The Tongues Issue


Courtesy of Gemma Bou,

Tongues are funny things. Most of what makes up the tongue is invisible—and much of what we use tongues for is similarly ineffable: to taste; to speak; to kiss; and.. other things we’ll tell you about when you’re older.

But somewhere in that fuzzy mix of taste, language, and sensuality is culture itself. At the tip of the tongue is where both the impossibility of translation and the ecstasy of mutuality are found. So here in the Ethnic Aisle’s “Tongue Issue”, we’re all about that most sensitive of organs, and how it stands for how we communicate and connect. Follow along why dontcha’?

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Here are Kelli Korducki and Chantal Braganza with Goodbye, Mother Tongue, a look at the loss of bilingualism, and the many benefits that come with speaking more than one language.

Helen Mo ruminates on the experience of taking Chinese classes and seeing many when before there only seemed to be one.


Goodbye, Mother Tongue

fading-away by Chantal Braganza & Kelli Korducki

Immigration from one country to another can mean learning a new language. Along with that, however, comes a separate, if related, linguistic struggle: maintaining the family’s original language(s) and the associated cultural ties.

The Americano Dream?

Ten years ago, the late political scientist and policy advisor Samuel P. Huntington published his last book, Who Are We?—a highly controversial treatise on the origins and apparent erosion of the American identity. One of the threats? Mexican Americans who still spoke Spanish.

He argued that more than earlier European immigration waves to the U.S., Latin American newcomers were more likely to retain their mother tongue since, dialects aside, the Spanish they spoke was largely the same. For Huntington and likeminded thinkers, who believed English and America were inextricable, this was a problem.

“There is no Americano dream,” he wrote. “There is only the American dream created by an Anglo-Protestant society. Mexican Americans will share in that dream and in that society only if they dream in English.”

But the problem with Huntington’s assertion itself, aside from being presumptive and more than a little racist? He had his facts wrong. A couple of years after his book’s publication, sociologists from the Woodrow Wilson School and the University of California-Irvine scaled data from two recent immigration adaptation surveys. They found that even in areas of the U.S. with high Mexican and Latin American origin populations such as southern California, “language death”— not being able to even order at a restaurant in Spanish, even if your mother tongue is fluent— was pretty much a done deal by the third generation.

“The death of immigrant languages is not only an empirical fact, but can also be considered part of a widespread and global process of ‘language death’” wrote the study’s authors. “Whether or not this is desirable, of course, is another question altogether.” Continue reading

A Singular Excavation


By Helen Mo

Walking down St. George Street, the backbone of the University of Toronto’s downtown campus, is to weave through a cacophony of other people’s conversations. The intensity of academic debate, bursts of late-adolescent emotion, greetings arcing across your path—such is the soundscape of an urban campus.

Somewhere below the threshold of conscious thought you register the clouds of speech while passing through them. People’s mouths move and make meaning only if you share their tongue. Inflections and speech patterns send up flags: foreign; intriguing; friend material. Visual cues hint at who we are. The rest is clinched when we open our mouths.

Arriving in Chinese class, I am singular on the inside. I was a teacher before most of my classmates started high school. Many commute from family homes in the suburbs; my parental home is long behind me. The class is “beginner Chinese for speakers with prior background.” We were all once imprinted with a Chinese dialect, to varying degrees and for varying durations, and so our learning is as much excavation as acquisition. We are mostly Chinese. To the casual observer passing by the classroom we are a roomful of dark-haired and dark-eyed people, chiming the same melodic Mandarin phrases after our dark-haired, dark-eyed professor. To the casual observer we are perhaps alike.

As soon as we open our mouths to speak, we give ourselves away. Our exteriors conceal assorted dialects, accents, grammatical misapprehensions, migration histories, and affinities. Through mouths accustomed to Cantonese, English, French, or Spanish, Mandarin phonemes tumble out, off-key and misshapen. Some of us struggle to understand teaching assistants who are not from Canada but from an Elsewhere (China, we assume). We are told that the teaching assistant from Beijing will have the most correct pronunciation; we nod mutely. We run off to various departments and peer groups and futures. On the inside we each contain multitudes.

Released into the campus we are Asians melting into other Asians, I look at people who look like me and am disoriented by our sameness – I haven’t been surrounded by others of my ethnicity for years. It’s tempting to ask someone not-Asian: “What does it feel like to walk among us? Do we appear as alike to you as we appear to me?”

Somewhere below the threshold of conscious thought a new layer of the campus soundscape is resolving out of white noise with the coming spring. In September I passed uncomprehending through clusters of Mandarin speakers; now their words grow decipherable by degrees. It is a revelation, something that has been there all along and feels miraculous.

Walking down St. George Street is an exercise in aural archaeology. Weaving through linguistic microclimates, I sift through drifts of language for something comprehensible, for the emotion and urgency that animate all our tongues. We trespass on rich and singular worlds daily.

This One’s For the Children

N927S32ABy Denise Balkissoon

I’m a former child bookworm who was hurt and confused by the racism in some of my favourites (I suppose Frances Hodgson Burnett was just “a product of her time”). I’m also a very new parent who wants my babe to love books, but avoid those icky feelings. So I was unhappy to see the stark stats in a recent New York Times piece about characters of colour in children’s books–of thousands of books published in the U.S. last year, not even 500 have African-American or Latina protagonists–and pleased that it sparked some good convos on Twitter.

I figured that compiling all of the suggested books into a handy list would be handy. Thanks to everyone for their suggestions, most especially Amena Rajwani of the Toronto Public Library . If you’ve got more, add them in the comments!

After the jump: a WHOLE BUNCH of multicultural books for babies, kids and teens (in absolutely no particular order):

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The Death Issue


Calavera Las Bicicletas, by the Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada

It’s the time of year to honour the dead, usually by wearing outrageous costumes and eating too much candy. While we at the Ethnic Aisle love a good party where you can’t tell who anyone is, this year we thought we’d take All Hallow’s Eve and Día de Muertos a little more literally.

Here are some personal reflections by Torontonians of various cultures on death, dying and remembering both here, and abroad. They’re about ancestors, and decisions, and grief – and also about love, and how we choose to live.

In A Way of Death, Heather Li describes why her annual visit to her family graves is actually kind of fun.

Rawiya Kameir explains the Sudanese ritual of beit el-bikka for In the House of Crying, a dramatic display of grief that first annoyed, then comforted, her.

Perhaps it happens in many cultures, but Helen Mo has only seen Asian and South Asian families hide death and illness from older relatives. “With one act, it’s possible to both love and disrespect,” she writes in Don’t Tell Grandma.

In God Lives in India, Vivek Shraya writes about love, faith, disillusionment, and the death of his personal God, the multifaith guru Sai Baba.

After 40 years in Toronto, Septembre Anderson’s relatives still grieve using Trinidadian mourning rituals. She talks about the death of her uncle in Nine Nights and Forty Days. 

For many Torontonians, deaths of relatives we loved–or hardly knew–happen on different continents.

Adwoa Afful reflects on the passing of her grandmother and great-grandmother in On Death and Mourning From a Distance. 

While Pacinthe Mattar talks about how “shame and guilt move through my veins” when she missed the funerals of her grandmothers and uncles in Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived.

Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived


By Pacinthe Mattar

I knew my Booba was gone before anyone told me. My phone screen showed a missed call and voicemail from my brother in Dubai, and the tears came right away. “I don’t wanna check that voicemail. I know what it is,” I said to my best friend.

But I did, and after listening threw myself onto that spot – half-chest, half-shoulder – and sobbed. My Booba, my mother’s mom, the woman who infused generations to come with ideas of kindness, warmth, generosity, and above all love, love, love – had died.

It was March 2010 in Toronto. Mid-week. I was enrolled in a Master’s program with a full course load, a thesis project, and a job as a tutor. There was no way I’d be able to fly to Alexandria, Egypt, for the funeral. According to Islamic custom, burials take place as soon as possible. She’d be buried before I got off the first of two flights it would take to get there.

I was 25, and I’d still never seen death up close. Not my kind of death, where a life ends sometime before dawn and is put to rest before sunset after a final cleansing. All my life, deaths have taken place in Egypt, where I was born but had never lived, and I was never there when death came.

The first time death struck close to home it was my cousin’s father Khalo Mohsen, a heavy smoker who was just recovering from a heart attack. I was barely 10 and my cousin Mai, just a couple of years older than me, had already lost her mother to a car accident. Mai, whom I’d always envied for her beauty, was suddenly an orphan and completely unenviable.

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On Death and Mourning From a Distance


by Adwoa Afful

My family is Ghanaian, but we’re spread out across the globe. For this and a number of other reasons,  I never really got to know my mother’s side of the family. I had met many of my father’s siblings and relatives, but we never got along, and all communication with them ceased shortly after my parents separated. And so it is only towards my mother’s family that I feel a strong, but ambivalent sense of kinship, a feeling that  has been further complicated with the deaths of my great grandmother and grandmother.

The women in my family tend to outlive their husbands by decades and my great-grandmother was no exception. She passed away in 2009, having already outlived my great-grandfather by nearly 40 years . My mother isn’t quite sure what year she had been born , but she was about 96 when she died.

When my great-grandmother passed away, it was my mother who broke the news to me. I do not remember much of that time. I know my mother grieved, but she did so mostly away from my sister and me.  It was heartbreaking for my mother, but my sister and I were not sure how to feel. We had only spoken to my great-grandmother on a handful of occasions over the phone. Despite her age, by all accounts, she was a lively, active and large woman (though we were told by relatives that she had lost a substantial amount of weight near the time of her death), with light gray eyes. She was a true matriarch. She had loved her Ghanaian husband deeply, and raised their children and grandchildren in a strict, but supportive household.

My great-grandmother was fluent in many languages, but only spoke the barest English. My sister and I only spoke English and French.  I do not remember any of the conversations that I had with her, but my sister has some memory of them, mostly of my  mother translating between Twi and English. The last time they spoke, my great-grandmother said, in her stilted English, “I love you,” over and over again. That was among the few English phrases that she knew.

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