By: Kitty Cheung (Staff Writer), Kelly Chia (Staff Writer), Karina Danielle Lim de León, Winona Young (Head Staff Writer)
When I was five, my birthday wish was to get a Yoga Barbie. When I was six, my birthday wish was a Spongebob Squarepants backpack. When I was eight, my birthday wish was to become white.
One thing I struggled with a very long time (and still do) is internalized racism. And on my eighth birthday, although I didn’t know those words specifically, I understood that blonde hair, blue eyes, and a button nose meant beautiful. However, black hair, a potato-round nose, and yellow skin decidedly did not.
The thing about me is that I grew up watching North American television religiously. It’s actually how I learned a lot of my English. I loved shows like Rugrats and Jimmy Neutron. I noticed the characters I was most drawn to were the blonde-haired, blue-eyed, and porcelain-skinned white girls. In those shows, I understood that white people, especially white girls, were the beauty standard.
It makes sense that through ages eight to 18, whenever I was around my white-girl friends, I always felt an undercurrent of inferiority.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved my white friends. Many of them, in fact, became the popular and desirable white girl. They wore Abercrombie & Fitch, had pin-straight hair, and told stories about how gross boys were when they made out. I, however, stuck out with unruly hair, an extra forty pounds, and apparent invisibility to guys. Whenever we played pretend, they were always Hermoine or Cinderella, while I was Cho Chang or Mulan.
(I wasn’t even Chinese. I’m Filipino, but I don’t think they even knew the difference.)
For a while, these girls were my most cherished friends, but they never understood my sadness. A vague, tangled-up sadness which was so complex and confusing that I barely knew how to articulate it.
Once, when I was 18, I explained my eighth birthday wish to a friend group, and my white friend knitted his brows in confusion. “But why? You’re gorgeous as you are!” But what he didn’t notice was how, when I said that, another Asian friend of mine solemnly nodded and said, “I feel that.”
I’ve learned to let go from that sadness, and that shame that came with being not-white. By far, what helped me get to this place of acceptance were fellow Asians, who, like me, also mourned their yellow skin, but learned to love living in it.
I’m so grateful for my Asian heritage because of the rich history and culture embedded in my ethnic background.
I’m grateful for being Filipino and take pride in the beautiful nature and wildlife which characterize my home country. I also celebrate the spirit of being Filipino — the festive gatherings, colourful fiestas, extravagant dishes, and the loving sense of community shared by families and friends.
The values and traditions I was raised with were heavily influenced by other Asian cultures — Chinese, Malay, etc. I’m grateful for the importance of family and loyalty in Asian culture, shown to me by my immediate and extended family’s unconditional support and love.
I’m grateful to have a story to tell — my name doesn’t sound “Asian” to most people (what they mean is East Asian, really), so explaining why my last name is Spanish, my middle name is Chinese, and my first name is Russian gives me a sense of pride from sharing the rich history of what it means to be Filipino.
I celebrate my Asian heritage every day by being proudly and unapologetically Asian. I don’t hesitate to share where I am from, despite many Asian countries being corrupt and underdeveloped. I encourage my friends to try new “exotic” cuisines from Asia with me. I don’t try to hide my features that make me Filipino, and I warmly speak to other Filipinos in public in Tagalog.
A challenge I face being Asian, as a first-generation immigrant to Canada and an international student, is losing touch with my culture. I speak English with an American accent, so my Filipino doesn’t sound fluent anymore. I feel distant from a part of me that is so integral to my being. I always miss the smell of saltwater, the burning sun, the local food. I miss hearing my language being spoken around me.
Here in Canada, I feel closest to my heritage when I am surrounded by friends who are welcoming and loving. But truly, I feel closest to my heritage when I am in my home country, surrounded by locals and the bustle of the city. I feel closest when I have gone days without speaking English in a country where I don’t feel foreign — I feel at home.
I am grateful to be Asian, I admit, because of the delicious food.
I was born in Sabah, Malaysia, and grew up in Singapore, which meant I had a lot of good food everywhere. I think this is because a lot of my childhood memories are family gatherings at a local hawker centre, where we’d chow down on hokkien mee or Hainanese chicken rice. I definitely associate food with spending time with my loved ones. I think that was the most validating part about watching Crazy Rich Asians for me: the characters bonding by making dumplings together or eating at a hawker centre. I also feel closest to my family when we are seated at huge tables, picking away at dishes on a Lazy Susan.
I definitely experience some crisis with my identity as a Chinese person. I have some deep insecurities about not being Chinese enough, some of which range from wondering if I will be able to teach my future children Hakka dialect to not being able to have complicated conversations with my parents in Hakka. I also speak Mandarin Chinese poorly, which contributes to my fears about not fitting in as a Chinese person. Largely, I am troubled how much of my heritage I don’t know well, which is an inherent part of who I am.
On August 8, Singapore’s national day, there is typically a celebratory pop song released to commemorate the occasion. Now that I no longer live there, these songs are what remind me of home. In particular, Kit Chan’s song “Home” strikes a chord with me. The lyrics go: “I will always recall the city / Know every street and shore / Sail down the river which brings us life / Winding through my Singapore.” This song always makes me feel proud of the country I spent part of my childhood in. When I listen to this song, it reminds me of the fond times I have had and how much I miss Singapore.
I spent part of my childhood growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown.
On grocery trips with my family, I remember begging my mom to buy cartons of Vitasoy from our local supermarkets, gaping wide-eyed at barbecued ducks hanging from butcher shop windows, and having my mouth water at the delectable fruit cakes displayed inside bakeries. The culture was rich and vibrant in our Strathcona neighbourhood; I am so grateful and fiercely proud to have been a part of that.
We moved away when I was eight. It was the first time I felt that my Cantonese heritage made me a minority.
As a result, I feel especially tenderhearted whenever I get to witness the noisy camaraderie of Vancouver’s Chinese diaspora. Whether that be in the form of overhearing gossip slyly spoken in Cantonese during hair salon visits with my mom, observing groups of elderly men come together for Sunday brunch at The Boss (a local diner), or joining crowds of families murmuring in excitement during the annual Chinese New Year parade as lion and dragon dancers bolt through the streets. These fond memories make me grateful for my Cantonese heritage.
Connecting to others who also speak this common language makes me feel closer to the culture. Despite how broken my spoken Cantonese may be, it still makes me happy to be able to speak this dialect whenever I purchase pineapple buns at Hong Kong-style bakeries.
However, some challenges that I face stem from the cultural gap and language barrier between my mom and myself. Neither of us speaks both Cantonese and English completely fluently, so our communication is often stilted and messy. We’ve also grown up in different countries during different eras, and this cultural distance has definitely created rifts between us. Nevertheless, throughout my childhood, we could always bond over dim sum on a Pro-D Day.