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Code-switching is the favorite activity of Miamians. As I constantly hear people switch between Spanish and English seamlessly at work, on the metro or just on the streets, I can’t help but wonder if the official language of the city should be Spanglish. Miami, in essence, has invented its own language. And in turn, it has invented its own collective consciousness and memory.


I can’t help but to draw the parallel to myself, another cultural hybrid and the textbook example of a 1.5-generation immigrant. When I first discovered the term “1.5-generation”, it felt as if I were a lost child who finally found her parents. Whenever others dismiss it as merely academic jargon, I jump out to defend it and argue that it is a necessary categorization.


My family moved from Shanghai to suburban Toronto when I was thirteen. Not five, nor seventeen. I spoke and wrote decent English but never went to a westernized international school. I was old enough to have already formed an unbreakable cultural and linguistic bond with China, but young enough to have wavering values, views about life and the world. Seven years later, I have a nuanced story that is slightly distinguishable from the typical stories of cultural identity. There is a ubiquitous tension, and that tension is unsettling when I am often asked to assertively fit into clear-cut facets of identity.


I am bilingual and have no accents; I read newspapers, novels and academic journals in both languages with ease. Thanks to the Internet, I am constantly up-to-date on Chinese popular culture and slang – probably much more so than in North America – which makes me more sociable in international circles. I get lost with North American childhood references and hate playing Charades, because it is at these moments that my “fobness” exposes itself. Others often assume that I grew up here, and so they come to the conclusion that maybe I just live in a cave.


To the average North American, I am not quite North American enough. To the average Chinese, I am not quite Chinese enough. Despite never having totally disconnected myself with my roots thanks to online news, TV shows and social media, I didn’t get a chance to go back and visit throughout my entire high school career. After four years and having dreams about Shanghai for a million times, when I finally returned to the city that I always called my hometown, I realized that I became a foreigner. Our old apartment was rented out; I was lost everywhere and asked around like a tourist. I even relied on my old friends to remind me of dining customs. I was tempted to strike up an argument when my relatives spoke about gender norms or social conformity. Rapid economic development completely transformed the city landscape in a span of a few years. I received weird looks for taking cash out of my wallet when everyone else was using their cell phones to pay. I struggled to find the street food I used to crave every day, and the alleyways that I used to pass through on my way to school in the midst of skyscrapers upon skyscrapers. Teenage memories were quietly buried in concrete and steel. When my parents’ friends met me, they observed me, as if I were an object to study, and gasped: “Your daughter still speaks like a native, but it ‘feels’ like she came back from abroad!”


I had no idea what that meant. But for the first time, I knew that I no longer had a place to call home.


Language in turn is revelatory of this everlasting tension. Growing up in China, I had always been a keen writer. I continued to write after I moved – mostly personal reflections – and so abstract thought and sentimentality in my mind are associated with Chinese, while academia is associated with English because of my schooling. Writing a blog like this in English is a brand-new experience for me. My closest friends are Chinese, while I speak to my little brother and my boyfriend in English. At times, I wonder if emotional intimacy can be less satisfying when language is not shared. There is another distinct voice, another dimension of my persona that my English-speaking loved ones may not come to grasp.


I don’t know where I belong, but neither do I know if that answer is even worth pursuing. The concepts of home and belonging strike me as increasingly malleable with the newest generation. Perhaps ultimately, it is worth drawing something from Miami’s identity as a city: being a cultural hybrid is not a weakness, but a strength. It is not a tension, but rather an enriching force.