Forging identities outside cultural norms

Recently, I was asked by a stranger where I was from. After stating what I thought was an obvious answer of “born here, in Vancouver,” I was met with a response I didn’t expect.

“Really? Your accent, no, your style seems different! Like you’re from the south, or maybe European…were your parents from here?”

Now, I don’t mind being taken for either of those. After all, I have a French name and can usually be seen wearing black, if that pegs me as European. What surprised me about this exchange was that the person doing the questioning was (according to my own snap judgement), not from Canada. As I reversed the interrogation, my suspicions were confirmed: home was Korea.

Walking away, I couldn’t help but laugh at the strangeness of it. To have a Korean insist I didn’t fit their perceived Canadian type. Me – a white, polite, third-generation Canadian.

So I got to thinking: what does a typical Canadian look, sound and act like? Since travelling through 12 countries and living in two, I’ve observed intense nationalism from our neighbours, and there seems to be no easy way to define Vancouverites as a people.

Growing up in Metro Vancouver, my cultural identity was formed and re-formed over time. I was the only white kid in a community of immigrants with English as their second language. Besides recognizing that I was the token blonde-haired kid in class, the fact that I was a minority in my home country was not something I was particularly aware of. I understood the obvious differences like language and appearance, and accepted them as part of life. What I didn’t understand until much later, was how I’d adopted many of the nuances held by these “other” cultures as a result of existing alongside them.

I’ll never forget one evening I spent sharing a meal with an Asian friend and her family at a Chinese restaurant. When the food arrived, I arranged my set of tiny bowls in order of use and picked up my chopsticks. With the eating underway, I made sure to reverse the orientation of my sticks to take the food with the “serving end” and reached across the table to grab a dumpling. My actions were met with stares and amused chatter around the table, which was later translated as, “I’ve never seen a white person use chopsticks so well!”

What started out as a normal day became one that marked a shift in the way I understood the culture around me, and my place in it. I was participating in customs that had become normal to me, with a group of people I had come to identify with. Despite this and my apparent, unprecedented chopstick etiquette, I was still perceived as part of an “other” group.

It wasn’t long after the chopstick incident that I experienced another fundamental realization about the uniqueness of Vancouver’s cultural landscape. As a child, my family spent summers in the interior of British Columbia in small suburban towns. Early on in these vacations, I remember being struck with a sense of uneasiness that I couldn’t explain. It wasn’t until we walked into the only shop in town with Asian characters adorning the awning that I realized what it was: a strange sort of culture shock from being in an all-white town. Nowhere to be seen were the foreign tongues, customs and Chinese food I’d become so familiar with. While one might think I should have felt more at home in an almost exclusively Caucasian town, the strongest resemblance I felt towards the community was my physical appearance.

Since then, I’ve become conscious of forging an identity outside of immediate expectations. Through travelling and much reflection, I’ve acknowledged that the diversity in Vancouver is what makes it unique. So while I may not have a great description of a typical Canadian and continue to be mistaken for a foreigner, I wouldn’t change a thing. The people you meet on a daily basis are imbued with a collection of traits unlike anywhere in the world. Perhaps this is what defines us: we are a city that embraces diversity to the point of encouraging the kind of curiosity to form new identities outside our cultural norms.