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Great cultural expectations

Label me (race goes here)

It wasn’t until high school that I was told for the first time: “You act so white.” Though I’d never heard that particular phrase before, delivered with a perplexed and slightly accusatory slant, I remember being unsurprised by the sentiment. Perhaps this was because it had been implied so often without the explicitness of words, or perhaps because I had conceded exactly that fact so many times before, with a feeling of equal parts sinking horror and quiet satisfaction.

“Acting so white” – what did that mean? To this day, I couldn’t give you a precise list of characteristics that exist in the “white” segment of the arbitrary behavioural Venn diagram society seems to use, that section that does not overlap with “Asian” or “African.” But somehow, I still knew what my friend meant when she made that observation. And I felt a certain discomfort that bordered on shame – as I always did when the topic festered in my mind, as I would whenever the topic was broached in the future – as though I had been caught doing something profoundly wrong.

I laughed off her comment without asking what triggered it. But I think her remark arose, on the most superficial level, from signifiers such as a general lack of Korean pop music on my iPod, and an absence of self-deprecating shyness in my manner of the kind that many of my Asian peers appeared to possess. Such were the things associated with “being Asian” in my predominantly white school in suburban Ontario – being obsessed with Asian television and music, and a quieter manner than most were accustomed to. Even disregarding the obvious problems with such a reductionist and limited approach to culturally-linked behaviours, this comment bothered me, but not as much as the one that followed: “Do you do it on purpose?” As though my personality was something I had chosen, some concrete decision I had made, rejecting one alternative in preference for another.

And then, either because my friends and I had reached a point of closeness where they felt comfortable saying such things to me, or because my “whiteness” had grown too obvious to ignore, I started hearing such comments everywhere, comments that assigned cultural significance to my behaviour. A boyfriend’s father said I was the “most American” non-American he had met. (I am Canadian, and to this day do not know what he meant.) Countless friends have asked why I don’t “hang out with more Asians” or “like Asian things.” But of course, when I do something that is alien to them, I am being “so Asian.” But that is, at least judging from the infrequency of these comments, rare. At times it seems that my every behaviour – both commonplace and not – is tagged with some sort of simplistic cultural relevance; as a culmination of these individual labels, so does my character become labelled.

I get this on both sides of the pond – the Pacific one, that is. Relatives and family friends in China are surprised at my directness, and my slightly-annoyed default expression. When my cousin was preparing to travel to Canada with me, she was often told to act more like me, and “less like a Chinese girl.” An aside would then be directed at me, explaining that “Chinese girls are sweet and gentle.”

Had I, by behaving in the way that has been most natural to me for all of my adolescent and adult life, somehow managed to change my own ethnicity, and subvert my own cultural identity?

Of course, it would be ignorant of me to think that my environment has not influenced the way I behave – but in a different way from how so many of my peers seem to expect. Living in a Western environment where bold confidence is more typically rewarded has no doubt allowed me to exercise that aspect of my personality. Participating in a culture in which deference is not emphasized has certainly kept me from incorporating it into my behaviour.

This Canadian influence that has come to define me dictates the moral path I take, and the angle through which I view the world, and the face I put forth when I address it. So I take offense to the suggestion that my behaviour is a rebellion of sorts – a rejection of my own cultural background – when to me, it is so clearly a quiet acceptance of myself. And I take offense when my actions, everyday actions with no racial implications or ties, are localized on a scale of not-Asian-enough to Asian-as-expected. To me, my behaviour is a reflection of my beliefs and outlook, however they have been shaped – and not a choice I have made to discern between the different sides of my cultural heritage.

I do not consider myself solely a victim of the assignment of cultural labels to actions that do not merit them; I have just as often thought the same thoughts to myself, wondering if my persona is just a misguided attempt to assimilate, or truly a liberation of self. The language used in society to refer to individuals who live at the intersect of multiple cultures does not help. There is little more dejecting than having to consider whether you are a “twinkie” or “banana” – as though it’s not okay to have grown to identify with the community in which you were raised; as though it’s still so shocking when your appearance does not mesh with how you are expected to act. As though it’s a betrayal of a culture you have never identified with – a betrayal, judged by others, on the basis of ethnicity. There is little more dejecting, I think, than having to apologize for your choices, either through a self-conscious smile to your grandmother when she comments on your brashness, or through a reluctant silence to your friend when she asks why you don’t speak Chinese to all your Asian friends. There is little more dejecting than apologizing for who you are.