Since I can remember, I’ve felt different. An outsider. I didn’t belong. I’d look around and wonder what it would be like to be born as that person. Would I be the same if my packaging was different?
I consider myself 100-per-cent Canadian, but in reality I’m a visible minority. Black hair, Asian eyes, Asian body.
Back in Grade 2 in Toronto, I was the only Asian girl in class. There was one black boy and I felt for him. We were kindred spirits in this white world. Tortured relentlessly by the other kids, we suffered silently.
To make matters worse, my parents were traditional Chinese. This was a constant source of embarrassment. We ate Chinese, spent Saturday mornings in Chinese school and Sundays in Chinatown eating dim sum with my Aunt and Uncle. All my parents’ friends were Asian.
In Grade 4, I came home for lunch and, tired of eating noodles and rice, announced that I wanted to start eating sandwiches. My mother replied, “What’s a sandwich?” I just stared back in disbelief.
I was an academic overachiever, like most stereotypical Asian kids. It was expected. But academics don’t make you fit in. When I realized I had a knack for sports, I joined the school basketball team. Then volleyball and then baseball. I loved team sports. They brought me out of my shell and gave me an identity. I was part of the team.
Then weird things started happening. I was invited to parties. I got a boyfriend. Life started feeling good.
So this is how the popular kids live, I thought. But how quickly it could all end with one comment, one chance interaction.
I secretly overheard my good friend questioning my then-boyfriend, “How can you go out with Liz? She’s a … chink!”
I was astounded, totally mortified and quickly shocked back to reality. How dare I think I could belong in this world?
In my undergrad frosh week at the University of Waterloo, my don at our first floor meeting instructed us to stay away from the EMS library because it was “full of chinks.”
A tall, pretty blonde asked, “What about Liz?”
“Oh, she’s different, she’s Canadian,” was the reply.
Yes I’m Canadian, but until I speak, to strangers I’m just another immigrant. Self-confidence back in the gutter, it took many years to struggle out and be comfortable with myself.
The arrival of the “boat people” in the 1970s shocked me into the realization that I, too, was racist.
In the high school cafeteria, two newly arrived immigrants engaged in a ping-pong battle of impressive intensity.
“Hey Chinese! Look at these!” my friends taunted, with squinted eyes.
I was humiliated and embarrassed for the new guys, but also despised them for being there. Though I felt a connection to them, my allegiance ultimately lay with my Canadian friends. After all, I was a Canadian, right? I didn’t speak with an accent. I knew how to use a fork. I was better than the boat people.
I was torn inside, full of anger at my friends and distaste for those immigrants. On the outside, I pretended I didn’t see, and walked away. It wasn’t a proud moment.
When my girlfriends started developing and getting bumps in all the right places and I didn’t, I pretended not to care. When I was 29, I was asked for ID at a downtown Toronto club. I showed my driver’s licence, and the bouncer laughed hysterically. “Hey look at this – she’s 29? 29!”
I wouldn’t learn to appreciate the benefits of my Asian genes until my mid-forties, when my girlfriends were running low on collagen and high on wrinkles.
My dad wanted me to date the non-existing Chinese boys in school. I kept bringing home white boys, to his dismay.
“Why you date white boy?” he would ask.
“Cuz there aren’t any Chinese boys!” I would stammer back.
Even if there were, I doubt any would have been acceptable to me. I felt it was okay for me to be Asian, but go out with an Asian? No way! I saw myself as a white girl, at least when I wasn’t looking at my reflection in the mirror.
Now, in my 50s, I realize those moments have made me who I am today. I’m stronger because of them. Happily married (to a white guy, of course), successful in my work, I love my mom’s cooking and voluntarily eat dim sum on a regular basis.
I consider myself a banana, yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
My little-boy body means I don’t have the middle-age spread many women my age have. And my kind Asian genes mean I don’t need hair dye.
I wasted so much of my youth in needless personal suffering. Maybe many kids, white or not, go through some form of this. Maybe things would be different if I’d grown up white.
But I’m proud of who I’ve become. I still hear the odd racial comment, but now feel only a twinge before filing it under ignorance and carrying on with my day.
Being Asian is okay by me, little-boy body and all.
Liz Ling lives in Dundas, Ont.