SAPAHM Guest: Vicki Essex

Hi friends!! So we have Vicki Essex visiting with us today! She’s also participating in SAPAHM, and this year Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is welcome to all! (Also Canada is part of North America, so that counts right?) 😉 I love these posts about identity and experience, and I hope you’re enjoying them too – and maybe learning something?

The Futility of Cultural Self-Identity When No One Believes You By Vicki Essex

A Recipe for ReunionWhat are you?”

While I will usually answer this racially loaded question with a raised eyebrow, I generally don’t appreciate the follow up I sometimes get:

Are you sure?”

Or “Really? I thought you were _______.”

Or “Funny, I don’t even think of you as ______. I think of you as _______. ”

At one point in my life, when I got this response, I’d felt as though I’d disappointed someone with my answers. Only recently did I realize the complex mix of frustration, bafflement and sometimes anger was cluing me into the fact that I’ve long suffered from a cultural self-identity crisis.

Had I been unconsciously trying to meet others’ perceived cultural expectations? Conversely, what if my identity had been swinging from one end of a spectrum to the other in some attempt to counter those expectations?

[Ok, so I just have to add this here… all me, so hopefully Vicki finds it entertaining too…]

Preface: I was born, raised and have lived all my life in downtown Toronto, Canada’s largest and most diverse city. I attended inner-city schools whose populations at the time consisted of over 60 per cent Asian students, mostly of Cantonese-speaking Chinese descent. Almost all of my close friends were Chinese. My school provided concurrent Cantonese language classes, and my parents spoke Cantonese to me at home. I lived in Chinatown, and I was never lacking for world-class Chinese cuisine. I have always been proud of my heritage. I celebrate traditional holidays with family, adhere to some of the stranger customs and superstitions and generally respect the cultural teachings and beliefs my family instilled in me.

And yet, despite this immersion, I was never quite “Chinese enough.” Not to my friends, not to people I’d known for years, not to my family, and apparently, not to complete strangers, who tend to remark on my “perfect English,” or more accurately, my complete lack of Chinese language skills.

It’s true, I don’t speak Cantonese very well. I can barely understand one out of four words, and can only piece together what people are saying based on context. Forget about reading and writing Chinese—despite all those years in concurrent, after-school and Saturday classes, I could never retain the learn-by-rote grammarless, alphabetless language.

In Her CornerThis unfortunate deficiency has long been a sore point for me. Electing to leave Cantonese classes in grade six represented a complete and utter failure and final surrender on my part. I’d always been studious, earning top marks in all my classes; discouraged by failing marks in Chinese class, my confidence waned. What most people assumed should’ve been second nature by dint of genetics and exposure completely eluded my comprehension.

Giving up made me feel worthless, like I was running away from something important. I was incapable and unworthy of “preserving my heritage,” and no one could ever trust me to be a representative of it. By stopping my Cantonese classes, I was diving straight into the insidious Western melting pot. I was supposed to be part of the big, colorful Canadian cultural mosaic; instead, I was sinking into the grout between the jagged seams.

I knew my parents were disappointed. I knew my friends were baffled—after all, how could someone who got such high marks in everything else fail to learn “my own language”?

The thing was, my own language was English. I watched Canadian and American TV and films exclusively. My sisters and I had never taken any interest in the chapter movies coming out of Hong Kong that were so popular among my friends. I listened to oldies and classic rock radio stations, preferring the Beach Boys and the Beatles and David Bowie over the Cantopop my friends loved to sing at karaoke. I read only English books.

And so, I grew up slightly apart from my more fluent friends. I mastered the smile and nod with my Chinese-speaking elders, or else floundered through a simple request.

It wasn’t until I was in university that I realized I was actually part of a racial minority. It was a bit of culture shock—I could count the visible minorities in my journalism program on two hands, and the Asian students on one. Out of habit, I tried to befriend those few familiar faces, but I soon found I had as little in common with them as anyone else. “What they were” didn’t factor into any part in our relationships, or lack thereof.

Back to the Good Fortune DinerI saw little of my high school friends during university. We’d all drifted apart, gathering only occasionally for big events and holidays. I did see other high school acquaintances, ones I hadn’t spent a lot of time in school with. It was at an open mic night event that I had this out-of-the-blue epiphany:

Oh, my God,” I exclaimed to my friend in a whisper, “I’m the only Asian person in this whole room.”

My friend turned to me. “Oh. Weird, I don’t even think of you that way.”

Suddenly self-conscious, I assumed “that way” meant “as an outsider.” Was it because I was a part of the scenery? A fixture as a regular attendee at the weekly event? Or maybe my friend meant he didn’t think of me as Asian. Was I really so “Canadian” that my identity as a hyphenated citizen had been nullified?

Regardless of whether I blended in or not, something inside me rebelled at the idea that I was not who I thought I was. I’ve dwelled on it often over the years. I’d self-identified with the tongue-in-cheek pejorative terms “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside), “whitewashed,” and “jook sing” (Cantonese for “hollow bamboo”) to indicate to others I was CBC (Canadian Born Chinese) and lacked the language skills they expected from me. But now those terms held a little more weight. Ostensibly, I was neither here nor there, an alien among my own people, adoptable by the “others” but not completely. After all, I couldn’t change my skin tone or eye shape. No matter what situation I found myself in, I would forever be asked the question “What are you?”

My identity swung back toward a greater “Chinese-ness” when I started dating my husband, John, who is white. I knew pursuing a long-term relationship with him would mean some compromise on both our parts, but it also brought me closer to my heritage. Never was I more aware of the differences between Western and Chinese culture than I was navigating our separate cultural social protocols.

Her Son's HeroI had to teach him all the niceties I took for granted—the little things like tapping the table to thank someone when they poured tea for him, or never jamming your chopsticks straight up in your food (it makes it look like burning incense for the dead). I never took for granted, though, the challenges John faced. He spent a whole week eating Asian cuisine at the food court just so he could learn how to use chopsticks and not embarrass himself at my parents’ dinner table. Now my relatives can’t pass a meal without commenting on how good his form is.

John and I have been married for nearly five years now. We still encounter the odd person who can’t help but point out how somehow I’m the “different one” in our relationship. Questioning my cultural identity—or even simply pointing it out to me—irks me now more than ever. Part of me wants to believe people are just curious. But I know when people aren’t asking out of curiosity and are simply pointing it out, as if they’re unmasking me with a triumphant “Aha!”

For the record, I do not like it when people do that. It’s not that I don’t want them to ask—I just don’t need them to tell me I’m somehow wrong, as if I’ve disappointed them. I’m not here validate or negate anyone’s preconceived notions of who I am or what they believe me to represent. I have enough neuroses without having to deal with them telling me I don’t know myself. And I certainly don’t need someone holding a mirror up to me and pointing it out, as if I don’t know what I am.

But what are you really?”

The real question is, does it really matter?

So … confess. Have you ever committed this faux pas? I think it also matters if you know a person or don’t. I mean, if you’ve already established a relationship of sorts with a person before you delve into their background/ethnicity. Also it’s just different if the person is a [minority]. If you’re not Asian Pacific American, do you have friends who are? Have you ever heard them lament this type of treatment? One commenter will win a copy of A Recipe for Reunion.


21 thoughts on “SAPAHM Guest: Vicki Essex

  1. eilisflynn

    I grew up speaking Japanese and English both, in Japan and in the US, but like a lot of hapa (half-and-half), I never felt quite at ease in either. And it was both disheartening and dismaying to realize that I felt perfectly at home in a group of white people and find out that they never thought of me as part of the group because I wasn’t all white!

    1. Vicki Essex

      This! All this! It’s like no matter how at ease you are, you’ll never be “one of us”. Do we have to start our own support group or something? 8 )

      1. eilisflynn

        I always thought it would be interesting to start a chapter or a forum or something called Asians in Romance, but realized a good number don’t regard themselves as Asians at all!

        1. Limecello Post author

          Eilis, really? I haven’t met anyone like that. Interesting. Although I have met Asians who don’t think of themselves as Asian.
          I also know a lot of Asian Americans feel “out” from both Asian and American culture. And then in college one of my friends – she’s hapa too – and “confessed” she didn’t even feel she fit in with Asian Americans generally, because most of them in social groups were entirely some sort of [Asian]. It totally broke my heart.

          1. eilisflynn

            I didn’t understand it until I realized a lot of it had to be because they were encouraged to remember they were Americans first. My father was an orphan (Caucasian), so my mother’s (Japanese) family was foremost. So they looked at me funny, almost as though I were reminding them of something they had no memory of.

  2. flchen1

    I am Chinese American, and yes, have probably put my foot in my mouth likely on both sides of the conversation :/ I do think how well you know the person matters… I will note that I’ve never felt as awkward as when I was on a trip in China with my parents… I look Chinese, but don’t speak Chinese very well–the confused look I gave native speakers who would launch into an explanation or directions or whatever was always met with a “ah… poor American” type of reaction :/

    Also, this topic reminded me of this video I saw recently…

    1. Vicki Essex

      I love this video.
      And I know that exact reaction. And then, when you actually say in English, “I’m sorry, I don’t speak Chinese,” they start talking LOUDER AND SLOWER. This seems to be the universal reaction, as if all humans can decipher if we just speak clearly enough.

      1. flchen1

        LOL! Yes. The worst is when I can understand enough to recognize that they’re discussing how shameful it is that can’t communicate in Chinese, in Chinese… *sigh* I admit though, I do feel ashamed at times though–I do feel that I ought to be able to also! :/

        1. Limecello Post author

          LOL Fedora (and Vicki) – one of my favorite stories from my friends is this: they were in (Taiwan I think) – they’re Asian American – born in the states, visiting relatives overseas. They speak Chinese [Mandarin] perfectly … but can’t read it. So they were at a subway station and asked someone for directions – of course in Mandarin. So the person they asked scoffed at them and was like ‘can’t you read the map?!?!”

          XD Poor kids. [I think – they’re siblings – one was in middle school, and one was in HS].

            1. Limecello

              You’re such a good friend, Fedora. … I just laughed at them. >.> [I mean hey, I get it!] Annnddd they got where they had to, yeah? So no harm no foul there. *angelface*

  3. dholcomb1

    My cousin is half Vietnamese. There were enough rude comments to her in the family by others, I wouldn’t do that to her (or her sister who is half Latina). And, they have the Pennsylvania-German last name of my aunt’s ex-husband. That really confuses the heck out of people and brings out rude comments.


    1. Limecello Post author

      Denise – that makes me sad – it’s true, but unfortunate that confusion (or worse ignorance) just leads to some really nasty stuff. But – and I mean this in the best light – your cousin is such a cool mix!

  4. Mary Preston

    We seem to be such a lovely mix in our family. Not one particular race or culture. Outside of the family it just doesn’t seem to matter either. I do think it depends upon where you live and how accepting people are.

    1. Vicki Essex

      That’s the weird thing–you’d think people would be more culturally sensitive and aware in a big, diverse metropolitan city, but they’re not! I’m sure it’s a remnant from a tribal instinct or something. And I get it–in a big population, you want to find similarities between you and another person. Still, it can be so alienating.

    2. Limecello Post author

      Mary, I think environment DEFINITELY is a factor – if someone grows up in a place where 99.5% of the general population is exactly like they are … then anyone or anything different is REALLY different. And must either assimilate, or be ostracized. Or a mix.

      I do think regardless though, that it’s important to acknowledge and try to understand. Cross cultural sensitivity is so difficult but so crucial. I think the “I don’t see color/race” is actually one of the most detrimental things :\

  5. Stefanie London

    I’m half Italian (which I don’t think attracts as much racism today as it did in my father’s generation, if his stories are anything to go on) but I went to a catholic high school and felt like I never fit in there because I didn’t speak Italian fluently so I was considered to be ‘Australian’ but when I hung around with people who were fully Australian I felt odd there too – their parents weren’t as strict as mine and the whole concept of family was different. My husband is full Aussie (as far back as the convicts) and there was some adjustment when we started dating, trying to learn one another’s cultures and traditions. But most people wouldn’t get that because we’re both white, so they assume it’s all the same…but it isn’t.

    I really connected with your blog post here and I’m sorry that you had to go through that. People really are ignorant sometimes.

    1. Limecello Post author

      Stefanie, thanks for sharing! That’s really interesting. You’re definitely right there’s a lot of other culture in various white backgrounds too – which is why European countries are so much more nationalistic than say, Americans (or perhaps Australians).
      In the states there’s a history of racism towards XYZ county as well – Italians, Irish – and I just learned about a horrible incident in New Orleans against a group of Italians in the 1800s that I never learned about in school. I definitely get moving on, but I think also sweeping ugly parts of history under the rug really hurts us in understanding why a certain racial/ethnic group acts [or reacts] a certain way.


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