For the past seven years, I’ve been in what I thought was an intercultural relationship.
It seemed obvious. My partner is not hapa — his Scottish/Dutch skin goes red instead of tan, and, unlike me, he’s never been mistaken for an adoptee when travelling alone with one of his parents. He doesn’t celebrate Lunar New Year or avoid swimming during Ghost Month (if there were a Zombie Month, on the other hand, he would make it a point to know all the rules). Until last year, he had never set foot on any continent outside North America and Europe. He was born and raised in Canada, while my life has been divided between this country and my father’s, Brunei Darussalam.
I thought, Somebody call United Colours of Benetton, because we are the new face of modern and intercultural love. Just look at us!
But deep culture, the kind that actually shapes our individual approaches to the world and each other, is more than surface cultural practices and different skin tones.
Hapa kids are so aware of being visibly different from others that we sometimes conflate race and surface culture with deep culture: Am I more Asian, or more Caucasian? Do I embrace the traditions of the country I was born in or the one where I grew up? Does looking more like one side of my family mean that I have less of a connection to the other’s culture? The questions are never-ending. A HapaPalooza blogger describes growing up “so jealous of people who had clear definitions of themselves,” and I agree. There were times when I wished someone would just tell me what I was, so that I could attach myself to its accompanying culture. I was really hoping they’d say “andalite” (I didn’t have a ton of mixed-race role models to choose from, and being a blue-skinned vegetarian centaur with a scorpion tail and telepathic conversation skills seemed like a win). By the time I turned 20, I’d been fetishized and ‘othered’ so much that I believed that my culture was too complicated and exotic to ever find its equivalent. When I met my born-and-raised-in-one-place partner, I felt like the Hapa Ambassador to Vancouver. It was awesome.
Funnily enough, while I was running around convincing myself that I was some romantic intercultural superhero, I met a lot of couples who had the opposite delusion: they thought they were from the same culture and were very confused to discover that they had nothing in common. Think about this in terms of singles and doubles tennis: though technically the same sport, they have very different approaches. One of them cultivates individual achievement and independence, while the other requires collaboration and communication. Sure, they both wear terrycloth accessories and grunt when they swing their rackets, but they’re definitely not playing the same way.
At the end of the day, it turned out that all I did was find someone who plays the same way I do. Someone who shares my deep culture concepts of justice, communication and family. We’re not an intercultural couple. We’re interracial. And only like 50% interracial, really.
Guess we’re pretty average, for Vancouver.