“Dad, why do you look different from us?” my son asked, over dinner.
“Whaddya mean?” I replied, glancing at some stir-fried bok choy.
“You’re darker than us,” he said, comparing my skin tone to his and his brother’s. “Why is that?”
“Um,” I stuttered, “the ingredients that A-Kong and A-Ma made me with are a bit different than the ingredients Mommy and I made you with.” I explained half his DNA comes from me and half from his mother; a mixture of Asian and Caucasian genes.
“That’s why our eyes are skinny?” he asked.
“Yes, you get your eyes from me.”
“Oh, okay,” he remarked. Satisfied with my answer, he left the conversation at that and nibbled on some rice.
I thought about his question and reflected on my childhood, when Ottawa was a sleepier town, much less multicultural. I remember the playground insults: a distant echo, the taunts hurt. Childhood innocence juxtaposed with racist ignorance. Kids can be mean sometimes.
I wanted to erase my Asian features: slanty eyes, yellow skin, coarse hair. I wanted to be like everyone else in my neighbourhood—white. I wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for lunch, not cold chicken legs. I rebelled by refusing to speak Mandarin at home and quit Saturday morning language school. I wanted to whitewash myself.
Ironically, I felt most comfortable with my Taiwanese friends at community gatherings. Potlucks, Mothers’ and Fathers’ Day celebrations. Playing on our Taiwanese softball team. I didn’t worry about fitting in.
My teenage years were never easy. I struggled with this dual identity and kept my two worlds bifurcated, neatly avoiding cross-contamination. One year, I went camping with some Taiwanese friends at Charleston Lake Provincial Park. As we pulled into the dusty parking lot, I spotted some high school acquaintances. My worlds were colliding! I slunk down in my seat to avoid being seen.
Why did I feel embarrassed? It seems so silly now.
My rejection of Taiwanese culture exposed a childhood insecurity with being different. As a result, I lacked a deeper understanding of my ethnicity. I began to address this situation with a trip to Taiwan with my wife (then fiancée) in 2005.
We arrived in Taipei, Taiwan’s bustling capital city, still groggy after the 14 hour flight from Los Angeles. Our friend, G, a Canadian teaching English, had been working in Taipei a few years. Acting as our guide, he oriented us to the city, showing us how to get around on the MRT, the city’s metro system.
G, not one to be shy, routinely struck up conversations with locals on the MRT. Teenage girls giggled at his energetic, yet passable command of Mandarin. “These are my friends,” he said, pointing toward us. “They’re from Jiānádà.”
“Nǐ hǎo,” I said, introducing ourselves. Apart from pleasantries and ordering food, my Mandarin skills were anemic. After a few sentences, conversations tended to break down.
As G linguistically saved me, I stood beside myself. Here was a white guy from Canada, speaking Mandarin to the local Taiwanese, explaining that the Taiwanese guy from Canada couldn’t speak Mandarin.
This experience perfectly encapsulated my childhood’s cultural cleavage. I was a banana: yellow on the outside, but white within.
So much of culture is rooted in language. Shunning my ethnicity in childhood only served to make me feel like an outsider when I visited Taiwan. Smells and sounds were comforting and familiar, yet I couldn’t fully appreciate the “homeland” without a better grasp of the language.
My Mandarin did improve over the course of our trip. It’s amazing how quickly you learn when forced to. I will always remember an exchange we had with an elderly couple selling oranges in the countryside. In broken Mandarin, I told them my mother hailed from their town. They said while I’m Canadian, I will always be Táiwān-rén (Taiwan person). This conversation has stuck with me ever since.
It’s been over a decade since our Taiwan trip, and I have resolved to become fluent in Mandarin more than once. Too often, laziness and inertia win out; I default to English. Yet, if I don’t achieve fluency, I fear I will never fully appreciate my heritage.
Since my eldest was born, my parents come over for supper once a week. We have a big family meal; A-Kong and A-Ma get to spend time with their grandchildren. It is a lovely tradition. But amid the rice and dumplings, I have ignored a responsibility to my children: to give them an opportunity to fully understand their paternal ethnicity. For it is much more than traditional clothing and delicious food. Studying my ethnicity helps me understand who I am. By not prioritizing this, I think I’m doing a disservice to my kids, and to myself.
I don’t know if I will ever become fluent in Mandarin. I’ve stopped beating myself up over it. For now, I teach my kids to respect different cultures and to diffuse stereotypes. I will converse with my parents more in Mandarin, and I will continue to learn about Taiwan: its history, people and politics. This may prove to be a slow road, but I think it is necessary to travel it. I owe it to my children, to my parents, and more importantly, to myself.
And maybe one day, I’ll tell this story to my kids in Mandarin.
Previously published on Daddy DayDreamer
Photo: Getty Images