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Growing Up, I Never Felt Like I Belonged — But I Want Things To Be Different For My Kids

Jun 7, 2021

“Where are you from?”

I’ve been asked this too many times to count. When I was younger, I would often give snarky responses like:


“I’m from here.”

“Earth.”

“I’m from a faraway planet where people who ask this question are forced to sit and watch The Red Green Show on repeat.”


I made the last response up. The thing is, most would assume white people would be the ones asking this question. However, it came from folks of all races. Ultimately, it implied that I didn’t belong.


Language is a tool, but what happens when a child's native language is said to be a limitation for growth? Katharine Chan writes about this experience here.


Not Chinese enough

As a Chinese-Canadian kid, I had two identities: the one at home and the one at school. I would completely change who I was the moment I entered and left the house.

Whenever my parents took me to meet relatives or family friends, I never felt Chinese enough. Aunties and uncles would speak their broken English to me, assuming I didn’t understand Cantonese. Sweet and sour pork would be ordered to satisfy my “western palate,” assuming I didn’t appreciate my native cuisine. The waiter would take one look at our table and bring out a set of knives and forks.

"Sweet and sour pork would be ordered to satisfy my 'western palate,' assuming I didn’t appreciate my native cuisine."

I didn’t want to be perceived as a banana (yellow on the outside, white on the inside). So I put pressure on myself to act more Chinese because I wanted to show them that I belonged. I answered their questions in perfect Cantonese, ordered the most traditional dish on the menu and showed off my chopsticks skills. I wanted to prove them wrong, that I wasn’t someone who didn’t know a thing about her heritage.

But no matter what I did, I never felt like I belonged.


Read about how mother Christianne Cruz — an Asian-Canadian ex-pat living in the U.S. — is dealing with the rise in anti-Asian hate here.


Not Canadian enough

At school, I desperately wanted to fit in so that other people would like me. The moment I stepped outside my house, I scrubbed myself clean of anything that made me appear Chinese.

I dressed according to what was considered cool, wore coloured contacts, dyed my hair and put on makeup to make my facial features more white-looking. I brought sandwiches to school because I didn’t want to get made fun of again for eating “worms” (noodles) for lunch.

"Whenever we were asked to read out loud, I would get anxious because I wanted to make sure I spoke without an accent."

I wouldn’t dare speak Cantonese in front of my classmates. Whenever we were asked to read out loud, I would get anxious because I wanted to make sure I spoke without an accent. Even though I tried my best to blend in, I felt like I wasn’t Canadian enough compared to those around me. My family didn’t watch hockey, go biking, do ski trips or play catch. We watched TVB dramas, did Chinese bus tours, sang karaoke and went out for dim sum.

I couldn’t erase the Chinese part of me when I was in school. And I was too Canadian to relate to those who looked like me. For a long time, I did this dance of pretending to be someone I’m not depending on who I was trying to impress.


Katharine Chan writes about why her immigrant parents thought it would benefit her to stay silent. But as a parent, she no longer feels it's the course she wants to take. Read that here.


Then I grew up and met others who felt the same way

When I entered university, I started meeting dozens of folks who had a very similar upbringing. Some immigrated when they were young and some were born in Canada like myself.

I wasn’t alone and I realized growing up with Western and Eastern influences meant I had the opportunity to create my own identity. I no longer felt a need to assimilate to either culture because the Asian-Canadian experience is a culture in itself. It didn’t matter if I wasn’t Chinese enough or Canadian enough. I was enough.

And I want my children to stand proud as Chinese Canadians, too.

Becoming a mom has cemented my sense of self and it’s empowered me to parent in a way that allows my children to feel proud of where they’re from, appreciating the customs and traditions of our heritage.

"I am proud to be a Canadian because I believe it’s a nation that tries to build community by celebrating both our differences and the things we have in common."

From instilling a sense of duty and respect to care for their elders, establishing values of frugality, humility and a strong work ethic, celebrating Chinese festivals, being fluent in Cantonese to cooking and eating Chinese dishes, I'm choosing the things that I believe are important to preserve for my children.

I’m teaching my kids to practice gratitude for the opportunity to live in the “True North strong and free” and instilling the values that I grew up with such as equality, diversity, inclusion, safety and peace. I am proud to be a Canadian because I believe it’s a nation that tries to build community by celebrating both our differences and the things we have in common.

In the future, if anyone asks my kids, “Where are you from?”

They’ll answer, “I was born and raised in Canada and so are my parents. I’m proudly Chinese Canadian. Just so you know, the Canadian way to ask this is 'What culture do you identify with?'”

Article Author Katharine Chan
Katharine Chan

Katharine Chan, MSc, BSc, PMP, is an author of three books and a Top 30 Vancouver Mom Blogger. She has over a decade of experience working in British Columbia's healthcare system, leading patient safety incident investigations, quality improvement projects and change management initiatives within mental health, emergency health services and women's health. Her blog, Sum (心,♡) on Sleeve is a raw and honest look at self-love, culture, relationships and parenthood. She shares personal stories to empower others to talk about their feelings despite growing up in a culture that hides them. She’s appeared as a guest on CBC News Radio and Fairchild TV News and contributed to HuffPost Canada and Scary Mommy.

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