Where do I come from? As a Canadian of Chinese and Japanese ancestry I get that question a lot. I do not think it a rude or ignorant question. People are usually genuinely curious. They are usually shocked to find out that I was born in Montreal, Quebec (and was fluently bi-lingual until the age of six).
I am a third generation Chinese – Japanese Canadian. My parents (who were both born in Canada) married at a time when it was very “bad form” for Chinese and Japanese to date, let alone marry. Even now, their union raises eyebrows in the Asian community.
I have grown up in Canada and throughout my school years was (usually) the only non-white in my class. Others pegged me as “different” and I stood out no matter where I went. I felt very alienated and often wished that I was white. How could someone feel that they were wholly Canadian, when they were made to feel that they didn’t truly belong? Claims that not only was I born here, but my parents were born here fell on deaf ears. I looked different, so I must be different and come from somewhere else. Not here. Not Canada.
This sense of alienation followed me even into High School. At an early age I had shown promise in the fine arts such as acting, but was told by well meaning teachers that even though I could be an accomplished actor, it was unfortunate that I was Asian and there would be little or no place for me in Canada. They were not racist or trying to be mean, they were only telling me the current reality – that there was no place for me. Needless to say, I gave up on that dream.
Slowly things changed and far from being resentful about my heritage, I began to embrace it. I found strength in my cultural heritage and a sense of belonging and identity that I did not experience in my earlier life. I began actively seeking out books and literature about my heritage and found very little. I began watching movies and interacting with others in my own cultural community. This process of discovery allowed me to grow, change and mature.
But even here, I did not feel that I completely belonged. I did not understand the language. I only had a minimal understanding of the culture and customs. I had never been to China or Japan. I had no shared history. And since I was both of Chinese and Japanese heritage, I looked “off” to many of them. They would smile and reassure me, but behind the smile was the knowledge that I would never truly understand or be a part of that heritage.
So I felt like a person in-between. Not really part of one world because of the way I looked, and not really part of another world because I had grown up westernized. My entire adult life has been spent reconciling these feelings of alienation that I have experienced on both sides of the cultural wall. My response has been to embrace all those things that made me unique (including those parts of me that have nothing to do with my culture). I continue to embrace my ancestry and to be proud of it. To do anything less would be to deny what I see in the mirror every day. At the same time, I realize that I do not live in Asia, that I was born and raised in Canada. I do not simply “feel” that I am Canadian, I am Canadian. And being Canadian is to celebrate all those cultural identities and take strength in them.
Today, I am happily married to a woman of Chinese ancestry (she was born in Asia but raised in Canada) and we have two sons whom I will raise to be proud Canadians with all the rights and privileges that entails. I will also raise them to know where their great-grandparents came from and why it is important to retain that part of their culture – to be proud, not arrogant about that background. And all my hopes go with them that they will find a place in their lives long before I found a place in mine.
(Originally published on Sept 11, 2007)