Who are you? What are you?
I get asked this all the time. I live in a city, Scotland’s Capital city. My English is excellent, because I grew up in Canada. Yet people still marvel at how I can enunciate my words “like a westerner”. I eat noodles a lot, but I also eat pasta and pierogies and bagels. I drink cider on hot sunny days and listen to country music, I have a weakness for gore and the odd procedural, and I’m pretty sure I don’t know how to put on my makeup properly. I lived in Canada almost my whole life, then I moved to Scotland for uni and fell in love with the place so hard I never managed to leave. My accent is such a mishmash hybrid, the typical “international school accent” that no one can quite pinpoint. I wouldn’t be offended if that was what was confusing; I know I sound Canadian sometimes, and Scottish sometimes, and even in the right light a little Irish. But that’s not why.
In shops I get “complimented” on how good my English is. Only it’s not a compliment, is it? It’s a look at my face and the assumption that someone like me must speak in pidgin, even though I learned how to speak the language when I was 3, I learned to read English books when I was 3, I went to an anglo school, and I have 2 degrees from Scottish universities. I am asked if I can play the violin, not because I have a violin, or have every expressed an interest in the violin. I must be good at maths. I can almost feel the disappointment in their eyes when they realised I can barely do long division in my head. I was told from primary school that I must be quiet and studious, demure and submissive.
I am none of those things.
I am good at art. I was great at fashion illustration even before I knew what those words meant. I was asked if I wanted to be the next Anna Sui or Vera Wang, not because the person asking respected their creative merit but because they just happen to be asian. If I question them, I’m labelled “mouthy” or “rude”.
If I go out with friends, at some point a stranger will always ask me where I’m from, and I’ll proudly tell them I am Canadian. I mean, what’s not to love about Canada? We have poutine, we have hockey, and our Prime Minister is totally awesome. We have gender parity in Cabinet. Same-sex marriage has been legal since 2005 whilst the UK lagged behind another 9 years and the US 10 years. Our national animal is the beaver. Canada is fabulous. IT IS A REAL PLACE, PEOPLE! So why is it almost guaranteed that the next question I am asked is always “but where are you really from?” Often followed by some speech about how they are sooo interested in Chinese/Japanese/Korean culture, how they once went to Beijing on holiday, or how they really love asian food. Or that they have this one Chinese friend…
News flash: this is not funny, or flattering, or cute. Respecting someone’s decision to identify with the country they have lived in almost their whole life shouldn’t be difficult. It’s an insult to my intelligence and autonomy. I was brought up in Canada. My parents and I left China before I was old enough to walk, and my only memories of the place are of hiding my gran’s specs behind the bed. So telling me how interesting you find my “people” is not a compliment.
In fact, it’s a little bit racist.