I am rarely asked this question. One of my female friends thinks that it is perhaps the easiest pickup line to use when you are of an ethnicity other than white. I think it might explain why I don’t get that a lot, or don’t remember it as something particularly tiresome to hear.
I was born and raised in Montreal. While the first language that I ever learned was Cantonese, my language of choice since the age of 6 has been French. When people do ask me where I come from, it’s pretty straightforward to answer based upon my location or the person I am speaking to.
To people I’m meeting abroad in Asia, I am a Canadian, from that province where they speak French. To people from my hometown, I tell them “Ben, chuis Chinois!” and that my parents come from former French colonies, which is why I speak French with my parents (who reply in a mix of Chinese and French to me) and why we like to have bouillabaisse or braised beef tongue for family dinners.
One very interesting thing that happens is how often people ask if I am adopted. Sam is perhaps not a very common Chinese name, and many families in Quebec have adopted children from East Asia. Maybe my perfect Quebec accent throws people off. Ultimately, I suppose it means that my life in Montreal is seamlessly woven in with the culture around me.
My brother once told me a story about his group of mostly Asian friends who were drinking one night at a bar in Vieux-Montréal where they were singing their lungs out to a song by Marjo, a local 90s pop star. Other customers stared at them, seemingly disturbed that these foreign-looking young people knew so much about one of Quebec’s beloved blonde-haired singers.
Perhaps I’m Chinese, but that’s not all. I am also a Montrealer, a Quebecer, a Canadian and a Francophone living in North America.
“But where are you really from?”
I don’t have a good, permanent answer. I’m not even sure how long a potential answer will be good for myself. I think that my identity can partly be found in my activities outside of work. I am co-hosting a show in Cantonese on Radio Centre-Ville, often spotlighting topics confined to the French-language media. In the online realm, I write a blog in English and French called Comme les Chinois with “Chinese” as the common thread. The name of my blog comes from the lyrics of a song by Mitsou, another 90s blond-haired singer who, remarkably, hosted a show a few years ago on CBC Newsworld presenting French-speaking Canada to Anglos. Using an approach similar to hers, I discuss Chinese-Canadian/Quebecer/Montrealer topics in a language that isn’t Chinese.
I think that both of these activities answer my need to navigate in between cultures, a bit like mixing together vases that contain what I think of as my multiple identities.
“Comme les Chinois” means “Like the Chinese” in English. What it is to be Chinese is as complicated a question as “But where are you really from?” What is it to be American or French? I think that my Chinese-ness comes from things that I find familiar, like eating chicken congee when I’m sick, or knocking my chopsticks on the nearest tea cup at weddings. Comme les Chinois, I thought to myself when I chose my blog’s title, because I can’t possibly be simply Chinese, but rather just kinda Chinese …. avec le reste de mes identités. That is, along with the rest of my identities.