An Endless Tug-of-War: Being a Diasporic Asian

My Neighbour Totoro. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Char siu bao. Maple syrup pancakes. Red pockets. Christmas trees. As a child, I never questioned why my life was a mix of Canadian and Chinese culture. It had always seemed natural to participate in each culture’s respective traditions and indulge in its entertainment and food. I didn’t realize that this was partially due to the fact that I was a diasporic Asian.
An assortment of Totoro merchandise.
Any self-proclaimed Totoro enthusiasts here? (Hand shoots up.)
Members of a diaspora refer to a population who has spread from their ancestral homeland elsewhere. It encompasses people who have immigrated to a foreign country as either a child, teen, or adult, and also those who are born in the foreign country—which becomes their native country—to which their parents have immigrated. In my case, I’m considered a second-generation diasporic Asian because, while my parents immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong, I was born in Canada. Being a diasporic Asian never really meant anything to me until I grew older. Around the time I entered middle school and onwards, labels thrown at me triggered an identity crisis. I was called “white-washed” and “Westernized” because of how ‘Canadian’ I dressed, spoke, and acted. Other times I was called “such an Asian” because of my hobbies and diet. I knew my friends didn’t mean to hurt me with those words, but nonetheless, they only fuelled my helplessness in trying to figure out where I fit in. For the longest time, I thought I was missing something in the equation that equated to this notion of a Chinese-Canadian. Was I too Canadian to be Chinese-Canadian? Too Chinese? Why was I constantly told I was too much of something and too little of something else? What was the balance I had to strike to fulfill the criterion of ‘Chinese-Canadian?’ I received my answer the other day, when the topic popped up unexpectedly during a meeting with an academic peer counsellor, who was also a diasporic Asian. She told me that I was, in fact, a Westernized Asian. I would never think or act like someone who was raised in Hong Kong because I’d grown up in a different culture, and as such, my values would be different from them—more ‘Western,’ if you’d like. However, that didn’t mean I was ‘less’ Chinese than them. Having grown up in a Chinese household had, in itself, exerted an influence on the way I viewed and interacted with life. In reality, I wasn’t lacking in one culture or another—I had both.
Chinese tea package, cup, and pot.
Chinese tea one moment—
Apple cider in hollow apple with cinnamon stick.
—Canadian apple cider the next. (Creds to my mother for turning a simple apple cider into art.)
I hadn’t previously thought about my situation that way, but afterwards, it made sense. I shouldn’t feel ashamed by the fact that I had adopted Canadian values despite my ethnicity, and I shouldn’t feel ashamed that I retained distinctly Chinese values despite my nationality. If anything, I should be proud of harbouring values derived from both cultures. To all of you diasporic people out there, you are strong. It has never been easy trying to fit in to your current culture as well as to retain attachments to your other one, especially if your home country is far away. I, myself, am still trying to figure out how to balance my two cultures, and hopefully, university will help with that; I plan on joining some clubs and learning more about the culture of Hong Kong, if I can. If any of you happen to have the same train of thought, know that there are many clubs catered towards different ethnic groups here on campus—and if the one you’re seeking isn’t there, start a club for it! It’s never too late to try and retain or regain your other culture—but don’t feel that there’s a quota you have to fill on how engaged you are in it. Embrace the richness of your diverse heritage, but don’t force it. Ultimately, remember that you are who you are, and no one else can dictate your identity. Be loud and be ridiculously proud.   What have you experienced as a diasporic person? Let me know in the comments below or through @lifeatuoft on Twitter!

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