Being Canadian has always been a badge of honour for me.
Growing up, people would always ask me “What are you?” or “Where are your parents from?” and I would answer delightfully with “Canadian”. Then, the response from the inquirer would be something like, “No, like where are you REALLY from?”
It hurt. Because I thought that my answer was delightfully correct. Isn’t Canada a cultural honeypot? Being a literal representation of that Canadian mishmash was supposed to be a celebrated part of our culture.
Time and time again, I had to answer strangers’ intrusive questions. Sometimes, I didn’t mind. Sometimes, I really minded. Why wasn’t my answer enough?
When I just wanted someone to leave me alone, I would answer their question with what I knew they wanted, “I’m half-Chinese.” Which I hated. I loved my Chinese heritage, but I resented that I was constantly telling people that I was Half of something.
When I was feeling facetious, I would say, “Half-Norwegian.” No one stops a stranger to find out if they are Norwegian or Swedish, or Scottish.
We didn’t fit in at Chinese school. At Chinese dance, I was always too big and too tall for the costumes. The older women always commented on my size. We drew our eyeliner differently to make our eyes match. At Chinese school I was told, “It’s ok, your mother is only white.” I would listen to Chinese people standing right next to me, guessing whether it was my mother or my father who was white. They assumed I couldn’t understand them.
In public, people would often tell me that I looked like “that actress from that show”. I learned to start naming other mixed actresses. We usually looked nothing alike. We were simply the same race: Half-Oriental & Half-Caucasian.
Looking back, I resented these interactions. I learned how to laugh them off- I didn’t want to come across as a crazy person. Most of these people were well-intentioned in our interactions. Now, I use it as a way to discuss race, culture, and bias.
Ny brother and I were in college when a friend of ours coined the term “Scandanasian” for us. Most of the time it was just a funny joke. To me, it felt perfect all of the time. Being Scandanasian felt good because it no longer denoted being “half”, but being fully whole.
I wasn’t really aware of the hurt that these interactions caused me until I lived in Hawaii. Midway through my time there, a local stopped me on the beach and spoke to me in Hawaiian pigeon. I looked at him confused. He apologized and said that he thought I was a local Hawaiian girl. As I reflected on that experience, a lot of realizations began to flood in. Suddenly I understood why I felt like I belonged there. I still cry to think about how at home I felt on that island. It was the first and only time in my entire life that I had not looked different.
Until that moment, I hadn’t realized that I had never truly felt like I belonged anywhere else. (when it came to my appearance, obviously.) I never thought this was important before, but in hindsight, it obviously had some kind of an effect on me. (If you’ve ever travelled in another country and felt like you stuck out like a sore thumb, this is the best example I can give to illustrate what growing up mixed-race in Saskatchewan felt like.)
I grew up celebrating my differences. I loved my heritage. I love lefse. I loved being in China for Chinese New Year. I loved being in Oslo for Suttendemai. But it’s also good and honest to recognize that being different didn’t always feel good.
The reason I’m writing this is because it’s important to share stories like these. We’re not trying to cause division, or make people feel bad for being curious. I remember watching a video a few years ago in which other mixed-asians joked about how they didn’t fit in, and I related to it so strongly. The more we talk about stuff like this, the less weird it is. It also means that we can relate to each other more and more.
A key thought to have in mind is to remember that Caucasian people aren’t singled out and asked, “Hey what’s your race?”. I’m sure it happens as an afterthought when someone has asked a POC already, but it’s not going to be the driving force to start a conversation. One of the major differences here is that not all Caucasian people will have been stopped by a stranger to discuss their race, but every visible minority will have had to discuss it with a complete stranger (who is probably Caucasian) at some point in their life.
I’m not telling you that you can’t ask people about their heritage. We want to celebrate everyone’s differences and where they come from in this beautiful and diverse country. I have had some wonderful conversations with people who are genuinely inquisitive. I’m not saying that asking people questions is bad.
I am saying that commenting on someone’s appearance is never ok. We don’t ask someone how much they weigh. We shouldn’t ask someone how tall they are. We’re careful not to guess at whether someone is pregnant or not.
Let’s put it this way: If you did ask someone how much they weighed and they answered it, would you then argue with them and say, “No, there’s no way that’s what you weigh.” This is ludicrous, right?
All I’m suggesting is that we put a bit of that societal effort into how we interact with each other when it comes to visible minorities. Obviously, we all have differences, and it isn’t bad to talk about them. What is damaging is forcing someone to give you an answer that fits your satisfaction.
If you are going to ask someone where they are from, take their first answer. It’s their choice to tell you who they are.
It’s not un-Canadian for me to ask us to be more decent to each other. It’s the most Canadian thing we could do.
My answer will always be this:
I’m 100% Canadian.