Please check one of the following options: Caucasian, Asian, Hispanic, African-Canadian, Other. Well, I’m half-Chinese and half-Irish Canadian, so I guess that would make me an “other.” What does this otherness mean? This last weekend, my mother – the source of my Chinese roots – came to visit and we delved into the topic of my ethnic and racial identity.
My ethnicity has always been one of my greatest points of distinction and pride – though, to be perfectly honest, I don’t fully understand what it means to be a person of mixed race, a hapa, a halfie, an “other.” Identity is rather intangible, especially to those who do not explicitly fit into a category. How can we decide who or what we are?
Interestingly, my mother’s personal experience of interracial marriage was not the first in her family. She grew up hearing a story of her great-uncle’s white mistress, who became pregnant with his child. Although the facts are not completely clear, the story goes that, while he was away on a business trip, the locals raped and burnt her to death. This story happened a hundred years ago, and while it may be an extreme example, it illustrates the hate and fear associated with cultural intermingling.
Today, things have changed; it is no longer unusual in Canada to be mixed. But even with this evolution, my mother still feels that race has had an effect on my sister’s and my upbringing. Biologically speaking, race may not exist, but the social construct is very real for those who are affected by it.
Although my parents weren’t treated differently, there was an acknowledgment of difference; people often assume that relationships will stick within a racial group. “Of course race matters,” my mother said. “When I walked down the street with your father, people could see the difference.” My grandmother even advised her to “marry a Korean, or a Japanese, but not a white guy. At least you can’t tell the difference.” “It was easier for her to deal with,” my mother said. In this assumption, race is confused with culture.
Nonetheless, my mother wanted to emphasize that it was never a racial difference that led to my parents’ divorce.
“Your father and I differ culturally, religiously, economically, and academically.” They are consistently contrasting individuals, which undeniably led to their divorce but also to my childhood, littered with an eclectic mix of experiences. My mother came from a rich merchant family and my father came from a working-class Irish-Canadian family. Each class has its respective approach and interpretation to life – in other words, its own culture. My mother would say, “You should never marry a man with a bamboo door if you have a wooden door.”
In many ways, being Chinese was the same as being white for me, in that I never fully thought that I was different from the other kids in my class. I was part of the dominant culture in my mind; my mixed heritage seemed as authentic as my friends’ Ukrainian or German heritage. There was no conflict in cutting down Christmas trees and receiving red envelopes for Chinese New Year.
Being a halfie was a means to distinguish myself when I was younger. I saw it as a secret power that would allow me to use chopsticks “authentically” and eat chickens’ feet without qualms.
My mother does feel that I have lost a significant level of Chinese culture. My sister and I do not speak Chinese and, unfortunately, we have limited interaction with our Chinese family. Ironically, though, while I am considered White in Hong Kong, I am seen more Asian by most in Canada.
My identity cannot be reduced to my mixed background. It’s been my parents’ unique perspectives and ideas that have most influenced my development as an individual – and these aren’t always tied to race and ethnicity.
I realized that they never saw me as a halfie. “I just see you as my daughters,” my mother said. “In the end, you have features that are me and you have features that are definitely from your father.”