When we asked our Literary Editor, Malissa Phung, to share her experiences with the question, “But where are you really from?” she brought her A-game. What follows is her poetic and thoughtful response: a series of poignant vignettes, each one capturing a different angle of the question, and a different layer of Malissa’s own identity.
A note on etymology: Sino-Vietnamese people have been referred to as Người Hoa in a derogatory manner. Interestingly enough, hoa also means “flower” in Vietnamese.
The Ethnic Inquisition
When I think back to all those times I’ve been asked–“But where are you really from?”–I can recall now with some amusement the unsatisfactory answers I have given, though not necessarily in the following order:
–I was born in Red Deer, Alberta, but I grew up in Edmonton.
–I’ve lived in Canada my whole life.
–My family came from Vietnam, but we’re not Vietnamese.
Sometimes when I’m feeling lazy and lousy, I offer the following answers to my nosy inquisitors instead: “My ancestors are from China,” or “I’m second-generation Chinese Canadian”. But when I give these answers, answers so seemingly simple that they betray the complexity of what it has meant for people to come from China over the past 200 years, I still find myself compelled to give more answers, even when more questions are not asked.
Then I remember those moments when I’m not even asked this vexing question, moments that bring up feelings of shame and indignation from being categorized correctly or incorrectly. Most women of Asian ancestry know what I’m talking about–those embarrassing moments of being accosted by men in public with an abrasive ni hao?!–or ahn nyeong hah seh yo!!! These are the more aggressive moments when you’d prefer to be asked the vexing question instead. But my worst “I know where you are really from” moment happened to me on my way to the University of Alberta five or six years ago.
Strangers on a Train
I was on my way to class. I was sitting alone on the LRT when a man sat down across from me. We quickly exchanged polite smiles, but I could feel his intrusive stare, so I looked up and smiled politely again .
“What you got there in your thermos?” he asked.
“Excuse me?” I replied.
“Your thermos? What are you drinking out of it?”
“Oh, just coffee.”
“Coffee? Why are you drinking coffee?”
Confused, I continued to stare at him, but I stopped smiling politely.
“You should be drinking tea, you know. It’s a shame, you people losing your culture like that.”
At that point, the LRT emerged from the underground tunnel. The man turned to squint at the sudden bright view of the North Saskatchewan River through the window while I continued to stare at the icy thermos numbing my fingers—palpably slipping away.
Many Canadians are proud to say, “I am Canadian.” The term “Canadian” for them stands alone. They have no use for hyphens.
I, too, never had much use for hyphens when I was a kid. I used to tell people I was half Vietnamese and half Chinese since it sounded clunky to say that I was Chinese-Vietnamese-Canadian. Plus, I do not remember saying or even once thinking, “I am Canadian.” I always knew I was born in Canada, but somehow I never considered myself first and foremost Canadian.
It’s strange growing up in Canada yet never really thinking of yourself as Canadian. I was a busy kid, speaking English at school and Vietnamese at home. Vietnamese was my first language, even though everyone in my family spoke Vietnamese and Cantonese fluently. I used to think and count in Vietnamese. I once dreamt only in Vietnamese.
In grade four, I was sent to Chinese school on the weekends. It was a frustrating experience. I could never improve. I had a hard time remembering how to pronounce the characters, and my columns of ideographs were always marked with a red C+ in the top margins. The teacher expected the boxed columns in my notebook to be filled with an obedient army of strokes–well-centered, well-ordered, little pieces of art—none of the crooked, off-centered, unruly uses of space like my own. I never did understand how a pencil was supposed to imitate a brush.
I eventually gained a rudimentary understanding of Cantonese from watching Chinese films from Hong Kong with English subtitles. I also strengthened my conversational skills from working as a shampoo girl at my mother’s hair salon in Chinatown. Though I managed to improve enough to engage in most conversations, today my Cantonese sounds broken at best.
Learning English was a different story. It was as easy as speaking Vietnamese. I always did well in Language Arts. I loved to read. I went through incredible binges. At age 10, I was carrying bags of books home from the public library so that I could lie in bed and read all day until my head hurt.
Unfortunately, going to school in Anglo Canada has reduced my fluency in Vietnamese. English nouns have permeated my mother tongue. I used to think that my Vietnamese was excellent until I would speak to my mother in front of my white Anglo-Canadian ex who surprised me when he could understand us and add to our conversations in English–I suppose I’ve been speaking Vinglish.
I never did have much use for hyphens. I’ve spent most of my life in translation. But at some point, my mind switched to English without telling me, leaving me convinced that I was still half Vietnamese and half Chinese, and never first and foremost Canadian.
May 18, 2006
“We lack a place of origin. We have no homeland, no country, no nationality.”
“Why is that?” I asked my father.
“Because in Vietnam we were always Người Hoa. And in America, even after all these years, we’ve never really been considered American. Here, we’re Chinese.”
“So we really have no home?”
“Not even China?”
“How? We never lived there.”
In my early 20s, I lost half of my ethnicity. I learned that I did not contain a single drop of Vietnamese. Being 100% ‘pure’ Chinese was not something my family ever told me, that is, not until my mother corrected me one day after she overheard me telling my friend about our supposed half Vietnamese and half Chinese heritage.
It probably seems strange that I never bothered to ask my family about our ethnic background, but it seems just as strange to have ever bothered asking since I was never confused about who we were. I grew up in a close-knit immigrant community in Edmonton that spoke Vietnamese and Cantonese interchangeably, a community of Vietnamese and Cantonese speakers known as the Hoa people, or the boat people, the second generation and sometimes third generation overseas Chinese who were exiled from Vietnam to places like Hong Kong before migrating to places like Canada in the last 40 years.
We tend to claim cultural identities through the percentages in our blood. This ridiculous notion of spooning identities into separate jars was even a law in the U.S., a law that determined a person’s race through an equation of fractions. But what can blood mean in our globalizing world? With the forces of war and transnational capital pushing and pulling migrant bodies around the world, who can claim to be pure anything these days? Who can be pure Chinese? Or pure African? Or pure Aboriginal?
For some of us, the lack or presence of blood can be terribly painful. The bigger the drop, the bigger the pressure to maintain ethnic ‘purity.’
We don’t belong anywhere since the Revolution. The old China’s disappeared while we’ve been away.
–from Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior: Memoirs of a Girlhood Among Ghosts
The question–“But where are you really from?”–has as much to do with race as it does with place. Assuming that race equals place, it’s a simple and seemingly more polite way of reducing our identities to the place(s) our families come from. But our passports and birth certificates can never tell the whole story. They can never document what it’s like to be constantly reminded by this vexing question that you and your family don’t belong.
After settling for three generations in Hanoi, my family never did belong in Vietnam—nor did they belong in Hong Kong with their fluent Cantonese. They’ve been pegged either as too Chinese or too Vietnamese. It doesn’t matter how fluent they remain in either language. They are always read as foreigners, especially in white settler colonial societies like Canada and the U.S.
I’ve come to realize that we’d be better off without place. We’d be better off building our sense of belonging not to the places we come from or the indigenous territories we currently occupy but from the relationships and connections that we’ve made along the way. I believe this because it explains why I feel an extraordinary sense of belonging whenever I hear my childhood tongue being spoken by strangers in public. Too shy to converse with them and too embarrassed by how child-like my Vietnamese has become, I silently listen to these strangers, not even sure if they are Người Hoa or Vietnamese immigrants, but happy all the same to be hearing my first language in a public space where we are all expected to blend in and speak perfect English.
Literary editor for Schema Magazine, Malissa is a second gen Canadian and third gen Sino-Vietnamese. A firm believer in the power of words and yoga, she is known for her unrestrained and infectious laugh. Her guilty pleasures include predictable crime shows, sexy legal dramas, dancing with wild abandon, and ethnic restaurants. She’s also finishing a PhD dissertation on Aboriginal-Chinese relations in Chinese Canadian literature. You can find her on Twitter @loudmouthAsian or on academia.edu.