An Analysis Of The Language's Role In Defining Deming’s Identity

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The Leavers, a novel by American writer Lisa Ko tells the story of a Chinese boy who at the age of five was left by his mother and then adopted by an American couple. The issue of identity and its duality seems to be the most prevalent theme of this novel. As a Chinese immigrant, Deming who has to live with his new American parents in an American culture experiences different complexes regarding his identity. Compelled changes in family, friends, culture, language, and so on has put Deming in a dilemma about who he really is. The aim of this study is to analyze some factors which create and influence a person’s identity and to depict and explain the duality and doubleness in the protagonist’s identity.

The Leavers is an award winner novel by the American author Lisa Ko which tells the story of a Chinese boy first named Deming and then Daniel. Deming and his single mother Polly who is a Chinese immigrant working in a nail salon live together in a Chinese town in New York. They live with Polly’s boyfriend Leon, Leon’s sister Vivian, and Vivian’s son Michael who is a friend of Deming. One day Polly after leaving home for her nail salon suddenly disappears and never returns home. Left alone by his mom, Deming stays with Leon’s family. Having a son to bring up, Vivian who cannot afford Deming’s nurturing decides to send him to a foster child agency so that he will be adopted by another family. Kay and Peter are the American couple who come to the foster agency and take Deming as their child.

After being adopted by his new parents, Deming Guo’s Chinese name changes to Daniel Wilkinson. But his name is not the only thing that has to be changed. Since his parents are going to send him to an American school, his Chinese language must also be replaced with fluent English. He most of the times remembers his mother and memories they had with each other and always feels abandoned and left alone. This disastrous happening has seriously affected his identity and self-respect.

Daniel chooses music as a remedy to his emotional wound and an international language to express himself. In the school he makes friends with a guy named Roland. Later on they fund a music band together. Daniel still frequently thinks about his mother and has the old question in his mind. He wonders why he was left by his mother. He has received a text message from his old friend Michael who might have some news about Deming’s mother. But Deming is not sure whether he wants to be informed about his real mother and stir up the old memories.

The second part of the novel is told by Deming’s mother Polly. It is revealed that the day she disappeared, the nail salon was raided and she was sent to a detention camp in Texas. She was held there for almost two years without permission to make any phone calls. With Leon’s help Daniel manages to find her mother’s apartment who now is teacher and has married one of her students. After talking to his mother and listening to her memoir, Daniel decides to stay with her in Fuzhou and work in her English school. Later on Deming moves to New York to continue working on music again. Polly also decides to live Fuzhou for Hong Kong. Daniel who now lives with his old friend Michael stays in touch with her real mother.

The issue of identity seems to be the major theme of The Leavers. The identity of the protagonist is affected by several happenings such as being left by his mother, being left by Vivan who sent him to the foster agency, being adopted by an American couple, being sent to an American school, and the change in his language. The whole story revolves around the process of shaping and changes in Deming’s identity who is almost always in a quest to find and stablish his identity. The duality and doubleness in Deming’s identity is clearly felt throughout the novel.

Identity, the concept by which individuals both know themselves and introduce themselves to others, seems to be one of the most important issues in human life. The issue of identity is so essential that a damage to it is usually called a crisis. What is identity and how can we define this complicated notion? The easiest way to define this term is to look it up in a dictionary. In Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary the word identity is defined as follows: “who a person is, or the qualities of a person or group which make them different from others”. It is understood from this definition that identity is both a personal and a collective notion. However, the concept of identity seems to be more complicated than a word which can be defined in a sentence or two. As Fearon argues, identity in the current era is perceived as a “social” and “personal” concept (2). As a social concept, identity is a “social category” consisting of “a set of persons marked by a label and distinguished by rules deciding membership and (alleged) characteristic features or attributes.” (Fearon 2) However, “personal identity” refers to “some distinguishing characteristic (or characteristics) that a person takes a special pride in or views as socially consequential but more-or-less unchangeable.” (2) Therefore, identity is a concept with a “double sense” but to Fearon this does not mean that these to senses are necessarily linked or intertwined.

In ordinary language, at least, one can use “identity” to refer to personal characteristics or attributes that cannot naturally be expressed in terms of a social category, and in some contexts certain categories can be described as “identities” even though no one sees them as central to their personal identity. Nonetheless, “identity” in its present incarnation reflects and evokes the idea that social categories are bound up with the bases of an individual’s self-respect. (Fearon 2)

Hence, it can be inferred that a damage to one’s identity can lead to the damage in their self-respect, too. “Identity crisis”, a word coined by German psychologist Erik Erikson, refers to a confusing condition in which an individual feels unsure and insecure about their identity. Identity crisis to Erikson is “a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself.” (Cherry) based on “stages of psychosocial development” introduced by Erikson, identity crisis emerges “during the teenage years in which people struggle with feelings of identity versus role confusion.” (Cherry) therefore, the crisis of identity can bring about unpleasant feelings such as confusion, displacement, and rootlessness. The development of identity is not limited to a certain period of one’s life.

Identity development is a life-long process. It proceeds through phases of openness, when one is exploring, reviewing, or reconsidering life choices as well as phases of consolidating or integrating commitments. It is not a linear process, perhaps more accurately characterized as a cycle (e.g., Marcia, 1993) than as a straight line. Although the formation of identity has its roots in childhood, this development process takes on new prominence in adolescence because of the convergence of physical, cognitive, and social changes. (Grotevant 5)

When people are asked to introduce themselves and say who they are, the first word they utter is their name. Therefore, our name is the first and the simplest thing which indicates some aspects of our identity such as gender, language, and nationality. “Names influence our perceptions of others, these perceptions then enter the psychosocial contexts in which we all find ourselves, and these contexts contribute to, and frame, both personal and group identities.” (Edwards 3) The major character and the protagonist of this novel is called by two names in the story. The first name by which he is introduced to the reader is Deming Gou selected by his Chinese mother. This name indicates that he is a Chinese boy, born in a Chinese family, speaking in Chinese, and therefore having a Chinese identity. In the whole chapter one in which the protagonist is still living with his Chinese parent, he is referred to by his Chinese name Deming. After being left by his mother, Deming is sent to a foster child agency by Vivan who used to take care of him after her mother’s disappearance. Then he is adopted by an American couple who couldn’t have a child of themselves. A comparison between the first sentences of chapter one and chapter two clearly depicts the sudden compelled change in the protagonist’s identity. Chapter one starts with this sentence: “The day before Deming Gou saw his mother for the last time, she surprised him at school.”(Ko 1). In the whole chapter one which tells the story of the boy before being adopted by Peter and Kay he is referred to with his real name Deming. Chapter two which begins to tell the story of his life after his adoption starts with this sentence: “A decade later, Daniel Wilkinson stood in a corner, hoping no one would notice his shoes.” (Ko 12) This shift in name symbolizes the protagonist’s shift of identity from a Chinese boy to an American one. From this chapter on, the protagonist sometimes is referred to as Deming and sometimes as Daniel. In some parts of the novel he is addressed by others with his second name Daniel, while the narrator still calls him Deming. This being called by two different names throughout his life obviously depicts the duality and doubleness in Deming or Daniel’s identity.

Language is another key aspect of one’s identity. Language is usually defined as the means of communication among members of a certain group. Although communication seems to be the main function of language, it is by no means its mere function. There is a relationship between language and identity. “Speaking a particular language means belonging to a particular speech community; speaking more than one may (or may not) suggest variations in identity and allegiances.” (Edwards 248) Born in the U.S, Deming was sent to Minjiang by his mother a short while after his birth in order to be kept by his Chinese grandfather because Polly was not able to work and keep her child at the same time. In this five year period of time he speaks in Chinese. After five years when Polly’s father dies, Deming comes to New York to live with his mother. To live in the U.S Deming needs to learn English. In the period of time before being left by his mother, Deming speaks both in Chinese and English. In page 11 we can read: “Deming answered in English. I’m not going. Leave me alone.” But he is not totally separated from his mother tongue yet. He still lives in a Chinese hometown, belongs to a Chinese family, and Chinese language is a part of his identity. In the foster child agency Deming has a conversation with the woman working in there. “Who are these people?” He asked the Chinese Woman in Mandarin. “These are your new foster parents,” She said in English. “Peter and Kay Wilkinson.” (Ko 43) While the woman is Chinese, she answers Deming’s question in English rather than Mandarin. By answering in English she might be showing Deming that it is the time for him to replace his mother tongue with the language of his new family which symbolically means replacing his Chinese identity with an American one. After being adopted by Peter and Kay, Daniel’s mother tongue is marginalized and replaced by English. The day Kay and Peter take Daniel to an American school for registration, the school’s principal after a very short conversation with Daniel decides that he must restudy fifth grade to “brush up” his English.

“Daniel might be better served if he does the fifth grade over again instead of going into the sixth. Across the board, his grades were very poor.” Principal Chester… pointed to papers on his desk. … “And what about language arts, what did you study at your old school?” He looked at Kay. “Where is he from? Originally?”

“I already told you,” Kay said. “New York City.”

“But originally?”

“His mother, I guess, was Chinese.”

“China. Interesting. And you and your husband are his adoptive parents?”

“Forster,” Kay said.

Principal Chester shuffled papers. “His English may need a little brushing up on, but I’m afraid we don’t have enough foreign students in this school district to warrant an English as a Second Language class.”

“His English is perfectly fine. He was born here.”

“It would be beneficial to let him be with the fifth graders. Kids can get discouraged easily. We don’t want to get him started off in his new country on the wrong foot.”

“As I mentioned, he was born in the United States,” Kay said. “And you can hear him talk, he’s fluent…” (Ko 48-9)

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This excerpt from the novel obviously depicts that to continue in the new condition, Daniel is forced to leave behind his mother tongue which is a key part of his social identity and adopt a new American identity.

Adoption itself is a complex process which extremely affects an individual’s identity. “The identity process becomes increasingly complex as layers of “differentness” are added; thus, this process is typically more complex for adopted than for non-adopted persons.” (Grotevant 4) confronting with differences of the new family members such as ethnic, cultural, physical, and mental differences makes the process of identity development complex for adopted individuals (Grotevant 8). As observed in the case of Deming, “if a person is adopted from another culture, additional issues are raised. The person may ask, “How do I deal with issues of cultural difference and with the disparity between how I look and how my adoptive family members look- or perhaps between how I look (for example, Korean) and how I feel inside (perhaps American).” (Grotevant 8) In the first days of his adoption, Deming had a strange feeling. It took him several weeks to get used to his new house, new parents, and new name.

After a few weeks, the wooden floors of the Wilkinsons’ house no longer felt so slippery, and when people said “Daniel” he answered, didn’t think they were talking to someone else. No longer did Peter and Kay look as unusual to him, the shade of their skin and the shape of their noses as normal as the low buzz of the empty streets, and he didn’t always remember to dial his mother’s phone number at night. When he did he always got the same message: This call cannot be completed at this time. Now it was his face that seemed strange when he saw it in the mirror. ( Ko 60)

Music is a means of finding and developing identity to Daniel. In his quest to find and develop his identity, Daniel decides to learn how to play the guitar in order to express his feelings with a language which could be felt by everyone. A language which is neither Chinese nor English. To Daniel music is an international language by which he can express his emotion. “He would learn how to create music, matching tones to shades to feelings and translating them back to melody. The purest and most inept form of communication. He’d craft song that conveyed exactly what he wanted to say, yet he was the only one who could understand them… Deming chased after music with a hunger that bordered on desperation.” (Ko 68) Deming dreams about being a great musician. Developing into a professional musician is in fact an attempt to create a satisfying identity. “He made up band names on his walks home, sketched out their album covers and song lyrics: The Toilet Plungers, “Floaters or Flushers.” Dumpkin & Moore, “I Shot the Food Lion.” Necromania, “Brains on a Spike.” (Ko 69)

There is another part in the novel which clearly shows a lack of coherent identity in Daniel’s character. When he is speaking with his new friend Angel, she asks him the date of his birth. He does not know his real birthday as he is adopted. His real birthday is not known as if he did no matter to anybody.

Angel bobbed her chin. “When’s your birthday?”

“November 8.”

“I don’t have a real birthday because I’m adopted, but we decided that my birthday could be March 15. When’s your Gotcha Day?”

“What’s Gotcha Day?”

“You don’t know? All adopted kids have one. It’s like a birthday but not a birthday. It’s the day that you went home to your forever family.”

Gotcha sounded less fun than a birthday, more like he was being hunted. “I’m not adopted yet. I’m a foster kid.” (Ko 81)

This doubleness and duality in his identity and disability to find himself has also influenced his self-esteem, self-respect, and confidence. The lack of a coherent identity has led to a lack of self-esteem and self-worth. “He still felt like he didn’t belong.” (Ko 13) This feeling of disbelonging and doubleness might be the reason Daniel unlike Roland is “malleable” and has no ideas of himself. Daniel needs to know other people’s ideas and reactions before being able to make decisions on his own.

When Roland asked if anyone wanted to eat at Taco Bell, which would elicit silence or even derision if anyone else suggested it, people said sure, cool. If Roland proclaimed a show boring, people agreed to bounce. Daniel was malleable, everyone and no one, a collector of moods, a careful observer of the right thing to say. He watched other people’s reactions before deciding on his own; he could be fun or serious or whatever was most strategic, whoever you wanted him to be. (Ko 13-14)

If people have self-esteem and self-worth they do not needs others’ compliments to feel valuable and to be satisfied with themselves. In high school Daniel needs other people’s admiration and compliment to feel worthy. Without their admiration he is overwhelmed with a feeling of worthlessness and considers “tossing his guitar in the trash.” (Ko 27)

In high school, Roland used to tell other kids, “You have to see Daniel play,” and if they did a show and no one said anything Daniel would fall into a funk, consider tossing his guitar in the trash. But when people called him amazing he basked in it, couldn’t sleep, reviewing the compliments over and over in his mind. He wanted to be complimented again, to be called amazing. (Ko 26-7)

The diversity in his identity seems to soothe only when he meets his mother in the end of the story and realizes that she had not left him intentionally. He once again returns to his Chinese language which was almost forgotten by him, decides to live with his Chinese real mother, and lives with his old friend Michael. It symbolically depicts Deming’s reconciliation with his self and his identity.


Being left by his mother in the age of five and then being adopted by an American couple, Deming Guo experiences a crisis because of the doubleness and duality in his identity. Some aspects of the crisis in Deming’s identity are discussed in this study. They include Deming’s being left by his mother which has caused a feeling of worthlessness and not being loved by anyone, being adopted by a new family who are from another culture and speak with another language, the influence of these happenings on his self-worth, his attempts to search or found his identity by means of music for instance, and so on.

Works cited

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Cherry, Kendra. “Identity Crisis: How Our Identity Forms Out of Conflict.” Verywellmind, May 23, 2018.

Edwards, John. Language and Identity. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Fearon, James D. What is Identity (As We Now Use the Word)? Department of Political Science, Stanford University, November 3, 1999.

Grotevant, Harold D. “Coming to Terms with Adoption: The Construction of Identity from Adolescence into Adulthood.” Adoption Quarterly, vol. 1, no. 1, 1997.

Ko, Lisa. The Leavers: a Novel. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2017.

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