‘Irish people are only satisfied when I say I’m from China’

New to the Parish: When a man born in Guangzhou discovered a Clannad album, it was the beginning of a life fascination with the Irish language

Fangzhe Qiu, above, told his son, “You can be both Irish and Chinese”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Fangzhe Qiu, above, told his son, “You can be both Irish and Chinese”. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

The first time Fanghze Qiu saw the Irish language it was printed inside the sleeve of a Clannad album he had bought on the black market. At the time it was illegal to import CDs from foreign countries into China, and those interested in listening to music by international artists were forced to buy from clandestine dealers selling contraband CDs.

“You couldn’t choose which one you wanted, you had to buy them by the kilo. When I saw the Irish I thought, What is this language? I had experienced other languages before but I found this one unpronounceable.”

Growing up in multilingual household in southern China, it was inevitable that Qiu would become interested in languages. His appreciation for Irish traditional music would eventually evolve into a life-long fascination with the ancient dialects of this island.

Qiu never really felt at home in Guangzhou, the sprawling city of nearly 15 million people where he grew up. He moved to Beijing when he finished school to study at Peking University.

I guess I come from the first generation who saw China open up for us

“When I was younger, travelling abroad was a very remote concept. I guess I come from the first generation who saw China open up for us, and I always pushed to get out.”

Despite his decision to follow in his father’s footsteps and study law, he continued to take classes in foreign languages. He tried Khotonese, Manchurian and Sanskrit before applying for an exchange programme in Amsterdam. When he was 22, he moved to Europe for the first time.

“It was super-exciting. I had been briefly to Britain before, when I was much younger, but it didn’t leave much of an impression. This was the first time I was living along in a foreign country.”

Celtic studies

During his year in the Netherlands, he discovered that the University of Utrecht offered a degree in Celtic studies and began attending classes in old Irish linguistics. He also bought a book on old Irish grammar and began to study the language. When he returned to Beijing to complete his undergraduate degree, he wrote his thesis on the terminology of Brehon law.

Eager to continue his study of the language, he successfully applied to the master’s degree in Celtic studies at Oxford University. He enjoyed classes at the university and the “unique experience” of living in the small English city but struggled to settle in.

Oxford is definitely not the most open place; it has these different strata

“Oxford is definitely not the most open place; it has these different strata. You always feel there is this invisible wall between the international graduate students and the ‘real Oxford man’. The only crossover was with the international students who came from a very prominent or wealthy background.”

He visited Ireland for the first time in 2009 to see his girlfriend, whom he had met in Beijing and was studying at Maynooth University. In 2011 he returned to work on his PhD in Cork, bringing with him his now wife and their newborn son.

“For a young kid, Cork is very secure and a relaxed place. We found it nice that we knew all the neighbours and they don’t really shut the doors during the daytime.” In 2014 the family moved to Rathmines in Dublin and Qiu joined the department of early Irish at Maynooth University.

His son’s languages

He has tried to learn contemporary Irish and says he can comfortably hold a basic conversation, but is more interested in focusing on the nuances of old Irish. His son, who is now six, attends the local Gaelscoil and speaks Mandarin at home with his parents.

“I wanted him to learn more languages because more languages means more opportunities. My simple answer is I want him to be smarter. But I’m not so sure about compulsory language learning.”

Qiu thinks people in favour of maintaining Irish as a compulsory language in the school curriculum need a stronger argument in today’s increasingly diverse and international society.

You have to add another pragmatic layer to your reasoning of why people should learn Irish

“It’s okay if you grew up somewhere like Laois that you learn Irish, but with this more multinational environment, how do you actually encourage people to learn a language that is not in daily use? You have to add another pragmatic layer to your reasoning of why people should learn Irish.”

He had hoped his son would also learn to speak Cantonese but says it’s difficult to keep up two languages at home as well as Irish and English. “I don’t really mind if he doesn’t speak Cantonese, because some languages just die. That responsibility isn’t on me. Languages come and go. The sad fact is that no new languages are being born in our modern world. Before languages split and they died and then they split again, but I think global communication has stopped that.”

A global scale

He is happy in Dublin but is often frustrated by the visa requirements he and his family face when travelling abroad due to the restrictions of living outside the Schengen area. He also believes his wife would prefer to live in a larger European capital and that she worries about her son’s world outlook growing up in such a small country.

He feels he will never fully blend into his Irish home

“She has always been kind of reserved about our kids growing up in Ireland because they would have a limited and not a global eyesight. A lot of people she’s been in contact with do not think on that global scale.”

He feels he will never fully blend into his Irish home. Whenever he’s asked “Where are you from?” and answers “I live in Dublin”, the question that follows tends to be “No, but where are you really from?”

“It’s not the question that’s absurd but the point at which they are satisfied. They are only satisfied when I say I’m from China. No matter how hard you try, you always stand out.”

He says his son, who has spent nearly all his life in Ireland, is often asked the same question. “He gets confused and once asked me ‘Why would they say that’? I told him ‘You can be both Irish and Chinese. Whatever you think you are, whatever you identify yourself with, that’s what you are’.”

“That’s the question people maybe need to ask themselves; what does it mean to belong to a culture or be a nationality? Is it a born, innate quality? I don’t think so.”