Cambridge Diary

Poetic licence


“England is Black; China is Red” is the title of my master’s thesis. June will be dedicated to writing up 20,000 words on how, through the construction of poetry, Chinese teens can express their “linguistic identity”.

Identity is considered by some as an overused term that is losing its meaning via the sheer number of academic enquiries across disciplines. To me, though, we haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of identity. My own identity, I’ve come to realise, is strongly defined by the languages I speak – just as with the participants in my research.

Back in December 2019, I spent a few weeks outlining a research project to spend March and April in the heart of Beijing. I was interested in the linguistic variation of English year-abroad students in both Peking and Tsinghua universities. My own experience was of acquiring a thick Beijing accent that I haven’t been able to shrug off. I was intrigued as to whether and why other English students might pick up a Beijing accent too.

Alas, Covid-19 meant that none of my cohort could undertake research in China, and later, anywhere else in the world. In February, when it was clear I would not be returning to my beloved Beijing, I was given a couple of weeks to devise a new strategy. Keen to execute a research project that could make a tangible difference, I started exploring the power of poetry for second-language learners. Chinese poetry enabled me to deepen my relationship with Chinese Mandarin, so I hoped it could do the same for English.

I’d been teaching creative writing to my Chinese students for years but never ventured deeper than the analysis of poetry, or the structure of a story. My research comprised a three-week online poetry workshop, using two of my (favourite) students as a case study. Both attend elite independent schools in England, are in their early teens and boast extraordinary personalities.

Altogether, they produced 12 poems – a “five senses” poem about China and England; a “hero” poem about a Chinese-speaking friend and an English-speaking friend; an “I am” poem; as well as a “me at 25” poem.

Writing about my research in this column means I get to discuss the most interesting bits and escape academic terminology – a welcome relief I must admit.

One participant, much to my amusement, described England as “a blue sea, deep and mysterious” and as somewhere that “tastes like school meals”. She added:”When the weather doesn’t change for a whole day, I feel bewildered.”

To her, England is simply a “place to study”. Her feeling is that “once you get your education in England, you go back to China to make use of it,” which is reflected in the desires of many of her Chinese friends.

My other participant’s “five senses” poem about China was fraught with emotion and pride. He illustrated China as “fiery red” that “sounds like the roar of unity” and “looks like a phoenix ready to soar”. He also wrote:“When the power of it bursts, I feel proud of being part of it.” At the time of the poetry workshop both of my students had gone through uncomfortable experiences in which a few classmates had taunted them about Covid-19’s origin in Wuhan.



UK-born Olivia has lived and worked in China and is studying for an MPhil in Second Language Research at Cambridge.

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