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When my sister was learning about Venn diagrams in the third grade, the teacher asked everyone who was Chinese to stand in one circle as a demonstration. My sister didn’t move because my mom told her she was Canadian. We joke about this now and tell it at every family function (which my sister dreads), but it raises the question: At what point in your life did you become conscious of your racial identity?
I never had to consider mine until I got to university because I grew up in a heavily immigrant area where the majority of my community were either East Asian, South Asian or Black. The world I knew – restaurants, signage, local events – all revolved around familiarity. I realize now what a blessing that was – not having to grow up in a predominantly white community and made to feel “othered” at a young age. But that didn’t protect me from still having to question my place in the Asian community.
I am a proud third-generation Chinese-Canadian woman. I have brown eyes with no eyelids, a petite figure and jet black hair. But every time someone finds out that I don’t speak Chinese, they give me this shocked look of disapproval and say: “You don’t speak Chinese?! Why not, I thought you were Chinese?”
When they ask my favourite follow up question of “Where is your family from?,” and I tell them Montreal, they get even more enraged: “No, like where are you really from?” I was born in Canada and so were my parents, so it never occurred to me to ask where specifically in China my family had originated from.
My grandfather was the owner of a Chinese restaurant in Montreal. He gave me my Chinese name, but to be honest, I only ever knew him by his English one. When he came to Canada in the 1950s, he took classes to learn both English and French. He was part of the Wong Association, a local organization that helped incoming immigrants find housing, employment and support.
Whenever I went to visit him as a kid, my grandfather would encourage me to learn Toisanese (our family’s dialect of Chinese). I’d nod and smile, but never follow through. So our conversations were always limited to the bare minimum because of the language barrier. Toisanese is a dying language, my mother would say.
I asked my parents why they really never taught me Chinese. They said they feared me having to start life not knowing the common language would put me behind. They were first generation and knew the struggle of having to balance their Chinese language at home with a Canadian culture stained with racism.
Even when given that advantage, I still faced discrimination because all of my classmates were Asian immigrants! Hearing them have secret conversations in various foreign languages always made me feel like I was the one behind in life. It always seemed like being “Asian” came with all these requirements I couldn’t meet.
When I tried to fit in by joining Asian school clubs that hosted mah-jong tournaments or screenings of films in Mandarin, I felt even more like an outsider and anxious that someone would realize I didn’t belong. Over time, I developed a hypersensitive relationship with those who speak my native tongue. Half comforted by those soft tones I can’t emulate, and half resentful in fear that they think I’m less.
So I spent the first half of my life being too whitewashed for the Asian community, but now that I’m out in the real world, I’m not Asian enough for a society that now welcomes diversity: “You’re Chinese, can you translate this? Can you tell me where the best dim sum spots are? What do you say for Chinese New Year?”
I wish I could fit into a clear box that told me exactly where my place in society is. That I had the option to “go back” to China where my family lineage is clear as day. I’ve always struggled with the lack of flexibility to the definition of being “Chinese Canadian,” and eventually that became really heavy on my heart. I remember for a period of my youth, I’d use my middle name as my last name instead because I thought that if I could detach myself from signs that I was Chinese, it would ease the burden of my lack of culture.
I feel lost in Chinatown – in fact, I find myself actively avoiding the area, as it ignites my imposter syndrome. My self-hatred is fuelled by fake Chinese food. You are what you eat, right? That sweet and sour sauce tastes just as foreign in my mouth as Toisanese does. Sharp-edged memories of my grandfather’s cooking cut at my mind, all those delicacies gone to waste on grandchildren that only wanted Happy Meals and purple freezies.
I go back to my grandfather’s old restaurant whenever I’m in Montreal. It’s the furthest back I can get to my roots. Another immigrant family runs it now, and they’ve changed everything except for the ceilings. I stare up at intricate designs of red dragons and phoenixes woven together. Why do I feel so disconnected when this is my blood? I balance the shame of not knowing my history with the guilt of questioning my ancestors’ sacrifices in the first place. It’s like a part of me is missing, and I’m being accused of losing it.
I should be grateful to bask in the glory of good education, universal health care, and democracy – the Canadian dream. Yet I often dread the thought that my own children will never experience a true Chinese New Year. That they’ll grow to carry my shame for having to ask for the “English menu” or for looking to others to translate. That this name, let alone country, will never feel like home.
There are new waves of immigrants all across North America, fated for the same prophecy – small businesses run by newcomer families living above their shops in hopes of something more. While I can’t go back and rewrite my own past, I can highlight the importance of cultural preservation and offer to heal this looming identity crisis by redefining what it means to be Chinese Canadian, or any diasporic person living in this country.
Our journeys will never be found in history books, especially not from our own perspective. If we do not start keeping our own records, we’ll stay stagnant in the same “fresh off the boat” narrative and wonder why all of a sudden we’ve lost our language. What’s passed down through our heritage isn’t just language and traditions, but a sense of honour and way of life that has been refined for centuries.
So write down your family history and make space for your beliefs when others find it inconvenient. That’s not to say our stories can’t evolve and change, especially in new environments, but it is the responsibility of each generation to protect the past for future generations. Because once those oral stories and knowledge are gone, they’re gone forever.
Kristina Wong lives in Toronto.
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