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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Rachel Wada

As a young child, when someone would ask me, “Where are you from?” I’d confidently answer: “Here!” After all, being born and raised in Victoria was all I’d ever known. But as I matured, my relationship with identity became more complex.

Growing up as a second-generation Chinese Canadian, I have struggled to find my place in the world. Ever since my first years of elementary school, I’ve been acutely aware of things that made me different from my peers. At 7, I’d ask myself, “Why do I have black hair instead of blonde?” “Why did everyone have pasta and salads for dinner last night, but I had stir-fried rice?” “Why do I have to go to Chinese school on Saturday morning instead of soccer?” Unfortunately, my “otherness” was at odds with my personality. I’ve always hated the spotlight, preferring the comfortable feeling of blending in with a crowd.

Eventually, I didn’t feel like I could take my Canadianness for granted anymore. “Where are you from?” wasn’t the innocent question that I believed it to be when I was younger, maybe it was pointing to something uglier under the surface. It implied that I couldn’t truly be Canadian because of my race, suggesting that I didn’t belong.

I began to believe that I was broken because I was different and that I needed to be fixed. So I fixed myself by proving that I belonged and suppressing my Chinese identity. I’d say proudly, “I’ve never been to China.” “I don’t speak Mandarin.” “I hate Chinese food.” I’d purposely avoid befriending other Asian kids, not wanting to be considered part of the group of “weird Asian kids.” I also refused to speak the language. If my mom tried to speak Cantonese to me in public, using it as our secret code, I’d reply extra loudly in English, just to make sure everyone knew that we spoke English, like them.

I noticed, however, that my grandparents were unapologetically different. To blend in was not a possibility for them, but they didn’t want to either. In public, their accents marked them as different, and their foreign mannerisms made them stick out like sore thumbs. They were proud of their Chinese culture. They diligently kept up with Chinese news, reading newspapers and watching Chinese TV every day. They had their Chinese church friends and never figured out how to properly use an oven. They stored their extra dishes in it and used their dishwasher as a glorified drying rack.

Every time our family went out in public with them, I’d feel a knot in the pit of my stomach. I felt like they were a liability, threatening to expose my Asianness that I so desperately wanted to hide. On my own, I could somewhat blend in. At a restaurant with my parents, I felt normal, and protected from judgment. With my grandparents, it was different. They didn’t quite understand the customs of Western eateries and were much more comfortable in a bustling dim sum restaurant. Ironically, White Spot, a West Coast diner chain, was one of their favourite restaurants, with its generous portions and walkable distance to their apartment.

But I never wanted to go to White Spot with my grandparents. One day, my guilt over our crumbling relationship tripped me into going. As soon as we opened the door, a wave of unease crashed over me. I saw little blond kids shoving chicken fingers into their mouths and the football game blaring on the TV. My grandparents chattered loudly in Cantonese at the table. I eyed them with a death stare, but they were oblivious. As we talked about what we’d order, my grandma, with her trademark thriftiness, had come prepared with a complicated order to get the best deal on her fish and chips. She was trying to combine the three pieces for $20 (2 pieces of cod, one halibut), with an extra serving of fries, and exchange one of the fries for a salad.

By the time the waitress came over, I had escaped into my own daydreams. My grandma began to order her food, in her disjointed, lilting English, “Two pieces of cod …” Quickly, the waitress interrupted. “I can’t understand you, can you please say that again?” My grandma tried again, but the waitress stopped her and asked her to repeat it once more. I was slowly dragged back to reality by the harsh edge in her tone. “I can’t tell what you’re saying, I think it might be your accent,” the waitress continued, her voice dripping with condescension. “You’re really hard to understand.”

I felt like a deer in headlights. Maybe if I didn’t speak, my mind could float away once more, and this wouldn’t be real. My reluctance to help also came from a place of resentment; I wanted my grandparents to protect me, and I didn’t feel that they could. I decided to take the plunge, and in a friendly, trembling voice, I explained the complicated order and smiled hard at the waitress, as if I could erase all inconvenience we had caused her. I said thank you over and over, trying to make up for them, to protect us. I looked at my grandma, expecting her to look ashamed but she was smiling: she had found the whole encounter amusing.

That day, I finally understood the differences between my grandparents and myself. They embraced their cultural identity without caring what other people thought. Even decades after moving to Canada, they still watched their Chinese soap operas, spoke their language and grew their community of friends from their local rec centre and church. At the same time, like all Canadian grandparents, they argued over the merits of Conservatives and Liberals, and how there were too many bike lanes downtown. They felt a strong sense of belonging to both Canadian and Chinese cultures. Belonging doesn’t mean changing yourself to be more like everyone else; fixing something broken. True belonging is accepting yourself as you are.

Samantha Yee lives in Victoria.

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