Chinese, born in Canada

Learning our forebears’ language. | Photo by Harold Groven

Learning our forebears’ language. | Photo by Harold Groven

What’s it like to grow up a Chinese girl in Vancouver? Apart from a strong, bordering on irrational, affinity to all Hello Kitty memorabilia and constantly photographing every meal, I’m not entirely sure.

With a head of long black hair and distinct Asian facial features, it would be natural and understandable to assume I would feel comfortable in a restaurant full of people yelling over each other in Chinese. However, being the second generation daughter of parents whose first language is also English, more often than not, I don’t understand a word of Chinese.

Growing up, I’ve never felt quite Canadian nor Chinese enough. Today my background and looks often translate to a certain level of “exotic” status amongst my Caucasian peers, who find the the values, behavioural tendencies and, especially, food of my culture fascinating.

Being Chinese has more than once proved to be a convenient conversation starter, but it’s also come with much confusion and uncertainty.

There was that time in Grade 2 when my best friend Ally’s mom brought her a steaming thermos full of delicious chicken noodle soup, while I got stuck with some cold, questionable looking brown chunks of leftover barbecued pork. Needless to say, I was never first pick when it came to trading lunches with the other kids.

Kidding aside, growing up Chinese in Canada did raise many anxieties and questions. Most of the other Chinese children I grew up with were bilingual in English and Chinese, while I could only speak English.

My parents had only ever spoken to me in English, and as a result, I had come to dread what happened every single Friday afternoon at 3:30 p.m. sharp – Chinese school. Each week for three hours, I struggled to understand what the teachers and my fellow students were saying.

After seven years of Chinese lessons, the only thing I ever learned how to say was ‘bathroom.’ Apparently, going to Chinese school for just three hours a week does not a Chinese speaker make.

And then there was the fact that I could barely hold a conversation with my Chinese-only speaking grandparents. I would see them once a week, every week, for our usual Tuesday night family dinner, but I couldn’t even communicate with them. What kind of grandchild can’t tell their grandma and grandpa what happened at school that day? Or more importantly, what they wanted for Christmas?

With Chinese New Year coming up at the end of January, I can’t help but be reminded of these anxieties. But I’m also reminded of how lucky I am to live in a city as multicultural as Vancouver, a city that embraces and even celebrates different cultures.

While I might not be able to speak the language, the Chinese culture is not completely lost to me.

Each year, Vancouver celebrates Chinese New Year all across the Lower Mainland. In schools across the city, students learn about the various cultural traditions, cuisine, and festivities surrounding the holiday.

Chinese New Year parades and cultural fairs take place in Chinatown, and this year the Vancouver Lunar Fest is taking place Feb. 8 to 9, where the public can immerse themselves in Asian culture, food, arts, and performances – much of it for free.

It’s comforting to realize that while I might not speak Chinese or be as knowledgeable in Chinese customs as many of my peers, I’m still able to connect with my cultural roots in a city as diverse and accepting as Vancouver.