My Cultural Identity


"So, where are you from?" people would ask. "Virginia." I would reply. Not satisfied with my answer, they would rephrase the question. I would get variations of "Where do you come from?", "Where does your family hail from?", "What is your ethnicity?", etc. I'm not stupid. I know what they mean by "Where are you from?" I just like to joke around and play stupid, and then I would tell them, "I'm Chinese." But that's where it gets confusing. I would get requests of "Can you teach me how to say this and that in Chinese?" Or, for the more culturally astute, "Do you speak Mandarin or Cantonese?" Even more impressive are the people who ask me, "Tran? Isn't that a Vietnamese last name?"

What is Teochew

China is such a large country that cultural homogeinity is virtually impossible. It is a little known fact that China has over 50 different dialects, with a majority quite intelligble from one another. Most people, however, are only aware of two dialects, Mandarin and Cantonese. Although I can speak both Mandarin and Cantonese, my native language is Teochew. (For background information on the Teochew language and culture, please feel free to click on the links provided below. Basically, Teochew is a dialect spoken in southeastern China)) It is important to note that different regions of China speak different dialects, and therefore, possess a distinct culture. Therefore, I can't really justify what "Chinese" is.

Mandarin vs. Teochew

Growing up, I had the advantage of being able to communicate in both Teochew and Cantonese. I was always aware, however, that Teochew was my native language because I would speak in Teochew with my father and other relatives. With my mother, on the other hand, although Teochew is her native language as well, I've always spoken Cantonese with her. Being so young, I was not aware of the importance of this difference until my parents started making me go to "Chinese" school. The fact of the matter was, it was "Mandarin" school. Most of my classmates either spoke Mandarin or Cantonese at home. I felt left out because I mainly spoke Teochew. I had no one to relate to. Why, I wondered, was I learning Mandarin instead of Teochew? Was Teochew inferior to Mandarin? Why couldn't I recognize the Romanized pronounciations of "Chinese" words in the textbooks? I began to question if I was really even "Chinese" at all. My doubt was further established when my friend's mother assumed that I was Vietnamese. Her assumptions were valid because "Tran" is a Vietnamese last name. In essence, it is the equivalent to Chen (Mandarin) or Chan (Cantonese).

Discovering my cultural identity

I was roughly 14 or 15 when I asked my father, "Are we really Chinese? If so, why do we have a Vietnamese last name?" My father explained that the Teochew people come from the southeast region of China, but because of overcrowding and the Commust Revolution in China, many Chinese people, in addition to the Teochew people fled to other countries, mainly the U.S. and other south-east Asian countries. My great-grandparents happened to settle in South Vietnam, where two more generations of the family lineage would be born and raised. My last name, Tran, is the result of semi- assimilation into Vietnamese culture, which in fact, is not too different from Chinese culture because Vietnamese culture is heavily influenced by Chinese culture. That same year, in the fall, my parents invited me to the annual "Autumn Moon Festival". It is there that I met other Teochew-Vietnamese families such as mine. I didn't feel so alone anymore. I would continue to attend these functions for another 3 years until academic obligations took priority. My interest in Teochew culture waned until about a year ago when I came upon this blogring for Teochew people. I had not realized the extent of people around the world with "Teochew blood" in them. I can't put it into words, but I felt a great sense of pride knowing that I may not be such a minority after all. The sad thing was, a great majority of "Chinese" people with "Teochew blood" in them, do not know how to speak the language. Our language is the most important aspect of Teochew culture because it is the most distinct characteristic. I am grateful, however, that I am able to retain the Teochew language and heritage.


Now, when people ask me, "What is your ethnicity?", I tell them that I am Chinese,and yes, I can speak Mandarin and Cantonese, but they are not my native language. I find that most people are satisfied with that answer. I have finally come to terms with the fact that Mandarin does not have to be my native language to be considered a "true Chinese" person. You wouldn't consider a southerner any less American than a "Yankee" would you?