Meaning of Life

Caught between two cultures

She hates Math, loves Shakespeare but As a Canadian of Chinese origin She finds herself stereotyped

Caroline Fei-Yeng Kwok, B.A., B.E.D., M.Ed.

Published in THE TORONTO STAR on March 8, l990
Re-printed in VANCOUVER SUN as TWO WORLDS in April, 1990

Though I was born in Hong Kong, I have lived in Toronto for more than 15 years. In fact, before coming to Toronto, I had lived in the United States for about three years as a foreign student.

I feel as if I belong to North America and, of course, to Canada in particular. I work here as a teacher of English as a second language and I have friends here. Really, if you ask me where I’m from, I would say that I am from Canada. I am proud of the fact that I am a Canadian. And above all, I’m proud of the fact that I am a Canadian of Chinese origin.

The funny thing is, however, that often when I travel, whether abroad or within Canada, people like to ask me questions about my origin.

When I say that I am from Toronto, the next question most likely to pop up is: “Where are you originally from?”

Maybe I am too sensitive about such issues, but I feel that somehow, no matter how long I have been in Canada, I will still be “foreign” to some people because of the color of my skin. I will still not be accepted as “a Canadian” in spite of the mosaic nature of Canada. I will still be considered “Chinese” only, though I teach in a Canadian school, speak English fluently, have non-Chinese friends and eat non-Chinese food.

Another example of this “Chinese-ness” is that in all my years here, hardly anyone, my colleagues included, has asked me about my opinion of non-Chinese restaurants.

The most familiar question is to ask me to recommend a good Chinese restaurant. I do not resent the fact that I have the privilege to know “ethnic” restaurants such as Chinese restaurants, but I do resent that it is often assumed that I am so “narrow-minded” that I only know Chinese restaurants without knowing other kinds of restaurants. Or perhaps, it is the narrow-mindedness of the “Canadian” who asks such a question-that a person with “yellow skin” must shop in Chinatown all the time, eat Chinese food all the time and talk Chinese all the time.

The irony is that a person with “yellow skin” may be Japanese, Korean, or even Canadian-born Chinese, and may not know anything more about Chinese foods or restaurants than any average “non-yellow skinned” Canadian.

And of course, even the word “Chinese” means different things to different people-Chinese from Hong Kong, for instance, would be different from Chinese from China.

Very often, when people know that I majored in English Literature and am teaching English as a second language, they are surprised. They find it strange that a person with my Chinese background is not interested in subjects such as Mathematics and Science.

They cannot understand why I am interested in plays such as Macbeth, Hamlet, Waiting for Godot, and why I am interested in poems such as The Wasteland, Paradise Lost and the Daffodils. In fact, many have said to me jokingly, “Why don’t you study mathematics and science? You are Chinese.” They do not know, of course, that I failed mathematics and science in high school.

Stereotyping of Canadians also occurs. When my brother, who was educated here in Canada, came to Toronto last summer, he was shocked when he found out that some of my friends do not have cars. I told him that Toronto has a good transit system. He still would not believe it. I can still remember his face when he said, “I thought everyone here has cars.”

When I visited Hong Kong, I face the same problem. Friends in Hong Kong, though many have been abroad, ask me questions – such as, why do I have a funny accent. Well, though my accent may not be typically Canadian, how do they expect me to have a Hong Kong accent after all these years in North America?

Some friends are interested in real estate in Toronto and tend to ask me questions about different “nice” areas in Toronto. When I tell them that there is a diversity of “nice” areas here, they often respond: “You mean you have lived in Toronto for such a long time and you don’t know? Why?” I feel as if I lead a sheltered life, not knowing much about my environment, although I know that the situation here is different from that in Hong Kong.

This feeling of not being understood and accepted by my own kind is worse than being considered as an ethnic minority in Canada. How can both of my worlds meet? Is it true that the East is and always will be the East and the West is and always will be the West?

Yes, it’s fine to have “dual citizenship,” but this agony of not being able to belong totally to either world does bother me at times.

In short, as a Chinese Canadian, I find that very often I am caught in the middle of two cultures.

On the one hand, I find that in the eyes of many Canadians, I am still Chinese from Hong Kong. I am still expected to know all the Chinese traditions and customs. I am still expected to show the “Chinese grace” in my behavior.

On the other hand, I find that in the eyes of my many Chinese friends in Hong Kong, I am a Canadian who may have forgotten about the Chinese part of me. I am the expatriate who has adjusted well into the Canadian society at large. I am the expert in Canadian customs and culture.

But what am I actually? Canadian or Chinese? This is the dilemma of a bilingual such as myself living in a cosmopolitan city.

My answer to this question of my identity is that no matter where I am, as long as I am sure of my roots and as long as I savor every positive experience, be it in Canada, the United States, or Hong Kong, I will then try to lead a life and a lifestyle to my taste, regardless of others’ opinions. Then, maybe, I will be able to achieve a balance in life, just like the Yin and the Yan in the Chinese tradition, with the best of both of my worlds.