Te Papa’s Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project is exploring the diversity of Chinese identity. Curator Grace Gassin talks to Naomii Seah about embracing heritage, identity and language.
Growing up as a second-generation Malaysian-Chinese-New-Zealander in Tāmaki Makaurau, I’ve always been confronted with two versions of my identity. To many people, I was simply “Chinese”, because trying to explain the “Malaysian” in “Malaysian-Chinese” always felt too long, too complicated, too awkward – like watching a sex scene with your parents.
But to other Chinese diaspora, I didn’t have to explain the diversity of my heritage. When family friends came around, or when they were on the phone to relatives, my parents would often switch between three or four Chinese languages in rapid succession, depending on who they were speaking to. Teochew, Hokkien, Cantonese and Mandarin syllables would ricochet off each other, creating a dizzying cacophony of clashing consonants, glottal stops and peals of laughter. When meeting new people my parents wouldn’t ask “where are you from”, they’d ask “what language do you speak?” Languages served as a marker of Chinese identity, community, and lineage.
Gaining wider recognition for Chinese diversity in Aotearoa is one of the driving forces behind Chinese Languages in Aotearoa, an ongoing project by Te Papa. Headed by curator Grace Gassin, it aims to highlight the myriad cultures and nationalities that comprise the Chinese New Zealand identity through a focus on language. The first phase of the project is composed of a series of videos and accompanying articles of Chinese New Zealanders sharing their connection to their heritage languages. The second phase, due to be released soon, will comprise illustrators responding to culturally diverse stories of Chinese heritage. One sunny afternoon, we sat down to discuss the project over Zoom.
The Spinoff: What inspired you to look specifically at Chinese languages?
Grace Gassin: The kinds of conversations that inspired the Chinese Languages in Aotearoa project are ones that have been slowly percolating for quite a few years. As you’ll know, Chinese-identifying people come from many different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. We often have a whole other national identity thrown in there as well. We are a big group and we don’t really form one cohesive homogenous community. So there’s been a lot of conversation – in my own personal context as well as through my work with Te Papa – around having some more nuanced and diverse representation of Chinese identities and how we could achieve that.
Looking at some other local examples, like Māori Language Week or some of the Pacific language weeks, those are really community based. They often focus on issues around endangered languages, or language retention issues in the diaspora, but a lot of people don’t realise that these types of issues happen in our communities too. Mandarin, of course, is one of the most widely spoken languages in the world, but the Chinese diaspora is so diverse in cultural heritage that for many people, their ancestors have never spoken Mandarin.
So this project was about bringing some more attention to other ways that people identify culturally, linguistically, and socially, and just celebrating that diversity. We want people to feel very proud not only to be a Chinese New Zealander, but to be a Hokkien Chinese New Zealander, or a Cantonese Chinese New Zealander, and to be able to celebrate those parts of their identities in a public space.
You mentioned language weeks – does New Zealand have a Chinese language week at the moment?
There is an official New Zealand Chinese language week, but it’s quite different in that way from the other language weeks as it tends to have more of a focus on China-New-Zealand relations. It’s quite squarely focused on standardised Mandarin, because that is the official language of China and is dominant globally. I really think that Mandarin is a great language, and a really diverse language, but I also think that there does need to be more respect and resourcing for other languages too. Cantonese, for instance, was until relatively recently the dominant Chinese language in New Zealand. And there is still a very sizeable Cantonese-speaking community here.
I think we need to focus on the issues of relevance to local New Zealand Chinese communities; their roots, their own personal issues around trying to pass on a sense of their own regional ancestral cultures to their children. Chinese migrants do come from so many different places. Some of them come from China, but even those who come from do often speak other regional languages. There are those of us who haven’t had that much connection to China in a long time. And then there are others who have very complicated relationships with the mainland like the Hong Kongers and Taiwanese. There are other identities which are evolving as well.
With this project, for me it’s really important that people who don’t speak Mandarin and people who do can both feel seen, and that they can be proud of and celebrate their own languages. This project is for everyone.
What’s your own relationship to language and Chinese identity?
I’m of mixed heritage, Chinese-Pākehā. My mother is Malaysian-Chinese, and she’s spoken various languages over her life, though I think she’s forgotten some of them now! And of course, English as well. I was largely raised by the Chinese side of my family, so I’ve always been very close to my family that way. But I think like with many Chinese New Zealanders, the Hokkien side of my identity didn’t surface much publicly. I guess that Hokkien side of it wasn’t seen as that important – being proud of specifically Hokkien culture or Hokkien language as the language of my ancestors wasn’t something I felt encouraged to identify with.
It’s only as I’ve gotten older that I realised how important it was. Having that language has allowed me to to communicate with my 阿媽, my grandmother, and with all the other members of my family. This is our way of being Chinese. And many other people in New Zealand and in the diaspora don’t necessarily identify as being Chinese through Mandarin. Our languages are totally unique to our specific sense of identity and place in the world. I think this is something that I’m really passionate about because language has been a really important and formative part of shaping who I am.
And if you get down into this level of thinking about Chinese languages and identity, it really breaks apart this idea that anything is homogenous. There’s so much difference. It’s a whole universe.