When I used to work at Safeway as a cashier, customers often guessed that I was Filipina, Vietnamese, Thai, Korean or one quarter white, depending on who decided to chat with me while I scanned their groceries through. To the rest, I was just Chinese; that is, if the question ever crossed their minds in the first place.
I was born in Taiwan and immigrated to Vancouver at the age of seven. Like other new immigrants—young and old—I had my share of difficulties adapting to my new home. According to my mom, I used to come home every afternoon crying that I would never go back to school again. I still remember the feeling of helplessness whenever I wasn’t able to communicate with the other kids. No one in my first grade class spoke Mandarin, not even the other Chinese kids. Still, after every crying session, I’d be excited to head to school again the next morning. Ah, the simplicity of being a kid.
I adapted quickly and in no time, I was yapping away in English, playing ponies and pole tag, and developing crushes on cute blond boys. I remember feeling embarrassed when my parents spoke Mandarin in front of my friends, and I wished that my packed lunches contained spaghetti or sandwiches rather than fried rice or steamed pork buns. Throughout elementary and high school, we’d visit Taiwan during my summer vacations. I enjoyed seeing my family and eating familiar foods, but I would always be reluctant to leave my Canadian friends, and be anxious for the trip to end so I could go back “home” to Vancouver.
It wasn’t until my late high school to early university years that I really started embracing my Taiwanese culture. I had always kept up with Taiwanese pop music, watched the TV dramas, but I more or less kept these interests to myself. Now, I really looked forward to trips back to Taiwan, and side trips to different parts of Asia. This was reinforced by the many undergraduate courses on Chinese history and Asian Canadian identity. I met many more Taiwanese-Canadians during this time, and found myself speaking more Mandarin, itching to improve my fluency. I saw how special it was to be part of two cultures simultaneously, and prided myself in being able to share that with my peers.
“Where are you from?”
Living in Vancouver, it’s always been easy to answer the origins question. When people ask me where I’m from, I don’t think twice before answering, “I was born in Taiwan but grew up here,” which receives a range of reactions. Some speak of their past visits and how awesome the food and nightlife are, some gush about how much they want to travel there, some admit sheepishly that they have no idea where the country is, some argue whether it’s even a country, some confuse it with Thailand, and some blurt, “Oh, you don’t look Taiwanese,” as if they can really explain to me the physical traits of the average Taiwanese girl. Regardless of the reaction, I am proud to tell everyone that I am Taiwanese-Canadian.
“But … where am I really from?”
Being back in Taiwan is another story. If strangers ask, my answer is always Canada. I’m not certain if it’s because I enjoy being different, or if it’s to give myself an excuse for being different. My Mandarin is quite fluent, but taxi drivers are often able to tell I’m a “foreigner” from my appearance and slight accent, and they love to guess whether I’m Canadian or American. I’m proud of my bargaining skills at the night markets, but I’m also fairly sure the starting price is never what the locals are quoted. I always sing Mandarin songs when my cousins and I sing karaoke, but they also have to help me with some of the words on the screen. The repetition of these situations every time I’m back made me realize that no matter how much I have embraced my Taiwanese-ness and retained Taiwanese culture and values, I will never be fully Taiwanese in my home country.
A year ago, I traveled to Thailand with three other Asian-Canadian friends. All of us could speak some form of Chinese, but not to each other. To the locals, we didn’t seem to fit the mould of “Asian tourist” or “Western tourist.” They had trouble wrapping their heads around why these four Asian kids spoke only English.
“Where are you from?”
“We’re from Canada.”
“Ahhhh, Canada! But you are Chinese?”
“Yeah, we are Chinese but we’re actually Canadian.”
“Two of us were born in Canada, two were born in Asia but grew up in Canada”
“Ah, okay, you all same same, but different.”
Perhaps that is the perfect phrase to describe me: same same, but different.In Canada, I used to wish that English was spoken around the dinner table. Then, I switched to wishing that I had paid more attention in Chinese school on Saturdays. In Taiwan, I used to wish that the summer vacations would end faster. Then, I switched to wishing I had more time to discover every corner of the beautiful island. Now, I find that there are situations where the language I don’t need pops into my head when I’m really looking for words in the other. I find that my Asian Canadian friends are more “Canadian” than I am, and my Taiwanese friends are more “Taiwanese.” But what a blessing it actually is; no matter where I am, I will never be 100% anything. I could chat for hours about both countries, both cultures, in both languages.
To forever be same same, but different, is to truly have the best of both worlds.