Like many Asian kids who grew up in North America, I was ashamed of being Asian. Today, I’m a lot closer to embracing my Asian-ness.
Coming around in my thinking took a long time. When I was young, I felt inferior to the white kids. I wanted to be one of them, and wished that the stork hadn’t planted me in the poor nether regions of rural China. At the end of the day, I’ve realized that if I’m going to be happy and at peace with who I am, I have to embrace immutable characteristics such as how I look, my family background and cultural heritage.
I didn’t start off from a good foundation. My family (my parents and me) immigrated to Canada when I was two years old in the late 1980s. At the time, China was dirt poor. We came to Canada with virtually nothing.
As a child, almost everything my father told me about China was about how dirty, corrupt and poor it was. “We didn’t have toilet paper, and if you needed to go to the bathroom, you had to walk to a communal latrine that you could smell from a mile away.” It didn’t exactly make me proud of my heritage.
At daycare, even long after I’d learned English, I was still constantly reminded of how I was different from the other kids. One day, we were all supposed to bring presents for a gift exchange. The daycare had sent a notice home to every kid’s parents informing them to buy a gift. Either my parents misinterpreted the note, or they really were hard up for cash, but they sent me to daycare with a 49-cent roll of wrapping paper instead of a gift. I wished I had different parents that day.
Going by my Chinese name in day care and first years of grade school didn’t help much either. I cringed when the other kids would giggle and joke amongst themselves when we did attendance and the teacher called out my name. That’s why I adopted the English name Bing for nearly 20 years, only reverting to my Chinese name a few weeks ago.
It didn’t help that many of my friends at school came from families that enjoyed a lot more financial abundance than mine. They got to have video games, eat out at restaurants and visit theme parks. Being Chinese felt like a trap – it affected everything from my name to what I looked like, and my family had no money for all the goodies the other kids got to have.
I refused to speak Chinese with my parents, always replying to them in English. I took it as a stamp of approval when one of my parents’ Canadian friends remarked about how westernized I was.
Things reached a low point as an adolescent when my mother and I were discussing a movie we’d watched about discrimination against black people in the southern USA. She confronted me about how I was ashamed of being Chinese to the point of being discriminatory against other Chinese people, and asked how I could feel so strongly about the themes I’d seen the movie, while myself being racist against my own kind. I denied her allegations and yet had to hold back tears at the same time. I knew she was right, but didn’t want to admit it.
I’d love to say that the conversation with my mother was the turning point, that I was suddenly inspired to repent for all my sins and fully embrace my Asian-ness on the spot. But that wouldn’t be accurate.
It wasn’t till a couple years later when I became a high school freshman that my antipathy towards my heritage became first an interest, and eventually a fascination. My high school was at least 1/3 Asian, being in a very ethnic part of town. It seemed that overnight, between middle school and high school, everyone suddenly matured a couple notches. People stopped making of others with ethnic-sounding names. Racism never completely went away, but it wasn’t nearly as open and blatant.
I found myself a clan of close friends, both Asian and non-Asian, some of whom appreciated that I was from a different ethnic background, and that I could help them with their Chinese class homework.
Being Chinese started to feel like a good thing. It was the turn of the 21st century, and you started hearing about China’s economic rise in the news. Around this time, I began the tradition of speaking primarily Mandarin Chinese at home. I realized that if I didn’t make an effort, I wouldn’t be very functional in the language, and I would feel embarrassed later on to think that I sold out my own language and culture in a bid to fit in.
I also became increasingly aware of the differences in being brought up in a Chinese home as opposed to a Canadian one, and how I’ve been served by both perspectives as a result of being raised in a Chinese home, with Canadians as friends.
People will debate the differences between Chinese and North American culture, traditions and child-rearing till they’re blue in the face. But I think there are advantages to both cultures, particularly the way the Chinese value work ethic, and the way North Americans encourage individualism and creativity.
Today I can speak Mandarin decently, and I can read about 1,200 Chinese characters, which is enough to get by in the land of children’s fables but not enough to read a newspaper or magazine. I make a point out of reading at least one article or essay in Chinese everyday, and I’m using flashcards to help me memorize more characters.
I’ve recently switched to using Facebook in simplified Chinese, and also switched my iPod and Blackberry over to Chinese interfaces. Given how much time I spend on Facebook and electronic gadgets, it’s amazing how much exposure I can get to a foreign language this way.
I’m Chinese… I’m Asian. My skin is yellow (more accurately, light brown with a yellowish hue), I have coarse black hair (best suited for Asian hairstyles). I believe that being Asian can still lead to being discriminated against (especially when it comes to dating), but for every door that it closes, it opens at least one other.
These days, with so much news about Asia’s rise in the world, both politically and economically, there’s more and more reason to reconnect with Asian language and culture, especially for those of us from Asian backgrounds who’ve grown up elsewhere.
Shoving away our own heritage can block out the best parts of us and disconnect us from who we are. Through relearning the language and the culture of my family, I’ve been able to understand my parents and relatives back in China in a way that would have been impossible if I looked at myself as North American and them as Chinese.
After a nearly 20 year hiatus, I’m ready to reconnect with my Asian-ness.
Photo credit: Flickr
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