the realities of American life. Their music and material tastes (or lack thereof, more like utterly uncompromising frugality) have not kept pace with a China that’s glitzier, more glamorous and a lot more materialistic than when they left.

My parents are from the northeast region of China. As with all regions of China, the northeast is quite unique and particular, from the accent to its recognition as China’s “Rust Belt.” A word often associated with northeast Chinese culture is the word “土,” literally translating to dirt or soil. The word is also used to describe northeast Chinese fashion, which is a lot more floral and boomer-like, associated with a lack of sophistication and wealth that hasn’t kept up with their more urban compatriots in higher tier cities.

It’s disappointing to learn that 土-ness is sometimes treated condescendingly by other, wealthier demographics in China. I personally find 土-ness endearing, perhaps because I grew up sleeping under floral pattern blankets and pulling out games from floral-patterned cabinets. This is the Chinese culture that I personally want to preserve for myself, and I’m sometimes discouraged that I can’t do more. The more standard Chinese I learn in class, for example, lacks those flairs and colors of my parents’ speech. Even if I were to successfully preserve the entirety of my Chinese cultural heritage — whatever that would even mean — the young and trendy, wealthier Chinese urban elites might have already moved on from those things I care to keep.

That is to say, preserving my Chinese cultural heritage is not simply learning what those of my age happen to be doing in China. Attending such a diverse school has given me the opportunity to meet wonderful people from all over the world, including Chinese international students. In interacting with them, I’ve come to understand that their lifestyles are often simply beyond the means and the times of the Chinese culture most familiar to my family — what I want to preserve.

To frame it this way is obviously not to claim anything as less or more valid to Chinese culture. Rather, it is merely to realize that cultures and histories as each person experiences them are deeply and uniquely personal. This is perhaps felt more distinctly by the immigrant child.

In parallel, the responsibility of learning and sustaining that cultural heritage is all the more heavy and personal. Whatever amount of the particular Chinese heritage I grew up in and manage to preserve is what I will be left with. Truly, there is no one who can do it for me. It is all in my hands.

Grant Li is a Weinberg senior. He can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.