“Where are you from?” Usually, people don’t believe that I’m Jamaican, on account of me not having an accent, not speaking patwa—and also not being Black. They don’t generally have a problem labeling me as Asian, even before they’ve met me. Usually, they ask, “Do you speak Chinese?” Now, A) There is no such language as Chinese. There are multiple dialects, but the main two are Cantonese and Mandarin; and B) I’m not really Chinese. Only a quarter or so of my ethnicity is, and I certainly don’t identify with that part. These strangers don’t do this out of malice or spite. In fact, it’s usually a sweet elderly couple prying into my personal life. They’re just a bit clueless in doing so. They see an Asiatic person and automatically assume their identity, which in most cases ends up being Chinese. However, at least they can put a name to my identity—I cannot.
I’ve always felt disconnected from my historical ethnicity and the associated identity. My elementary school was situated in a nicer part of a suburban neighbourhood, which, unfortunately in Canada, meant that there wasn’t much racial diversity. I actually made up half of the Asians in my grade, with the other being a girl—let’s call her Becky. Despite her Polish last name, Becky had more of a claim to her Oriental ethnicity than I did: adopted from China, she was an orphan brought by the onechild policy. On the other hand, I’ve lived in Canada all my life, and have never once visited my “homeland.”
This lack of a homeland causes me heartache. Despite my love for them, I am uncomfortable around both my maternal and paternal grandparents. We have a cultural divide between us that stops us from bonding as family should. I am unsure if my brothers feel the same way; perhaps it’s just me. All I can say is that is a wall divides me from many of my relatives, especially the ones who live further away. 80 This wall may be the actual distance between us or the lack of time that we spend together, but I can’t help but feel alone when my extended family visits.
Last summer, we hosted my mother’s side of the family. The house was filled with chatter, some English but more Vietnamese, more foreign language that I couldn’t and still can’t understand. It felt like I was in a hostel. At mealtimes I would resolve to smile, nodding painfully as these strangers struggled to find common ground with one another, often excusing myself early from sheer discomfort. The room was filled with noise rather than conversation. I felt bitter as my cousins would speak to me about experiences I could never understand. Simple, relatable events would be made complex by my lack of understanding. My relatives would include an unknown cultural touchstone to build onto the experience, and I would be unable to connect to them.
Similar things happened when I tried to introduce them to Canadian culture. On July 1st, we took the family to visit Columbia Lake for a Canada Day celebration. Every person there was wearing red and white, taking pride in their national colours. I dressed up as well, wearing the national colours as camouflage. I took on the mask of a proud, red and white blooded Canadian, hiding behind a friendly and fraudulent smile that said, “I belong here.” We saw the fireworks that day, but I was a tour guide to an exhibit I didn’t know.
Many of my close friends have it easier. They grew up in an environment where they took pride in their nationality, where they went to festivals and different cultural events. They post to social media, claiming to the world, “This is me. This is who I am and these are the characteristics under which I have built my identity.” Whenever I see those posts, a flash of that green-eyed monster flares within me.
I’m envious of them, their upbringing, and the unfairness of it all. I had no control over how I was raised or what I was taught, yet these two events result in a part of me feeling missing. Ultimately, I don’t blame my parents nor do I resent them for not immersing me in their culture. In a way, we have a lot in common with one another. My parents each lost their nations, either having moved away or being forced out of the country by war. Even though they are respectively Vietnamese and Jamaican, their connections are sullied by their own personal disconnect. For example, although my mother understands the culture and the language, it is only on the very rare occasion that I will hear her weaving the connection to her motherland. If they had taught me about their childhood homes, it would have been an imperfect education. Perhaps it would have even been a resentful one, reminding them of what they have lost and the crude facsimile that had been constructed in its place. Either way, they made their choices and I cannot fault them for that.
Overall, it is my onus to settle on how I relate to a culture. It’s not my parent’s burden, nor is it a stranger’s choice. I decide who I am and what characterizes me. However, at this point, I wouldn’t want to call anywhere my “homeland.” Despite labeling, I feel wrong accepting the designation of Asian. Not only does it not fit, but it doesn’t actually provide me with anything. In being labeled, it actually removes more than it would give. I wouldn’t be the same person if I simply accepted the “Asian,” “Jamaican,” “Canadian,” or even “mixed.” To accept one would be to reject all others. I’m a multifaceted human being with more than one identity and accepting these designations flattens me. Despite the loneliness and hurt, I refuse to have my nationality defined. I choose to be more than these labels.