Being Chinese Canadian often means feeling torn between two cultures–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing

By Mary Chan

Every Chinese New Year, I realize to what extent my identity is in a state of flux.

Last year, I watched Toronto residents celebrate the New Year on TV, explaining to reporters the symbolism of the food eaten, the lion dance, and so on and so on. To my dismay, many of the facts were previously unknown to me.

It is disconcerting to learn about my heritage from newscasts on television, especially when reporters present the information as fascinating and exotic. While I realize that the coverage promotes tourism and creates business for Chinatown merchants, it also makes me feel like my Chinese background is on display like some new acquisition at a zoo. It also makes me ashamed that I did not already possess this knowledge.

How could I? My parents and I immigrated to Canada when I was almost one. As a result, I have spent roughly 23 years exposed to the English language, North American television and decidedly Anglo-American philosophies of life. Sometimes, though, I feel the need to reconnect with whatever small part of me remains Chinese. In this, I am not alone. Many of my Chinese Canadian friends feel a similar tension between our traditional upbringing at home and the overwhelming Western culture we are exposed to every day.

At least I do not feel the need to assimilate myself into Canadian culture and stereotypically order myself a crueller and a double-double at the nearest Tim Horton’s. For that I can thank multiculturalism, the ultimate symbol of Canadian tolerance. As we all learned in high school social studies, Canada, unlike the American melting pot, is a cultural mosaic where different cultures are celebrated rather than erased.

Yet even the cultural mosaic gives me pause. I’ve studied “minority” literature and have read critiques of multicultural policy by sociologists and theorists. They argue that multiculturalism reinforces “otherness” (that caged zoo feeling), the idea that while we are all Canadians, some of us are set apart as “special” Canadians. Additionally, the reinforced “otherness” is one endorsed by the federal government through agencies that fund community events like Chinese New Year celebrations. If an event proposal is deemed insufficiently “other,” it will not take place. Finally, multicultural policy denies previous racial discrimination that has occurred in this country, using a blanket of feel-good liberality to mask past wrongs.

While most people are familiar the internment of Japanese Canadians during WWII, the Chinese have been also discriminated against in this country. With the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railroad in 1885, the need for cheap Chinese migrant labour ended, and Canada began restricting the entry of Chinese migrants. A head tax was imposed on every new Chinese person who wanted to enter Canada, rising to $500 in 1903. The culmination of these efforts was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923. Racism pervaded these policies–in a speech to the House of Commons in 1885, Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald compared Chinese labourers to farm machinery that, once used, could be returned to where it came from.

Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely grateful for my life in Canada, for my education at a university and the life I currently lead. What I am not prepared to do, however, is ignore the past just because ours is a more enlightened time. Since I cannot forget, I also cannot completely accept the multicultural pipe dream. My feelings lie somewhere in between, fluctuating from day to day. I am neither/nor: neither Chinese nor Canadian, neither participant in a multicultural utopia nor unforgiving radical. This flux is what I have inherited as an immigrant to this country, and this flux is what I will celebrate this New Year.

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