Vol 2 Part 7 : A Hyphenated Mess

Posted by Billie-Ann Woo & filed under But Where are You Really From?, Identity.

Woo: A well simmered identity.
Woo: A well simmered identity.

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I watched the liquid in the pot slowly come to a simmer. The large bubbles that would occasionally find their way to the surface gave way to smaller, more frantic ones and the accompanying wisps of steam.

I leaned in and took in a long lingering smell of my dinner. “Not quite there …” I thought to myself as I opened my cupboard and surveyed the apothecary in front of me.

I reached up and slid the box of spices from their space on the shelf and surveyed the contents; not looking for anything specific. The selection of spices brought a smile to my face—the Spanish smoked paprika was tucked in behind the ground lemongrass, which shared a corner with the Greek oregano—not to be confused with the Italian mix that I frequently used. Life, like food, cannot be pinpointed to one source. Although something may be Italian or Chinese in origin, inevitably you will find surprising roots. The dish I was making that night was the pulled pork (for tacos) for a Single Gals Valentine’s Dinner. It was indeed succulent—the pork was tender and swimming in a rich, fatty sauce that complemented the toppings sublimely. On the surface, it was a Mexican inspired dish, but the ingredients that went into the slow cooker were purely Asian. The pork sat in a cooking marinade of chicken broth, soy sauce, oyster sauce, ginger, green onions, sugar, and chili oil; ingredients of my childhood and staples in my pantry. These bottles, however, also mingle next to balsamic vinegar, grape seed oil, and fish sauce Signs of a gourmet cook? Sure, but I like to think of it as the results of living globally and being open-minded.

Where I feel I am from on the inside can never be reconciled.

The purpose of this piece is to answer, “But where are you really from?” I question back, ” but do you really have to be from one place?”

I remember a trip to Paris when I was asked the but where are you really from question, a gentleman inquired of my background and I politely responded, “Canada.” Clearly this did not answer his question because without hesitation, he inquired again. I sighed and responded, “Hong Kong … China.” It is not as though I’m ashamed of coming from Hong Kong (quite the opposite really! Ha-ha, defensive much?) but since when is “Canada” not a sufficient answer? Our wonderful, multicultural, multifaceted country perhaps holds no true ‘ethnic identity,’ and why should I feel pressured to narrow myself further?

Although I was born in Hong Kong, I grew up surrounded by friends of many different backgrounds and cultures. Even today, I relish working in a multicultural environment where sharing traditions and histories is an unconscious and free-flowing process.

An inevitable push-pull that affects my heart and loyalties.

I have no doubt that the but-where-are-you-really-from question can come from good intentions. I have never been asked this question in a hostile way, but always with gentle curiosity and perhaps a way to develop some kind of kinship of common ground. I have never been offended by this question but merely frustrated. Frustrated that where I feel I am from on the inside can never be reconciled with the way I look on the outside. Yes, I am Chinese and proud to be Chinese but it would be ignorant of me to ignore all the influences that other cultures have had in my life. Even being “Canadian” can be troublesome—I spent my formative years in Vancouver but came into adulthood in Toronto. Two very different cities that have had an indelible influence on who I have become.

Our multicultural country holds no true ethnic identity.

If I were to be asked, “but where are you really from?” I’m not sure how I would answer. I am sure it would be affected by who was asking—are they asking me if I am Canadian? Chinese? From Hong Kong? Vancouverite? Torontonian? Like my name, where I feel I am from is a hyphenated mess. There is an inevitable push-pull that affects my heart and loyalties—I must include them all if I want to truly convey who I am and where I am from. There would be no Vancouverite if it was not tempered by the Torontonian and the Chinese is mellowed and subdued by the Canadian. Like the different senses of taste—sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and savory—all of my identities work in different strengths and potencies in a continually—evolving identity. And I can truly say that I have enjoyed every minute of developing that identity and like that pulled pork, I am eagerly anticipating the flavours to come.

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