Archive for the ‘Cultural Encounters’ Category

This is the second part of my thinking.  Is it related to the first? Do I completely contradict myself?  Probably. If my experience with my parents tells me anything, that’s what happens when you get old. 

A few things have happened in the last few weeks which have made me thinking about the ways in which we communicate with each other.

The first involved meeting K’s parents last month, where we shared no languages in common. They were very nice, but we will never really know what the other is thinking unless Google Glass invents a subtitle function. It was so different because as an English speaker, I am so accustomed to people accommodating my language requirements that I am not often presented with cases where this can’t happen. It does become taken for granted. On a side note, I think this subtitles thing could be a wicked function, Google.

The second was at work. One of the partners at my firm looks kind of like my mom, and I think if my mom had more money growing up or was born ten years later, she may have ended up with the same kind of life – Beijing University, Oxford educated, the works. We were in the kitchen during free fruit Wednesday and she was talking about the challenges of trying to get her daughter to speak Mandarin in a house were she is the only speaker (her husband is English I think), and despite her best efforts, it was difficult to teach a language to a child when she doesn’t have the opportunity to constantly hear it being used in context. I pointed out, that even as that child, in a household with two native Mandarin speakers, I’d lost a lot of my potential ability to speak in that language the second I went to an English speaking school.

The main value of language, and why it is so hard to create a desire to save small ones, is that the value doesn’t come from knowing it, but from the sharing of it between two people who are already at a minimum level of fluency. For example, me and K:

language venn diagram 1

And only those located at intersections are maintained.  It becomes a critical mass effect where over the course of many years (and especially with the internet), it’s not that the common piece of the intersection is shrinking in terms of language options, it is just that more and more people are adding their own language circles to the mix, which is reducing the number of languages that can be considered universally shared.

language venn diagram 2

When a two parent family where each parent is from different language cultures then decides to raise children, the effect is probably amplified since communication happens at the intersection (as in the case with the partner at work). The next generation then has an over-exposure to the intersection of the diagram and not enough at the edges. Not to say it is impossible, but since fluency is something that requires a lot of constant exposure, it would most likely come from the language that parents are most frequently using for communication themselves. Maybe fluency at the fringe languages  requires a Herculean effort to expose children to mother tongues.

When I was a kid I never understood why my parents used to make me go back to China for the summers. Besides being a relief from babysitting, it was a great opportunity for them to expose me to the language that I came from, without having to battle the constant influx of English language influences that I would face at Canadian summer camp. I used to hate it, but now I am grateful for their concerted effort not to give up on me. At several points in my childhood they also cancelled cable and started exclusively streaming Chinese shows off the internet, which also used to annoy me because it wasn’t MTV.  I’ve lost a lot of the ability to speak now, but sometimes, I listen to a show or something in Mandarin and it feels like being in the house again. I wonder if I will be strong enough to have the same kind of commitment to teaching anyone else Mandarin that my parents had with me, especially if I’m alone in that regard.

I’m not sure what the future will hold, but maybe it will look something like my dinner table last night. There was sweet potato noodles (japchae, I know, it is Korean, but I love it), sitting next to a baguette and about six different types of cured Spanish sausages. None of it was consistent, but we will each bring what we like to the table, meeting at the intersection, and figure out our lives as we go.


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Darwin was a man who stirred up a lot of shit.

His ideas were not that crazy; after visiting the Galapagos Islands Darwin observed that finches had different beak features on each of the the tiny island pockets.  He concluded that they must have come from some larger population of finches that migrated to the islands, but as time passed, groups of finches would learn to eat the specific foods on each island from small insects, to large rock-like nuts, and thus grew to be more and more different from their neighbours.

The process that I outlined (very unscientifically and in very general terms, of course) is called speciation, and is the idea that time, distance, and some geographical factors can lead to the creation of sub-populations, and that over time, with isolation, these groups will eventually branch off completely and become unique species within their own right.  The test?  If chance and geographic factors are removed, and the groups are somehow merged together onto the same island, they are prevented from mingling together and producing offspring that are not infertile.  Mules are a good example of that time that donkeys and horses were not the same species.




Cultural Speciation

Cultures can speciate too.  I’ve become acutely aware of how race is categorized in the recent US Presidential elections, with Asians kind of being lumped together as a voting bloc (we only make up 3% collectively, so maybe this is to our advantage influence-wise).  But I think in our need to represent ourselves in solidarity we are forgetting that there is a cultural speciation that is happening all over North America.  Asian-Canadians are an entirely different culture from both Canadians and Asians and sometimes this is leading to a bit of tension.

A few days ago there was this article in a Vancouver e-paper about the shark fin soup ban.  I’ve included the link but the restaurant owner says the following:

“His culture is totally Canadian, and he has no feeling for shark fin,” Chung reiterated to the Straight. “Canadian-born Chinese are based on Canadian culture….They’re called bananas for a good reason. There’s nothing wrong with that; it’s not to be degrading. It just describes it well.”

From the rest of the article I can tell you that Chung does imply that there’s something wrong with being a banana. And who can forget  the CVC incident a few years ago when an Asian student society with a stronger “Canadian” cultural component found itself in the middle of hot water over some promotional campaign videos that mocked more “Asian” culturally dominated (wow, awkward wording) groups.

The reason for the tension is a level of cultural speciation.  I feel like while there is a continuum, a large clump of younger Asian Canadians immigrated to North America at least one generation ago and settled in areas where there was little cultural critical mass (*ahem*, Saskatchewan).  We grew up with friends who were not Asian, in classrooms that had little exposure to Asians before, and were generally treated like we were not Asian.  We were the “first movers.”  In the last fifteen years, there’s been an influx of Asian communities, places where Asians could read street signs their own languages, buy their own food, and generally forget that they were in Canada.  We aren’t separated by a geographical barrier, but we are separated by a temporal one that resulted in our being exposed to essentially two different cultural environments.

The result is two cultures that look the same but don’t really have much in common.  The worst part is that we aren’t recognized as two different groups by outsiders and are often lumped into the same category.


Where did the love go?

I’ve felt like there is a growing animosity between the two groups in general.  When I was younger I used to be embarrassed to be Chinese in thanks to a lot of externally inflicted self-internalized racism from grade 7 summer camp.  But the most animosity that I felt was not towards other groups, but towards other Asians. I used to take every “embarrassing” thing that a “more Asian” stranger did as a personal attack on my (self-evaluated) level of coolness.  My mother tells me that a lot of my “more Asian” peers tend to resent me and young people like myself for “choosing” to speak English, hang out with groups that are less homogenous and generally looking down upon newer immigrants.  We are kind of like the equivalent of “cultural traitors” and if the article is any indication, this is a thinly veiled sentiment across the board.  I don’t know how this happened, but we were raised in two different times and came out of the process hating each other.  The whole shark fin soup ban is kind of like a litmus test in terms of indicating which side of the “Asian spectrum” one will fall on.

How do we fix this?  We accept reality.  We do this by dropping our obstinant adherence to the belief that we have the same cultural obligations.   I think we need to recognize that the worlds that we faced when we grew up were not the same, we were not given identical cultural choices.  Our speciation took place not in spite of or due to our efforts, but just because of the circumstances surrounding the racial make-up of Canada at each point in time.

We need to accept that the speciation happened regardless of choice because we need it to blamelessly understand that culturally, Asians have diverged, and that because it was a circumstance and not a deliberate choice, “FOB’s” are not at fault for refusing to integrate into a “whiter” cultural norm.  On the other side, “Banana’s” are not at fault for “betraying their culture.”  Our peers were dealt evolutionary cards that we may or may not understand.


In spite of this, Mr. Chang is wrong about shark extinction.

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I’ve been in and out of hospitals and doctor’s offices recently with a string of bad luck with some sports injuries and a UTI.  Last time I went in, the nurse was taking my blood pressure and noticed a purple spot from jiu jitsu on my arm, and pointed accusingly at it, “What’s this???”  I’m sure the truth is a lot more insidious looking and less funny than it actually is.

Anyways, on to the story that I was forwarded from the AAM.

Asian Women Pay the Price for Lurid Rumors about actress Zhang Ziyi. 

The comments on the post are (somewhat expectedly) mind-numbingly stupid.  Many assume that the rumor is true and accuse the writer of labelling other women prostitutes (exactly the opposite of the point he’s trying to make), a few attest to how docile and obedient Asians are as wives, which is kind of the thinking that will allows people to justify domestic violence (because who are they going to tell?).

The comments on Angry Asian Man aren’t that much better, one listing other Asian women who have been accused of the same thing (because I guess then it must be true?) and one that says she deserves it and one that claims Asian women are known for nothing but the way they look.  It’s pretty depressing to know that so many different demographics on the internet view you in such a derogatory way for so many different reasons, and Jeff is pretty much the only one who has a balanced, insightful view (and yet he’s being vilified).

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River of Assimilation

A couple of weeks ago, Tetsuro read me part of a paper that he was going to submit for a class.  The paper was supposed to be on Youtube, but basically kind of took a bit of a detour into some of the inner workings of his mind and ended up sounding like a bitter, vitriolic rant against certain types of interracial unions that are quite common today.  While I tried to steer him back towards the original point of the paper (namely, Youtube, and that’s it) there was a section that I found particularly poignant.  In the revision, this section was lost, but I think it is important enough to be published publicly and shared with people for the greater good.

Despite the promises of Multiculturism, the fate of cultural minorities within Canada is to have our jaggedly multisyllabic ethnic identities worn smooth in the river of assimilation.

My mother’s name is Yoshiko Shigematsu, an unmistakably, unadulterated Japanese name. Her daughter’s name (my twin sister) is Hana Shigematsu, (that user-friendly familiar combination of a Western first name combined with the ethnic surname, such as Steve Chong or Jennifer Sahota), who upon marrying her French-Canadian husband, became Hana Levesque, whose daughter’s name is now Juliana Levesque. In just two generations, any legal signifiers of her Japanese heritage as now been effaced, effecitively removed from the public record. When my niece, Juliana Levesque (who is half-Japanese) introduces herself over the phone, people will assume she is white, and in a way that assumption is accurate. 

– Tetsuro Shigematsu, PhD Candidate, UBC Faculty of Education 

My Name Is . . .

And that had me thinking about the way we choose to name our children, particularly people of colour and immigrants.  My own name was Mengyao for the first few years of my life, a combination of “dream” and “distance” in Mandarin that was an homage to my father’s living in Canada at the time of my birth, scouting out a new country for my mother to eventually call home too.  Then before the age of four or five my parents decided to name me Rebecca because my white daycare workers could not pronounce “Yaoyao” in a way that I could understand.  Rebecca because my father read a Daphne Du Maurier novel by the same name in which the protagonist is haunted by the dead former wife of the man she marries (that dead woman is Rebecca, thanks Dad).   For years I wouldn’t touch my first name legally, and after a particularly stressful incident booking tickets to Costa Rica in 2008 under passport and legal names (which were different at the time) the decision was made to move to Rebecca as my first name.   Sometimes, I still ponder the greater ramifications of what I have done in the name of a bit of convenience (no pun intended).


Mengyao has more weight for me than Rebecca, but I made a choice.  In economics, we have a theory called signalling.  Signalling is all about how in situations involving two parties, party A might know more about himself than he can communicate to party B, but needs to find a way to convey this information.   In these cases, party A will jump through certain hoops.  Signalling is an important theory in used car sales (is the car a lemon or not) and in hiring individuals (is the individual’s resume accurate or not).  An example of this is when people get university degrees *points at self*.  The idea is that even though the likelihood of using the information from my degree is low, my degree itself is a signal to other strangers that I am indeed, smart.  If I didn’t have this degree, you wouldn’t know it.

And so in North America I think that people of color generally do use signalling with our first names as a way of letting those around us know how comfortable they should be with us.  If your last name is of Asian descent, then your first name can be a traditional white name (signalling that you have assimilated reasonably into the culture, thereby your more anglicized counterparts should feel comfortable inviting you to picnics, sharing office gossip or letting you be their “cool Asian friend”) or your first name can be Asian (which signals that you are still more loyal to your traditional Asian roots, and therefore your peers, culture and comfort levels should be more centred around Asian-y stuff).  When I was looking at the graduation lists a few years ago, I noticed that some Asian students would have their English name first legally, followed by an Asian middle name, or an Asian name first legally, followed by an infrequently used English name.  Implicitly, I make micro-assumptions based on which one comes first, as I’m sure most people will.

The Benefits of Having an English Name

If you have read Freakonomics, it will have you believe that with a name that sounds “ethnic”, you are significantly less likely to be called back for an interview, given the job, or basically to succeed in life.  I can see some truth to this.  I was once told that the hiring process for residence advising did happen to weed out girls with Asian first names; whether or not this was done intentionally, these girls never seemed to make the cut.

In a more depressing way, having an English name in North America determines how much society is supposed to show concern for you.  I’ll give you an example.  In the 2010 Gaza flotilla raid, an American citizen, Furkan Dogan, was killed by Israeli forces with five gunshots at close range.  In 2003, an American citizen, Rachel Corrie, was killed by an Israeli military bulldozer during a human shield protest.  In terms of the publicity covering their deaths at the hands of the Israeli military, and American diplomatic involvement in each of these cases, AND in even the length of their wikipedia articles (you can find them here and here), you can see a stark contrast between the two.  I do suspect that a lot of it has to do with the “level of ethnic-ness” in their names, in the sense that something that isn’t English sounding isn’t considered American, and therefore is not of much concern.

Tetsuro once pointed out that even in the Olympics, the American coverage of Asian American athletes winning medals would sometimes diminish the magnitude of their achievements when these athletes had Asian sounding last names.  When I reflect back on this, I think Canada has much of the same problem; I didn’t know that Carol Huynh was the first gold medal winner for Canada at the Beijing Olympics until I read about her in a proposal to the National Film Board; considering we didn’t  have that many gold medalists that year, you’d think she would be profiled much more highly.

The Choice

And so this post boils down to the choice.  When you are a person of colour and your options are such that the road can be generally divided into two: choosing a name (for yourself or your children) that is Anglo-sounding and will result in better assimilation, or a name that pays homage to your cultural roots, then what is it that you do?  I know my parents eventually  bowed to pressure, and to this day they don’t regret renaming me Rebecca because they wanted me to have the best chances I could.  In other ways though, being Rebecca roughly coincided with when I stopped being Mengyao (when preschool started and I spent more and more time away from home).  The passage in the beginning of this post also makes me sad to think that entire generations of second, third generation children of immigrants, biracial children, etc, are being denied entire sections of their cultural identity.

Ultimately, I don’t have any easy answers for this.  All I can conclude is that we let our identities dictate the name that we choose for ourselves into adulthood, rather than letting our names dictate our identities.  And since none of us are so single-faceted, it’s our job to vocally advocate for the side of ourselves that isn’t represented in our first names.  It’s up to me to be self-aware of what makes me Chinese and to hold onto those things, even if I don’t sign Mengyao on all my credit card slips.

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If you have been asleep for the last few months, you will have missed an online meme called Sh*t ______ say.  It started out in kind of awful fashion, with a man that dressed himself up in a long brunette wig, basically poking fun at all of the stereotypical things that women say in what was titled Sh*t girls say.

Some of it was funny, most of it was about how girls suck at using computers, talk like airheads, have psychotic body insecurities, and ask for help all the time.  Basically it was kind of a silly, trivial collage.  Then a second video came out entitled Sh*t Black Girls Say.  I think you know where this is heading.  Towards disaster? Wrong!

When it could have become a really terrible online mudslinging war, this miraculous thing happened.  A meme that was started out of what comes across as male complaints about female trivialities became only *sliiiiightly* racist before it took a huge 180 and ended up being retooled, becoming an empowerment tool for gay men, and women of color.  It became not about stereotypes, but more about highlighting all the unconsciously microaggressive things that people in a position of power or dominance say to people who are oppressed.

(sidenote: WordPress is telling me that microaggressive is not a word, well FUCK YOU WordPress.)

Many of my favourite versions of the meme are about what women (but I guess this could be true of men too) say to Black women, Asian women, Middle Eastern women and Indian women.  Another one is about how women treat their gay male friends.  A lot of them are funny for those who have “been there” and highlight the sorts of things we hear which are hurtful, or insensitive, in a manner which is slightly less than accusatory and slightly more than light-hearted.  I think it is a really good medium for all of us to learn what is NOT an appropriate thing to do or say around our friends of colour the next time we hang out (ie, don’t stick a craisin on your forehead and call it a bindi expecting your Indian friend to laugh).

My personal favourite one is the version entitled “Sh*t white guys say to Asian girls” which is just chock full of the kinds of things that I have actually heard, directed, AT ME, in an attempt to get into my pants, or whatever.  You will NOT believe the number of times white guys expect one to be impressed by their misspelled Chinese tattoos.  It was kind of cathartic (but also conversely tragic) to know that other women were experiencing the same kinds of frustrating encounters, verbatim, all over North America.  Beyond being cathartic, it is a good learning experience, if people are willing to listen to what pains, irritates, or confuses others, about our perceptions of them.

This is probably the first time that I’ve seen a trivial internet meme become something of a progressive voice for underrepresented groups to voice their frustrations in a manner that’s somewhere between light and serious.  Rickrolling for sure did not have the same effect.

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In the last 72 hours, I:

a) found a fifty dollar bill in the middle of the street.  Waited at the corner for someone to at least feign looking for their lost money, and after ten minutes, went home.  I will be able to afford the good kind of cheese for at least a month, thanks anonymous!

b) followed Chris Higgins 3 blocks before being able to muster up the courage to deliver a terrible line, only to find him nice enough to oblige me a (blurry) picture

Kiss Huggins. I hope he survives the trade deadline.

c) dressed up as a perverse interpretation of Hello Kitty, and broke my friend’s riding crop in the process.

Life is good, and my laziness only translates into compliance.  Hence my absence.  I always have a reason.

One thing that I’ve been thinking a lot about is an idea I got from one of these RSAnimate lectures.  It should be embedded below.

I’m really intrigued by the last concept, the one about individual and mutual knowledge, starting at about the 7:00 mark.

In the last month, I’ve had a friend who was trying to shake off the very persistent company of another friend of hers.  In fact, she indirectly denied her an invitation to a social event by suggesting that there was some barrier that this unwelcome friend could not overcome, a “previous obligation”.  However, being from a culture where this kind of an excuse is seen as a polite and veiled expression basically communicating “I do not want you at this event,” this friend of hers, coming from a different culture, took it upon herself to remove said barrier and happily invite herself to this event after a bit of appointment shifting.  Problem solved?  Apparently not.

Mutual and individual knowledge is a neat observation and explains a lot of the way that we function within Canadian society, but I guess there are caveats about applying it universally.  Every region has its own sensitivity to what is and what isn’t innuendo.  For the Chinese, the word jing is used as the word “bright” in English, but it also has a secondary meaning as “someone who can read social innuendo well.”   It is a high compliment to call a child “bright” but it also builds a culture of heightened sensitivity to what others are implying, but never saying.  In North America, there’s more of an emphasis on “confronting your problems head-on” or “striving for verbal resolution.”  As you can imagine, Asian cultures expect the listener to be able to extract a lot more innuendo out of a conversation than those from North America.

Because I grew up with one foot in both cultures, I saw no innuendo in North American communication and felt that conversations were always more upfront, and more blunt.  This confused me as a child, and I was always getting in trouble for being a bad kid, and for being rude at Chinese dinner parties, basically because I talked too much and didn’t listen enough.  Eventually, I swore off trying to be jing all together and decided that I just focus on being the bluntest person I could be.

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One of the common themes that keeps appearing in my life is my changing understanding of what I look like.  Today, work has contributed to that greatly.  I’m trying to do some research for a project called “Hue” which will explore how different cultures around the world attribute positive qualities to lighter skin and negative qualities to darker skin tone.  In the process I’ve been watching  heaps of NFB films that have centred around race and beauty for women.  Below are a few of them.

Western Eyes

Screen Test

The Colour of Beauty

Western Eyes made me cry, which is quite an accomplishment!  It just hit really close to home; when I was a child, I had a really peculiar face; my left eyelid had a natural “double lid” – a small, insignificant extra fold of skin that Asians gush over.  My right eyelid had a “single lid” and from what I learned, was more typical.  My mother would look at my face and would remind me that when I got older, I could always get the right one “fixed”.

When I moved to California, I was starting middle school: an age ripe with self-loathing and insecurities.  It did not help that California is home to some of the most beautiful and the most superficial people in the world.  My peers discovered hair dye, mascara and lip gloss, well ahead of my Canadian peers.  I was still wearing clothes my mother picked out for me at Wal-mart.   My neighbourhood was about 92% white (or at least it felt that way).  I was never a “cute” kid, but those three years made me feel incredibly ugly at an age when I desperately wanted my self-worth to come from my looks.  Part of my self-loathing was attributed to my Asian-ness.  Over the summer, I’d be shipped off to China to live with my aunt and my same-age cousin, where my extended family would gush over my looks and tell me how beautiful I was compared to the rest of my cousins, and a part of me would start to believe it.  I’d return to California to find out that my sparkly affirmation had returned to it’s original, pumpkin state.  This only served to further confirm what I had initially feared: I was only cute to Asian people, and frankly, the only opinion that mattered was that of white people.

Through high school and beyond, a few things happened simultaneously; Lucy Liu’s impact on the television show Ally McBeal slowly made Asian women more attractive in the eyes of western society (aka yellow fever passed its incubation period and became a full out epidemic), and I discovered ways to paint my face and present myself to make me more western.  Never underestimate the power of eyeliner.  I had over a decade to learn to build my identity around something other than my looks.  I felt good about who I was for the first time in a decade.

And all of the sudden, the tables were turned.  And it felt good.  But it’s a bit like simultaneously being a victim, an observer, and an accomplish in some kind of huge practical joke.

It’s amazing that the same women of colour who were rejected by western society a few decades ago will lap up this kind of newfound attention, like the girl who eagerly awaits an invite to sit with the popular girls at lunch when just last week they were trashing her locker.  It’s amazing how quickly we leave behind our peers who used to join us in their disappointments.  I’m of course, talking about the dudes.  That’s just another can of worms.

I think years of seeing Asian women be the only other ethnic group perceived as beautiful by Western society, I’ve come to realize that the popular girls didn’t invite us to their lunch table because they thought we were cool.  It was more of a novelty or curiosity factor than anything else.  One of the films points out that “The Bachelor [ a television show where eligible bachelors audition women to be their wives] usually has one or two Asian and Black girls, but they never make it past the second rose.”  In terms of beauty, maybe opinions have changed, but that will only get you to a short term union.  In terms of relationship material, maybe we still can’t be taken seriously.  I ask myself this all the time.

If you were in my shoes, would it be better to be labelled unattractive?  Or would you rather be an attractive but only sufficiently so to be a passing novelty?  In Western Eyes, you really get a sense that the reason Shannon goes through with double lid surgery is borne out of a deeply rooted insecurity because of a lifetime of bullying.  It breaks my heart because I know that no matter what she does with her eyelids, it won’t be enough to make her look “white,” which won’t change things for her.  Had I been born two decades earlier, would I go through that same kind of agony?

I complain about the latter option, but I don’t know if I would be strong enough to grow up in a world of only the former.  Its easy to condemn the way something is when you are simultaneously exploiting the shit out of it.

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