Gender & Identity, Life

Have I betrayed my Chinese ancestors?

"You know,” she joked. “Sometimes I forget that you’re Asian!”

I am Chinese. I am also what you would call “white-washed.”

When I was younger, I used to be a lot more “authentically” Chinese—I wore a cheongsam on special occasions, ate plenty of homemade Chinese dishes and spoke pretty decent Cantonese for a kindergartener. I spent almost all my time as a kid with my paternal grandmother and she, as an immigrant with a strong connection to her homeland, taught me everything a young girl should know about her heritage and her language and her culture.

My grandmother passed away when I was five years old. I vaguely remember visiting her in the hospital, giving her one of my favorite toys, a wind-up flower with spinning petals, in the hopes it might make her happier, dodging the legs of grown-ups and passing time in the dreary, grey corridors of the building. One day, I went with my parents in that grey room and my grandmother didn’t sit up and greet me like she normally did. I went to wake her, but she was unnaturally cold. The flower spun merrily away beside her.

The death of my grandmother meant the death of a part of me: The part that knew Cantonese and understood customs and watched Chinese television channels during the long days while my parents were working and ate congee every day for breakfast and lunch and sometimes dinner, too. My mom and dad speak two different dialects of Chinese, so when my grandmother died, my dad never kept up speaking Cantonese to me. I guess he didn’t see the point of having me learn a language I couldn’t share with my mom or speak in school—and the dialect my mom speaks is slowly dying, even now, as new generations neglect to learn it. In my parents’ eyes, even the continuation of my Cantonese didn’t seem worth it at the time.

Today, I know hardly any Chinese. I don’t know how to cook anything Chinese, and I eat a lot of what my grandmother would have called “white man” food. When I meet new people, they’re often surprised to learn that I’m the first generation in my family to be born in Canada and comment on “how well I speak English”—which carries with it an unspoken second meaning: You don’t have an accent. You don’t sound Chinese.

[bctt tweet=”‘You don’t sound Chinese,’ they say.”]

Just the other day, my Caucasian friend Dawn and I were talking when the topic of East Asian customs was brought up. When she said casually that we couldn’t really discuss such things with a real understanding of the culture behind them, I reminded her that I knew more than she thought. She stopped suddenly. “You know,” she joked. “Sometimes I forget that you’re Asian!”

There’s a clear disconnect between me and my former self now—nobody could know me as I am today and say I’m “authentic.” This is irritating in more ways than one: I want to represent my culture and my heritage without being accused of being a fraud, but how I can I do that if I’m not Chinese enough to represent the country my family came from and I’m too Asian to fit into a different identity? Why do people feel like they have the right to pigeonhole me just because I’m Asian? Why do I have to choose between being completely “Fresh Off the Boat” or totally white-washed? Why is being influenced by the place where I live even considered a bad thing?

I’ve been accused of being white-washed a lot, and it hurts. It’s the way it’s said: like I’m putting up a front, trying to fool everyone and act like something I’m not. Like there’s something that dictates whether I have the “right” to call myself authentically Asian and call my native country my homeland. Honestly, I just want to show the world who I am and where I came from with pride. But how can I, when the people around me don’t understand how important China and Hong Kong really are to me, and how deeply I’ve been affected by the culture there, even if I’ve never lived in either area? It’s always held over my head, like I don’t have the right to identify as a “real Chinese person” because I haven’t met the arbitrary requirements set by others.

[bctt tweet=”I am Chinese, and I am influenced by the Eastern cultures where acestors originated.” username=”wearethetempest”]

No matter what I do, I can never reconcile the two parts of me in a way that will satisfy everyone—I’m always either “too white” or a “sell-out,” according to some East Asian girls I travelled with a couple years ago, or “too Asian,” as I was told emphatically by some Caucasian girls who refused to let me hang out with them.

Now that I’m older, a lot of people have begun asking me if I feel bad that I’ve lost a part of my heritage. The truth is yes, yes I do—but it feels just as bad to be reminded of it. It’s almost as if I personally failed as a human being, as if I intentionally betrayed my ancestors, when that’s not how it is at all. It’s a constant struggle to try and define myself by balancing out the Western and Eastern parts of me, and I’ve often been told when I bring up my plight that I should just let it go…but I can’t. How could I let go of who I am?

When you emigrate from a different country, parts of you shed and rebuild based on your new culture, your new experience, and your new country. And you know what? I don’t think that’s a bad thing. That’s personal evolution, and as long as you never forget where you came from, there’s nothing wrong with adopting parts of the culture you’re now surrounded by.

This toxic accusation that tends to corner those who come from a different place need to stop. The only way to help welcome someone is to encourage the melding of their past and the present. We must abolish the notion that someone needs to have “met the requirements” to call themselves a person of their native country.

I am Chinese, and I am influenced by the Eastern cultures where my parents and my grandparents and their grandparents originated. I am Chinese, and I am influenced by Western nations because it’s where I live—it’s my home. But these things do not make me less proud of myself, less proud of my ethnicity, or less “qualified” to call myself Chinese. I am a blending of both sides, and that’s okay.