Who Am I?

Hahmbahlaahng: all

Ancient Han language, dialects of northern China, and foreign languages collude to form Cantonese.  The word hahmbahlaahng came from the spoken language of northern China during the Yuan dynasty.  While “hahp” means all, “bala” is an empty morpheme, a sound without meaning tacked onto the end of an adjective. 

What happens to our identity when we, like the Cantonese dialect, come from multiple origins?  Best-selling novelist Lisa See’s lineage holds both Chinese and Caucasian roots.  In her memoir On Gold Mountain, she interviewed many Chinese relatives, who kept referring to her as Caucasian.  Despite her Anglo features, she says, “I am Chinese in my heart.”  In fact, I’ve heard her remark at conferences that she writes for herself, to explore hidden facets of her culture.

When I traveled to rural China in 2002, I suffered from identity confusion.  How do you explain that the Asian girl in the group of White people is not the translator?  Over and over again, I had to clarify that I spoke Cantonese and not Mandarin.  “Oh, are you from Hong Kong?” people would ask.  To avoid confusion, I eventually answered, “Yes.”  Until I ventured into Hong Kong and spoke Cantonese, where they commented, “I can’t quite place your accent.”  Well, that’s because I’m Chinese-American.

Who do you say you are?

 What makes us who we are?  Does our identity stem from an outsider’s perspective or our interior view?  Or something more nebulous in between?  

A Writer's Double Jeopardy
Being Mulan


  1. The questions you pose are interesting. It’s almost a nature vs nurture type answer.

    It seems that the farther we are from our motherland, the harder it is for others to ‘place’ us, especially if our features reflect that motherland.

    In this growing multi-ethnic American society the ‘placement’ is even more difficult.

    When it comes down to it, I think my identity is what my interior view is and who I believe I am.

  2. Hi Jennifer,
    Meant to comment long before now. I can totally relate to your experience. When I’m back in Prague people tell me I’m not Czech because, although I’m fluent, I lack the popular colloquialisms evolved over the months I’ve been away. Drag people have to pigeon hole…isn’t it?

  3. Hi Alvarado & Veronica,
    Thanks for comments, and I’m glad you can identify with my quandary.

Speak Your Mind


%d bloggers like this: