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
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.
This 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.
I 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.
I 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.