BY WENDY LI
2016. Guangxi, China.
I sat by a round table lit by yellow lights and nostalgic spirit. Goosebumps festered my arms as icy air-conditioning and unfamiliar stares preyed on my weak will.
“Your daughter is so beautiful, her skin is so white!”
I let out a chuckle and offered a humble smile, notioning my appreciation for the customary flattery. The middle-aged mothers exchange questioning glances, waiting for a reply, but the conversation ended there between me and the new face of another “auntie.” It was clear everyone at the table was unsettled at my lack of speech—the product of my neglect for my mother tongue. I spent the rest of the night entertaining my mother’s old university friends, laughing among other social cues, as they recalled nostalgic stories in language I could only half understand. I tried to forget the fact that I spent the past year on a whitening skin-care routine so I could look more like the girls on TV.
2011. Richmond Hill, Canada.
As my parents work diligently throughout the night, taking on overtime hours while overseeing my brother’s table tennis training, I sit alone on the brown leather family couch. I stare at the iCarly rerun on TV, in what would have been a pitch black room if it weren't for the bright glare emitting off the screen. I wondered if Haley also walked in her house with shoes on like the girls on TV. Haley was the only blonde white girl I was friends with, if sharing a class in kindergarten and having no memories of it counted as “being friends.”
I still don’t know if Caucasian people actually walk in houses with shoes on to this day. I still don’t have a Caucasian friend to ask if they do to this day. I still don’t know why there’s an appeal of blonde hair and blue eyes in American media to this day.
2017. Toronto, Canada.
I sat in my family’s car in silence as we drove towards home and away from my grandmother’s retirement home. I spent the whole day with her, but the only communication we had shared was body language and facial expressions. She was as sweet as always, but I wondered why I threw Chinese out of my life, knowing it was tied to me. Then it became clear as I recalled my childhood: I sacrificed practicing Chinese at home to allow my parents to practice speaking English at home. Part of my culture was always giving, and from a young age, I understood the difference between my Chinese and my parents English. One was to respect my heritage, and the other was a means for survival in a new country my family moved to for hopes of a better future. Said better future had no space for broken English. The faint twinkle of the idea that I was too lazy to embrace my culture haunts the aft of my mind.
2014. Washington D.C., United States.
“Shut up and go back to your country.”
A one-lined response and a swift dismissal of my mom’s valiant attempt to set a small record straight with a rude stranger. It was my first experience being a victim of racism. Just one casual reply that wasn’t even directed to me was enough to make my blood boil. I thought those remarks only existed in the media, where outdated jokes were utilized for bland comedy. It all ironically highlighted how privileged I’ve been to have my parents shield me from the scrutiny of being Chinese-Canadian. I never realized the protection that came with caging me into a community of like-minded parents until then.
2017. Richmond Hill, Canada.
I felt myself heat up as I stared at my student information transcript. I was embarrassed to see my new English name written in red pen beside the once empty “Preferred name” box. Thirteen years of my life, and only then I decided to give myself a new identity. I knew it would finally rid of awkward explanations and mispronunciations from teachers, but the guilt inside me told me that I was betraying the beautiful Chinese name my mother had given me.
My mother explained that my name was made of age-old characters with complicated strokes to what was defined simply into smart and patient. I never learned how to write my name, but I was always reminded of how pretty the two characters looked whenever my parents drew it out for me. I bitterly handed in the piece of paper that would bestow me a more fitting English name in Canada, throwing away my last personal connection to my ancestry.
2020. Whitchurch-Stouffville, Canada.
The sound of my nails tapping my phone screen at 3AM was the only sound of life in my slumbering household. Black and white headlines screamed “COVID-19” and “CHINA” and “HATE CRIMES” at my teary eyes. I broke down sobbing watching muted videos of elderly Asians being blatantly beat down by random strangers in the middle of the street. My heart ached for the students who were harassed and punched in subways for wearing masks. I eventually turned off my phone and stared at my ceiling as my head rested in the pool of tears I made in my pillow. Did I have the right to feel angry and frustrated when I’ve never had to experience this racism? Was I allowed to speak up on behalf of my Asian heritage when I lived a life rejecting it? Who even has the right to answer these questions for me?
For more than 16 years, I have lived with an unimaginable amount of privilege, where everyone around me shared the same colour of skin as me. I grew up fortunate enough to luxuriously indulge in Canadian and American media, resulting in my innate instinct to reject my ethnic culture and adhere to the social rules of being a part of Canada’s mosaic. Albeit, I didn’t completely obliterate Chinese tradition from my life. I take pride in the cuisine and the beautiful history behind the few cities I’ve travelled to. I’ve learned to love my monotonous dark brown hair and unusually heavy mono-lids. But I’ve still abandoned my mother tongue, among other traditions of qipaos and yolk-filled moon cake.
Whenever I connected with first generation Chinese immigrants or family friends in China, it was clear I was an outsider. I was unable to relate to the struggle of learning English, fast-tracking in math, or even the conversations about Chinese children’s animated shows. I grew up with Max & Ruby, not Pleasant Goat and Big Big Wolf.
Despite sharing almost identical childhoods, I would always be the stranger in a room of non-Asians. To the rest of the world, my yellow-olive undertone and familiarity with soy sauce was enough to alienate me from any other cliques. Some life I lived—I was given the worst of both worlds of being a Chinese-Canadian, and Hannah Montana would have never been less proud of me.
One half of my identity was blocked by gatekeepers who deemed my personal involvement not enough to tap into my Chinese side. The Canadian side of my identity was overlooked against the prejudice of having yellow skin and small eyes. I spent all of my life hating myself for not being able to fit into the mould of either side of my culture. The irony was that if my personality was not enough for one, my appearance was rejected by the other.
Many would argue that the very fact that I have two options, two different social templates offered to me, already makes me luckier than the average person. However, it was that very fact that left me empty and lost my entire life about who I am. At the end of the day, I should have never let a preconceived societal mould define who I am. No one should ever force themselves to look or act a certain way because of the race they are born with. Everyone should reject the social expectations that have left them rejected at any given time during their life.
My name is Jing Han Li, though most call me by my anglicized name, Wendy. I am a seventeen year old student who excels more so in liberal arts than mathematics. I was born and raised in Canada, but I grew up wearing slippers at home and eating rice every day. I live a lifestyle that most would deem “white-washed,” but I adore my Chinese heritage and respect its traditions. These experiences are what have built my outgoing personality and character, but none of them define who I am or what I stand for. I am my own individual with a one-of-a-kind identity, and I, or anyone, need to be subjected to any prejudice from anyone.
Everyone preaches discrimination from groups against other groups, but the inequity among insiders of the same faction has been turned a blind eye to for far too long. My culture should not have been rejected by myself when I was younger, and I take responsibility and accountability for it. But my culture should not be rejecting me for trying to identify with it again. Our culture is shared, built by unique individuals, lived through unique individuals, and will continue through unique individuals.