Chinese or Canadian? One Montrealer's identity crisis
Author Day's Lee says visiting her parent's homeland deepened the bond to her own
As part of our series Real Talk on Race, CBC Montreal asked 10 people to share their personal stories about race. These stories are in their own words. Share yours with us on Facebook, Twitter or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
I remember my first identity crisis like it was yesterday.
I was about 11 years old and watching a Habs game. The Canadiens scored. I cheered. My parents asked who was winning.
"We are!" I said.
My parents laughed. "That's not us. We're Chinese."
I was stunned and confused. How could I not be Canadian? I was born in Montreal and spoke English with no Chinese accent. Did being Chinese mean I couldn't root for the Habs? I shrugged off my parents' comment and decided they misunderstood Canadian culture the same way they misunderstood English.
'Did being Chinese mean I couldn't root for the Habs?'
Years later, when China opened up its borders to tourists, my father, sister and I decided to go on a three week tour. Seeing China and its wonders would be a first for all of us including my father who had emigrated from China as a young boy.
I was excited about visiting the country whose mysterious customs I was supposed to adhere to. The country my parent referred to as "back home" that I thought held the answers as to why I wasn't Canadian.
'Being in China made me feel more Canadian'
We flew to Hong Kong with other Chinese from Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto. The itinerary was a seven city tour that included Peking (before it was renamed Beijing) and Shanghai.
Once we set foot on the mainland, we were treated as fellow countrymen returning to the Mother Country. Like any other tour group, our must-see list included the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and viewing Mao Zedong's mummified body.
As returning countrymen, we were also treated to a tour of a bomb shelter under a neighbourhood that could house thousands of people during an air raid. As we travelled throughout the country learning about its history and culture, something inside me bloomed with pride and said this is what being Chinese is about . . . until meal time.
I wasn't used to the food. Deep fried dough served with rice porridge for breakfast. Every supper was a 10 course meal, but I couldn't recognize what I was eating and found it bland.
One day I overheard two Caucasian women in the hotel discussing bacon and sausages. Apparently, American tour groups were not served the traditional Chinese breakfast. If only I could discard the mantle of fellow countryman long enough to eat bacon.
Being in China made me feel more Canadian, and it wasn't just my yearning for bacon. I was a Chinese in western clothing amidst a population that wore blue Mao suits. But pride of nationality surely goes deeper than what we wear and what we eat.
The tour gave me a newfound sense of myself. I was Chinese-Canadian, proud of the heritage that my parents instilled in me and of the country where I was born.
I often thumbed through my Berlitz dictionary of Chinese phrases to communicate with the locals. One asked where I was from.
"Canada," I replied, in English.
He chuckled and shook his head.
"Can't speak Chinese? You're not Chinese."
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Day's Lee is the author of the award-winning young adult novel Guitar Hero.