Sunday, April 10, 2011

Identity Crisis #3: Am I White?

This is a better written off shoot of one of my other identity crises. Despite being Chinese/having an "Eastern" background sometimes I still feel like I'm an Orientalist/appropriating other cultures.

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When I look in the mirror I don't see a Chinese person. I don't see a Jewish person or a lesbian. I don't see a boy or a girl. I don't know what I see. I think I see someone who is just scared of being anything.

I was born in Canada to immigrant parents but to immigrant parents who themselves had been raised in Canada. My dad's family moved to Toronto when he was around 10 and my mother's family moved to Montreal when she was around 5. They were educated in Canada and have not lived outside of Canada in over 20 years or maybe ever (since they moved here)?

I was raised in the suburbs in a fairly white neighbourhood in a middle-class family. There was enough money for me to play sports and have toys and have food everyday and also pay medical bills because my mother was ill (though I didn't think of these things when I was a kid). I went to high school and there were, like, 3 black kids. I think there was one other Chinese kid in my grade. The "biggest" minority were the Jewish kids, about 5 or 6 in the sports program my dad had enough money to pay for. Everyone else was white. This is not to say "I'M SO OPPRESSED" this is actually to say I grew up in an extremely white setting -- so much so that I accidentally let slip "other white people" in reference to myself to Laura in February and she asked me if I considered myself white. And I've thought a lot about it since then.

This is the opposite of "I'm oppressed". When I fill out job applications and they ask me if I'm part of a minority group and list a bunch of options, I feel like I'm exploiting something when I mark off "Chinese" (I don't, however, feel bad about marking off "woman"). Being Chinese has, luckily, never limited my options, at least not that I know of. I don't think I've ever not gotten a job for being Chinese, though once I didn't get a job because I don't speak Cantonese.

I've lived my life in white neighbourhoods, gone to school with white kids, played sports with white kids, had as much money as the average white person, have been taught mostly the same values as non-religious white kids. If you went into my house without knowing who it belonged to, you would probably never guess "Chinese". You might guess "Jewish" if you search really hard and find our menorah, but then you would probably be confused by my step-mom's Christmas decorations. The Chinese food we usually eat is take-out. Just like other white people and Jews on New Year's eve (JKKK).

I have had the opportunities that white, middle-class people my age have had. If asked who I identify most with, between a Chinese person from China and a white person from North America, I would choose a white person from North America. But in some situations among non-asians I can't help but feel extremely Chinese. I've gotten weird questions like "Do you have statues of Buddha in your home?", or people will say something about China and might add in a "no offense" in there (what even?) or ask me if I know the answer (I don't). Someone once told my friend that she thought I was "pretty for an Asian". It used to bother me that people assumed I knew things about China because in my mind I was so clearly not Chinese that I just couldn't understand why people would think I would know. I understand better now (but that doesn't make it right). When the subject of China comes up I suddenly feel extremely conscious of looking like a Chinese person.

But I feel like an impostor in a half-Chinese person's body. I know very little about China. Before I took a class on China last semester pretty much all I knew about Chinese culture was that General Tao chicken is not an authentic Chinese dish. I didn't even know which city my family was from or which dialect of Chinese they spoke.

When I look in the mirror I don't see a Chinese person. I definitely don't look Jewish. I don't even consider myself a real Jew, in fact, my half-assed attempts to celebrate major holidays are probably an insult to real religious people. I consider myself more "queer" than "gay" or "bisexual" because I'm still trying to figure myself out, but queer people can look like anyone.

I don't see a white person either though. I know I'm not white, I just have white privileges, for the most part, right now. What does that make me? (Answer: confused).

5 comments:

ari yells said...

This is really interesting. Globalism has existed long enough for people in the same situation to exist in large numbers, but not yet far enough that physical appearance of ethnicity stops being directly tied to the country associated with that ethnicity.

I was talking about identity today for a podcast I just started about LGBTQ topics and about the ways people focus their identities into one or two big defining ones that go before everything else. Because "Chinese" is such a visible identity it's hard to put that behind stuff you consider more important to yourself because it's what people tend to see first.

(Also, hi, I didn't know you're Jew-ish. Cool! Why didn't we talk more during Lib Arts?)

westwood said...

I think we would get along really, really well. The only synagogue I've ever shown my face in is in Toronto.

p.s. If you haven't done Birthright yet, I really suggest you do. And then extend from there to China.

saint modesto said...

ari yells: what podcast? also, "Because "Chinese" is such a visible identity it's hard to put that behind stuff you consider more important to yourself because it's what people tend to see first." THIS totally.

westwood: i feel that when i am ready to do birthright i'll be too old and i'll regret it, but i still have a few more years.

Lucia said...

I was having this conversation with Nat the other day - she's half Chinese and people are constantly asking her about where she's from. Her great grandparents moved here from China, which is quite a long time ago in a young country like NZ, and people always seem so bemused when she tells them that she's "from here", her mum is "from here", her grandma is "from here"...

We were talking about identity, about how she identifies as "Asian" in one sense, as in coming from the culture of her great grandmother, but not necessarily in an actual modern identity sense, as "a person from Asia". I remember seeing a youtube clip of an woman being interviewed by a news anchor who kept asking her about her experience as an "African American athlete" and she said something like "actually, I'm not African American - I'm black, I've never even been to Africa" which I thought was kind of relevant to our discussion, the point of which is now totally non-evident. /RAMBLING

Basically, how interesting! I think about this too!

saint modesto said...

lucia: i feel like you just backed up all my feelings with real examples! also i think this is sort of like what ariel said up there, "Globalism has existed long enough for people in the same situation to exist in large numbers, but not yet far enough that physical appearance of ethnicity stops being directly tied to the country associated with that ethnicity".

everyone here is so smart.