It was the year that Donald Trump was elected. The fact that he was even running at that point was mind boggling to me, but I think it was also because of him running that the topic of race became very prevalent. Everyone was talking about race, it was in the news, on the blogs, on Instagram, and everyone was talking about it. It peaked my interest, of course, because that topic has always resonated for me, and I just became even more interested because it brought up a lot of observations for me about how ignorant I’ve been in my own awareness of race in Canada. So, this is the year Trump is being elected, I’m watching CNN and there was an Asian-American panel speaking, and one of the panelists was arguing a point and then she said, “well, as a woman of colour,” and I had to stop that recording and reflect because I saw her and was like, “wait, I look like you; you look like me; you’re a woman of colour, which means I am too. What!” My entire life I have not identified myself as a person of colour, or have ever considered myself a person of colour. Learning that term was a huge education, that continues. Not just education, but also reflection on my own history. Sadly, it made some of the experiences I have had and continue to have make sense. So, the term has helped me find community, but it also breaks my heart every day.
It was the little things that add up, which I then learned are called micro-aggressions, so it would be things like noticing how someone would treat me if I walked into a store, or the lack of acknowledgement of my presence in a store or at an event, or even walking down the street, or just walking through any area where I was being seen. Things like that started to make sense. It is something that I have become so acutely aware of in those interactions where I am speaking to someone who doesn’t know me, maybe it is a salesperson, or maybe it’s a cashier, just somebody in passing in your day-to-day life, and I notice that even before I said anything, their body language is already tense or uncomfortable, and then minute I start speaking they are like, “Oh, thank goodness.” You can see the relief come to them, “Oh my God, you speak English, thank God, I can have a conversation now, you’re not some Asian tourist.” Or whatever bias they have. These are things that I am now so acutely aware of, and it has trained me since I was a kid to notice. It wasn’t until maybe two years ago that I started to put into practice not being the first one to say something, and be like, “why I am trying so hard to make you comfortable?” and really observing that. Through those observations, it is also interesting to hear white friends or family, when I share these observations, their responses are, “ well, maybe they were just having a bad day, you can’t just say someone is racist, maybe they are just not nice people.” Fair, sure. But, this is my experience, and this is an experience I have known since I was a kid. And these are the things I am so acutely aware of.
Growing up, we lived in pretty multicultural neighborhoods. When I was in preschool, and kindergarten, we lived in a South Burnaby area, and then in East Vancouver. I would say, in those years, I would never think, “Oh, I am the only Asian kid,” or who is white and who is not. It was very multicultural. Then, in grade one, my parents decided to move my brother and I to Surrey, and at that time, Surrey was really, really white, and two weeks into school, my dad was asking me how it was going, was I making friends, did I enjoy it, you know, how was school. And I told him, “oh it is super easy, and I am doing really well, and I am finishing everything before all of the other kids.” He, I guess, was thinking, “Oh my gosh, my kid’s a genius, she must need to skip a grade, she must be super smart.” And so, he makes an appointment with the principal, and goes and talks to the principal about this, and the principal, I’m assuming pulls out a file, and is looking at this file, and says to my dad, “Your daughter is in ESL.” ESL stands for English as a second language. My dad got really mad, and said, “Have you spoken to her? She was born in Canada. English is her first language.” That afternoon, I got pulled out of ESL. That was my grade one, and so for the first two weeks of grade one none of the kids knew me because I was in ESL, and I do remember that week, being back in the regular classroom, and the other kids noticing me. We had just come out of gym, and we were all lined up for the water fountain, and I remember so clearly leaning over the fountain, this little white boy with freckles said, “DO YOU SPEAK ENGLISH?” He was yelling into my face. And I stood up, and I remember getting really hot in the face, and I turned and said, “Yes, do you speak English?” And I walked away, and I think that is definitely my earliest memory of understanding that I was an “other.”
I feel like I had a pretty multicultural set of friends, in high school, and outside of school. But, we never talked about race, and the few times that it came up, it would be super awkward silences, or quick transitions out of the topic into something else. So, I learned not to say anything, and just not bring it up. But, it was through Anita, and she and Rachel started WOC talks, oh my gosh. I remember them inviting me to the first one, and I was too nervous to go for some reason. I thought, “who am I to be at this thing, I just figured out I was a woman of colour. I don’t deserve to be there.” So, I didn’t go to the first one, and they invited me to the second one, which was a Thanksgiving themed one, where we were asked to bring a favourite dish from our heritage, and I got so excited about that because I wanted to bring egg tarts, which is something my grandparents would always buy for dessert whenever we had family dinners, and I really wanted to share that. So, I went to that one, and I was immediately hooked. I have never felt so comfortable, and so protected, and safe. Walking into that room with so many different women who were just all of these beautiful, different shades, and hair textures, and body types, and as soon as we started talking, I had this immediate sense of, “I can say anything,” which is so rare for me to feel and know, in any sort of public space. Even when I have gone to events that are marketed as self-help, or women’s group, I have never felt comfortable to be the one to raise my hand and say something, or want to be a part of the discussion. So, it was the first time really, with WOC talks, that I felt comfortable to just speak my mind and not be so guarded, and every time I went to those events, they just got bigger and bigger and bigger. The last one they held, there was something like eighty of us in a room. And this is an organization that has been around for less than a year, with less than six events. It was incredible. It was really, really cool.
Another thing, on being able to have these conversations, the biggest piece that I would say that I find comforting is the acknowledgement. I find it so maddening when I share these observations and stories with my white friends, I become more guarded and just don’t share these things with them. When I did, it was met with shock, with defensiveness, with an “oh, that’s can’t be what you think it is.” It is so maddening.
Growing up, I really didn’t like the way I looked, especially in photos. I’m sure it happened for lots of people, when you’re a teenager, you’re awkward and all of that, but I felt even more awkward when none of the magazines that I read had any faces that looked like mine; everyone was blonde, everyone had blue eyes. I’m pretty sure that had an effect on me, and what I perceived as beautiful. So, for a really long time I really didn’t like getting my pictures taken. My mom, to this day, is still really upset that I destroyed photos of myself in high school. It probably wasn’t until I was 27, 28, closer to 30, that I started to become more comfortable with my face, and Instagram definitely had a play in that. Instagram opened up my eyes to so many different faces and so many different body types, and hair types, and so many different stories. Seeing those faces really helped me accept my own, and also, this dental experience I had. I got Invisalign when I was 30, and my orthodontist said something while we were doing the consultation. He said, “so, this Invisalign, not only will it straighten your teeth, but if you want, we can also do something to adjust the shape of your jaw.” I said, “I’ve never thought of that before.” He quickly followed that up with, “But I don’t think you should because your jawline is a reflection of your heritage.” It gave me so much pause, and I thought about that for almost 2 days. He is absolutely right, my jawline is so reflective of my dad, and my grandma, and my grandpa. I used to be really sensitive about that; I felt that my jaw was not feminine looking enough or Westernized, probably, enough, not as a typical magazine cover girl would look. But, after he pointed out that observation, I started looking at photos of more Chinese people, and it is a reflection of my heritage, and I am proud of that. It is still a practice in accepting my face, and being proud of it, and loving my face. I definitely cannot say that growing up I loved my face, but now, it’s a pretty good face, it has served me well.
I would want people to ask more questions of themselves. Anytime you find yourself liking Chinese food, or sushi, or even pancakes, dig a little deeper. Why do you like this, where did it come from, who makes this food? How are those people who make this food treated in the country that I am from? I think there is so much to learn from everyday things that just happen in front of our eyes, and a good example I can share is: a few days ago I was in a chat group with my girlfriends, and I had just learned about bananas, this deep colonial history of bananas and the continued colonial practices of bananas, and I shared that with the group, and suddenly it opened up this dialogue around colonialism which I hadn’t anticipated. It turns out these ladies were also reading about colonialism, and one was very much reflecting on her family’s South African roots, she is white, and how messed up that part is, and another friend was talking about the colonial practices of fishing. I loved that. I loved knowing that these friends of mine were thinking deeper, and asking deeper questions and just being more reflective. I feel like it has been really easy for us to just take, and we are paying the price of that. So, my thing that I would like to leave with people is, just ask why, and keep asking why. When you hear someone say something that doesn’t feel right, ask why. Why do I feel that way, why do they think they can say that? Just ask. It can cause some really much needed conversation. Keep asking questions, and when someone just says, “that is what it is,” don’t believe them.