Jen Sung: Using love as language in the face of racism and queerphobias
On May 21st, I attended the Vancouver School Board (VSB) meeting that was held about the updated transgender and gender identity policy. At this meeting I sat in alliance with a large crowd of supporters, but there were also quite a few voicing their misinformed opposition, and some of those who were dissenting were members of the Chinese community. After the arduous eight-hour meeting, numerous LGBTQ supporters and allies approached me and asked why Chinese people allowed such homophobia and transphobia to persist—as though I was the sole voice of expertise on a rich and heterogenous culture. As if the small group of Chinese people voicing their dissent at the meeting were in any way representative of such a multi-ethnic and globally widespread community.
Indeed, many of those who opposed the updated VSB policy were Chinese and spoke Cantonese. But some also spoke in Mandarin. I wondered, at that meeting, if people knew the difference. Or did it all simply sound the same? Cantonese and Mandarin? Did it all sound so foreign, so alien, that these languages you don’t understand can so easily be grouped under hate speech?
Mandarin is my language.
It is the first language I learned. I speak it with my parents.
When I hear this language—my mother tongue—everything in me comes alive in a way that no other language can invoke. I love the way that Mandarin feels as the sound of it travels through my ear canal and into my body, how it activates a sense of familiarity within myself that reminds me of who I am and where I come from.
I remember the way that Mandarin feels so deeply connected, and rooted, in a sense of home.
I am a queer woman of colour born in the city of Taipei on the island of Taiwan. I embody queerness in a racialized body, as a settler on unceded Coast Salish Territories, home of the Musqueam, Tsleil-Waututh, and Squamish nations.
At the VSB meeting on May 21, I yelled in Mandarin—for the first time ever in my life. I have never raised my voice in a language that is so sacred, so rooted, in my cultural identity.
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I recently travelled to Northern BC doing anti-homophobia work where the demographic of the small town I visited was predominantly white and First Nations.
While there, I encountered a friendly Chinese elder working at the hotel where I was staying. For the first two days after meeting her she spoke to me only in broken, heavily accented English. Her body language and gestures were excited towards me; I could tell she was happy to see another person who looked like her. To look Chinese. She stood out in a small town where she lived and worked as a rare Chinese person.
On the third day, I was having breakfast in the hotel dining room while she was quietly cleaning away, humming softly beneath her breath. I had wanted to connect more with her before, but we were always in a public space where our roles were so neatly defined. Hotel patrons ate and were looked after, hotel workers serviced and cleaned.
Like the true Fire Tiger that I am (as told by Chinese astrology), I instinctively want to disrupt these neatly defined roles. Rules.
Slowly and in Mandarin, I ask if she speaks Mandarin.
Suddenly it’s as though she were lit by pure sunlight, no longer obscured by clouds of hotel dust, grime and years of experiencing language barriers settle over her body. Perhaps never having been asked in her mother tongue a very simple question that, in the very moment of my asking, cleared at least some of that grime away instantaneously. She brightened immediately, her body relaxed in movement, her eyes reflecting a sudden clarity, and in that moment she knew she was being seen by someone who really saw her.
We talk fast, a little about everything. Urban versus rural, China, Taiwan, Vancouver, beautiful British Columbia. The conversation goes deep immediately. I soon realize we are talking so fast and are so easily able to skip the courtesy small talk because it was as if, at any second, our precious connection through this shared language might be disrupted by someone walking in on us, ending the moment which can so quickly become a distant, unreconciled memory.
She asks about my work. I try, in my elementary Mandarin, to explain the activism that I do, the activism that I embody. What anti-homophobia means. How do I say homophobia in Mandarin? Dare I mention transphobia? I connect, to the best of my Mandarin ability, one type of oppression to another: homophobia and transphobia to racism.
She tells me about being from a big urban city in China. She mentions her university degrees. She talks about the metropolitan life she had before moving to Northern Interior BC where everything is much slower.
She married someone here who does not like Chinese food. He does not like her cooking.
She likes to cook Chinese food and wants to know what my favourite Chinese dish is.
She asks about my love life and marriage plans. I tell her gently but with conviction that I do not plan to get married. In fact, not getting married was encouraged by my parents. My parents removed themselves from thousands of years of social and cultural convention by offering me the choice to be whoever I want to be, wherever I want to be. 9 years after I was born, they brought me to Canada. We spoke very little English.
I tell her that my parents practice such a deep and spiritual Buddhism that the cycle of human life/death represented some serious karma and suffering, which simultaneously can be challenging and yet is beautiful. They much prefer the company of animals and mother nature to that of humans.
A moment of silence, and shock, settles through the hotel dining room.
Well, that’s not very Chinese of us, is it? And what does that even mean anyway? I gently tell her that we might be unusual but there are many people in the world who do not always think and live according to convention. I tell her that growing up my parents and I would delve into philosophical narratives about what kind of role difference plays in the world. The kind of difference that challenges the very norms we have come to live and breathe, and expect. And how those unusual differences can move others forward in thinking and in living.
She asks if it was hard growing up as an only child in Taiwan and in Vancouver with parents who are so different. She wants to know because she too is different, having moved from one of the most urban cities in China to a rural Canadian town halfway across the world.
Of course it was hard. And I tell her that my parents raised me into the strong woman that I am today. Instilling in me all the love and compassion that their Buddhist teachings could pass down. Of course, the six-year-old Fire Tiger child in me rebelled hardagainst sitting still. What was with all that meditation?
She looks at me in the eye and says that she thinks her bi-racial son would benefit from living in a city like Vancouver, to look and be different in a small town is often hard. I nod and tell her that his difference should be a point of celebration, and that I empathize.
She finishes cleaning at this point. We have been talking for almost an hour.
We developed a sense of love and compassion for each other on that morning. In that moment she came to understand what I was talking about, the kinds of activism I do. And while we approach and navigate this life in such different ways, it was our shared language that brought compassion and understanding to each other.
How many people coming in and out of the hotel where she works really get a chance to talk to her? To begin to know her story? How do we suspend our expectations and prejudgements upon meeting someone when language is a barrier?
And how do we access one another without love as language?
I am going to end this story here.
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Part of being an ally is to listen to folks who share their stories, and tune our empathy towards people who navigate the world with different levels of personal trauma, history and lived experiences.
The Vancouver School Board meeting I attended on May 21 was traumatic, not only because I was so viscerally impacted by hate speech in my own language, but more than anything, it was the hatred that some folks in white communities, both LGBTQ and “allied”, were so quick to direct to Chinese communities, that hurt me most of all.
So, how do we understand one another without love as language?
This article was originally posted on the blog Love Intersections.