By Hao Wen (Jerry) Zhang
Published on December 22, 2016

Tianjin. Photo by Hao Wen Zhang.

The place I called home for the first six years of my life is a small neighbourhood called Hui Ze Yuan in the city of Tianjin, China. Tianjin is not a small city. It is a growing city with a population of 7.5 million people, countless twenty-story apartment complexes surrounded by rapidly constructed housing districts, and a constant roar of pedestrians and automobiles.

During my fifth-grade summer vacation, my parents and I went back to Tianjin to visit family. Uncle Gao, who came to the airport greet us, decided that we must eat right away and led us on foot towards the nearby food district ten minutes away. Out of all the food stalls, we decided on a dozen pork buns at an unassuming local stand where my uncle is a regular, and soon the usual chit chat and exchange of greetings and money took place. As we were leaving, the boss asked Uncle Gao who I was, to which my uncle responded that I was his nephew from Canada. Without hesitation, the boss then referred to me as a waiguo ren, or a foreigner. Me, a foreigner — even though I was born right there in Tianjin! It did not matter that Tianjin had been my home for many years because to him, I was now a foreigner, different from local vendors like him and others who continued to live there. It was the first of many occasions that made me reflect on the notion of belonging and not belonging.

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Chinese pork buns fresh out of the steamer. Photo by Hao Wen Zhang.

Going home” is an expression that falls short of capturing what it means to return to a place that is presumed to be intimately familiar. It implies that once an individual returns home, they would be in a place of sameness under a shared identity, with a shared sense of belonging. But clearly I have transformed from a child I used to be in Tianjin to who I am now, a university student living in Toronto. At what point in time did my first identity transform into my second identity? At what point did the way I dressed, the way I walked, and the way I spoke begin to mark me as someone who did not belong in Tianjin? People in Tianjin seemed to stare at me — did they recognize my identity under transformation?

Similar questions are addressed in Elaine Ho’s research on emotional citizenship. Discussing Singaporean transmigrants’ experiences in London, Ho argues that emotional attachment are significant in constituting a sense of belonging. Regardless of legal citizenship status, transmigrant feelings of belonging are constituted through a desire to return to where one’s family is. Official documents or passports may indicate who we are and where we are from, but emotional experiences anchor a certain place as a home place, a place where we may feel we belong. As for me, I feel a deep sense of attachments to my home in Tianjin and I feel a strong sense of belonging there, surrounded by people who look like me, talk like me, and act like me. What I am grappling with is the effect of change. As I change over time and as my hometown also changes, could my feelings of attachment to my hometown remain the same?

Plutarch, a Greek historian, posed a paradox in the late first century that came to be commonly known as Theseus’ Paradox. In this thought experiment, Plutarch asked whether a ship, which after experiencing long periods of erosion and planks replaced by new ones, would remain fundamentally the same ship. The more I ponder about this paradox, the more it seems to challenge my own state of existence. Am I in the process of becoming an entirely new person, a ship with new planks? Do lived experiences ultimately change the core sense of who I am?

Matters of identity are not so black and white, but fluid and constantly changing. The place of home has served as a guide in my life, shaping my identity not only as a one-time resident of Tianjin, but also as a transmigrant who has left home but keeps returning. Being a transnational migrant has come with conflicting feelings about identity and belonging, feelings that I continue to struggle to understand. I wonder whether at some point I might become so transformed — like the ship in Theseus’ Paradox — that I will no longer be the person who once called Tianjin home.

Works Cited

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Hao Wen (Jerry) Zhang is currently attending UTSC as an undergraduate in his third year. He is pursuing a double major in Sociology and Human Geography while working part-time at the Kumon Math and Reading Centre as a teaching assistant. Having lived in Toronto for the past sixteen years, he hopes to experience and examine as much of Toronto’s sociocultural diversity as possible during the remaining duration of his studies.