Giselle Thong

"At the Dinner Table: The Language of Living Heritage and Identity"

Section MS1, Kamil Dalkir

Keywords: home, identity, language, performance

At the Dinner Table: Living Heritage and Identity explores the duality of my British-Chinese identity, reflecting on how my perception of self has changed throughout my life. As a child growing up in the suburbs of London, I just wanted to be "normal" and I disregarded my Chinese heritage as unimportant. Yet, while I never really felt like I was ever “normal” enough amongst my classmates, I also didn't feel "Chinese" amongst Chinese friends and family; during our yearly Chinese New Year gathering, I felt embarrassed to speak in my broken Cantonese and so mostly stayed quiet. Much more outgoing than me, and with better proficiency in Cantonese, my older brother would usually dominate conversations and it was easy to hide behind his brashness.

Though I’ve never established whether my comparatively shy personality can be attributed to my poor language skills, or vice versa, findings from multiple studies have linked early linguistic development to personality and character development. One such study investigates a cohort of deaf-from-birth children in a school for special education in Nicaragua who had no opportunity to learn any sort of sign language and so developed their own. For the past three decades, psychologist Ann Senghas has been researching the organic evolution of this unique language, and she has found through studying the different generations of students, that there is a clear link between the complexity of their language and their ability to feel empathy. This intrinsic link between language and identity is integral to At The Dinner Table.

While I was always very self-conscious about my language skills, the almost subconscious aspect of my Chinese heritage is largely related to food culture - both as a cultural practice and the social relations they entail. I have come to recognise the nuances in my everyday life which centre around Chinese food heritage, and when I look back on those uncomfortable Chinese New Year gatherings, I remember a vibrant influx of Chinese culture and delicious food. As it is with so many cultures, food is an integral, multi-layered part of my heritage. The preparation and cooking of food, which we often do as a family, using techniques passed down through generations, is a chance for us to take a step back from our hectic lives and reinforces familial connections. The subsequent eating and sharing of food is a celebration of culture and allows us to engage in a collective formation and renewal of memories. In her book, “Uses of Heritage,” cultural heritage academic, Laurajane Smith, says, “Heritage wasn’t only about the past… heritage was a process of engagement, an act of communication and an act of making meaning in and for the present.” With this in mind, I hope to expand my perception of what heritage means and explore how my life is shaped by repeated rituals and traditions.

Over my lifetime, I have come to accept that, instead of not being “a normal British person” or “Chinese”, my identity is a dialogue between the two, with each enriching the other. In At the Dinner Table, I use language and food as the lens with which to explore the duality and the contradictions of my British-Chinese heritage. Through the process of archiving and compiling of collective memory, expressed through moving image, I have challenged my perception of what heritage is and, through that, try to negotiate the tricky path in discovering my multifaceted identity.