Life in the hyphen

For many Canadians, answering the question “what am I?” is no easy task.

As a young girl, Joyce Yu immersed herself in both Western and Asian pop culture. Illustration by Jordan Carson.

I was born and raised in Canada. It is my home. But I am not Canadian. I am the child of Chinese immigrants. I am therefore “Chinese-Canadian.”

Growing up, I was no different from any other Canadian. I watched Mr. Dressup, ran around the playground pretending to be a Power Ranger and wore a ring on my index finger to summon Captain Planet. But I also grew up with Ding Dong the cartoon cat, Lao Fu Zi cartoons and an unhealthy addiction to Television Broadcasts Limited (TVB) dramas.

During summer breaks in elementary school, I spent the weekdays with my aunt and uncle at their restaurant. Every morning we would wake up the sleepy strip-mall restaurant that they owned in the suburbs. In my memory, the stainless-steel kitchen was expansive and the wooden counters were just low enough for me to reach over and nibble on a spare rib. This was the setting of my first prolonged exposure to the English language, in the form of daytime TV and Chinese fast-food menus.

My aunt, a rational and practical lady, had an inexplicable attraction to daytime television. We sat down and watched All My Children whenever there was a lull in traffic. But even if the restaurant was busy, and my aunt was taking orders and preparing takeout boxes, the TV would still be on. Erica Kane was never too far away. I couldn’t resist watching, as the daytime dramas were much more interesting than my Ding Dong cartoons.

My eight-year-old English vocabulary was soon fraught with drama. “Go knock yourself out!” was a favourite one — although I never remembered that the last word was “out” and would always tell people to go knock themselves “up.” Regardless, I memorized those phrases eagerly and repeated them to myself out loud, trying to sound just like the characters on television.

It was an ongoing process, one that sometimes turned into folly. To this day, there are things that don’t naturally come to me. Nuanced innuendos. Obvious innuendos. Sayings and turns of phrase that I don’t understand the point of. It took me years to remember “six of one, half a dozen of the other.” I still don’t understand what’s wrong with just saying, “It’s the same thing.”

It wasn’t just language that was puzzling to me. Like those in every culture, Chinese families have their own elaborate codes for polite behaviour, but those mores often failed to translate in Canada. My mama has a saying when being invited to someone’s house: “You can’t show up with only your two arms swinging at your sides. At least bring some fruit.” That resulted in several years of me handing over bags of oranges to my friends’ puzzled parents.

“I understand now that there’s no real definition of ‘Canadian.’ We aren’t pure-bloods. We’re a mishmash. Muggles mixed with wizards.”

Today I speak English without an accent and with a comprehension that my parents will never realize. I love to read, and in addition to western television characters there were western literary characters who would become some of my most loyal companions — Ramona Quimby, Peter and Fudge Hatcher, The Baby-Sitters Club, Matilda, Charlie, Danny, Mr. Fox and the rest of Roald Dahl’s crew.

These friends helped me develop a passion for a language that I will never be able to share with my parents. They will never appreciate or understand the world of television, books, music and films that have helped craft and continue to craft my identity. And yet in Hong Kong I’m the one who is the outsider. There, my accented Cantonese betrays me as not being truly Chinese. I am only a visitor, despite a history and a culture deeply rooted in my person.

Growing up, being Canadian meant being westernized. More specifically, being Canadian meant being white (and, where I’m from, speaking English). The colour of my skin has always marked me as “other.” Two episodes from university highlight this differentiation.

In my first year at the University of Alberta, I was egged on my driveway while waiting for the bus outside my house. As I stood at the edge of the sidewalk, I felt the liquid run down my pants and my arm. To make their intentions perfectly clear, two people in the backseat pulled their eyes into slits as they drove past honking. I never ended up getting on the bus. In fact, I don’t remember where I was meant to go.

In my second year, I brought a new friend with me to a supermarket in Chinatown. She was appalled by the fully skinned chickens, ducks and pigs hanging in the window display. I watched her warily eye her surroundings. The initial smell of the supermarket — a mixture of roasted meats, wok-fried vegetables and tubs of fresh intestine, colon, stomach lining, kidney, liver, pancreas and pig snout — is one of sewage. It smelled terrible to me, too, but it was also familiar. My friend grew increasingly critical, and I ended up wandering through the aisles alone, feeling solidarity with the rest of the Chinese customers. She abandoned the shopping adventure and waited outside with a bottle of Sunny D.

Later, sitting in the middle of a bustling tea cottage in the heart of Chinatown, we were the only ones speaking English. Servers were chatting loudly and the cooks loudly sang out the orders ready to be served. There was the haste of clattering dirty plates in bins and the splashing of tea that slides toward you so quickly that some spills over. I ordered in Chinese but tripped over a word I couldn’t remember. When my order came, the server set down a fork beside my bowl. Message received.

My relationship with being “Chinese-Canadian” has never been easy. The source of conflict for me was always in the hyphen. That feeling of being in limbo, of being of both but belonging to neither. I have spent my life caught at the crossroads of being loyal to my heritage and being fluent in my nationality. I have spent my life seeking approval from both sides of the hyphen.

Reconciling the two sides of the hyphen is tricky business. Especially when you don’t want to offend or be rejected by either side. And yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Rather than thinking of the hyphen as a subtraction, something that makes me both less Chinese and Canadian, it should be thought of as a connection.

I understand now that there’s no real definition of “Canadian.” We aren’t pure-bloods. We’re a mishmash. Muggles mixed with wizards. There is nothing wrong with floating in the space between, of having a cupboard full of chopsticks, white fungus and dried bean curd right beside a Coffee Crisp, a bottle of maple syrup and a box of Kraft Dinner. I take to heart the words of poet Fred Wah, himself a Canadian of Chinese descent, who said, “There’s a whole bunch of us who’ve grown up as resident aliens, living in the hyphen. That could be the answer in this country. If you’re pure anything you can’t be Canadian.” Someone once asked me when I’ll cease to be “Chinese-Canadian” and just be Canadian. Despite all the hardships and confusion, I hope it’s never.

Joyce Yu (’07 BA, ’15 MA) is an alumna of the University of Alberta, and currently works in the university’s Office of Advancement. She loves nerd culture, Harry Potter, and her mom’s hoisin noodles.

For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.