I am an immigrant. I am a Taiwanese immigrant. These statements are factually accurate, grammatically simple and sentimentally plain. In a city as ethnically diverse as Vancouver, these statements are also not out of the ordinary. Yet, I did not always feel comfortable asserting this part of my heritage, history and identity.
With a hindrance of hesitation and a dash of blunt honesty, I can also add another statement to the already existing ones of my self-identification: I am the poster child for cultural assimilation.
Ninety-five per cent of my day is spent communicating in English, 90 per cent of the music on my Ipod is in English, 96 per cent of the time I prefer Western food to Eastern dishes and a grand total of 100 per cent of my thoughts are in English. I have spent less than four months in Asia – less than one month in Taiwan – over the last 12 years. I do not know what it is that people traditionally do on Chinese New Year to celebrate nor do I understand the significance behind the Chinese Moon Festival. I can count on one hand the number of Chinese celebrities that I can name. If you were to call me by my Chinese birth name, I would not respond.
My fellow cultural-crossing friends have lively experiences of navigating hybridity. They have terrifying, but exciting stories to share of constructing a new life in a foreign country. They have trekked through long journeys of negotiating cultural differences in order to arrive at a balance. They have wonderful and heartwarming memories of their native country.
I have none of these. My cultural roots were planted in the West long before my family left the East.
I was born at a metropolitan hospital in Taiwan, surrounded by my Chinese family and granted a traditional Mandarin birth name consisting of three characters. I grew up in an ordinary, Mandarin-speaking, suburban household in Taipei. Upon turning six, I began attending the local Chinese school. As a result of having two working parents, I was sent to an after-school learning centre that taught primarily in English. I was already traveling between the Eastern and Western culture – between English and Mandarin – long before I left Taiwan.
As a kid navigating between the divisions of these two languages, I soon came to the realization that I am a miscalculation in the construction of the universe’s cultural formula.
I had an extraordinary difficult time learning Mandarin. The strokes of the Chinese characters felt unnatural, inorganic and strange. I even had trouble pronouncing some words – such as the word “bear,” which is pronounced as “xióng” – but always came out of my mouth as “óng.”
My failure to excel in Chinese would not have been so strange had it not been for my ability to pick up English. My tongue could smoothly vocalize the compounds of the English alphabet, my hands could confidently maneuver through the syntax of the English language and my sense of belonging became imbedded in the Western culture of British literature, Hollywood movies and Broadway music. The willingness to give up my ethnic sovereignty of a culture that I never felt a connection to allowed me to assimilate into the ways of Western life.
Yet, the ethnically diverse landscape of Vancouver constantly reminds me that I have a past that expands beyond the Western cultural frontier and the borders of Canada.
Vancouver is neither this nor that – it is always the in-between, the maybe, the perhaps, the not quite this but not quite that either – it is neither extremely cold nor devastatingly hot, neither a big city nor a small town. It is a combination of the historical and the modern, the new and the old and the East and the West. These fragile borders between culture, time and space provide liberation from the need to choose sides. This freeing quality of being able to live on the margins is a characteristic of Vancouver that I am just beginning to recognize.
With my foot situated on Vancouver soil and roots firmly planted in Western traditions, I now begin to yearn for a revival of Chinese culture in my identity. Living in Vancouver allows me the opportunity to recover these Chinese roots from a long drought – without limitations, sans expectations and in the absence of declaring allegiance.