‘Reclaiming my pride’

Feb. 26, 2001 — I am seven years old with the selfish tendencies of a child who thinks she is entitled to much more than she deserves and I have just uprooted my grandparents in my move from China to Canada.

My grandma stayed for a while but my grandpa left after a month. He saw me through my first days of school but the culture shock was too much for him — it was a multifaceted problem that I wouldn’t comprehend the magnitude of until much later.

My first few days at school were a strange, albeit not unpleasant, blur. I was fascinated with everyone’s big blue eyes and curly blonde hair, their fair skin and lilting language that I couldn’t yet understand.

It was so foreign to me, so different from what I was used to but it didn’t take long for me to realize they’re not the ones who are different — I am.

In Canada I am a person of colour but in China I am just a person.

Colour was never something I had to think about in China because there were a million other little girls in whom I saw myself reflected.

There were jokes made at my expense because my eyes were small and my face was flat, but I never opposed their racist comments because over time I started believing my Asian features were undesirable.

In China kids still teased me — after all, no children are above immature ridicules — but at least I had never been bullied for being Chinese.

My mom said, “Don’t be ashamed of your culture,” but I wouldn’t take her advice for many years to come because it was difficult for sensible advice to take hold within a strict mental construct in which negative judgments dominated.

When the SARS outbreak happened, my Chinese friend, who couldn’t have been more than seven years old at the time, was ostracized from the playground because kids nicknamed him “SARS” and refused to interact with him. I didn’t feel any sympathy, I just felt embarrassed.

I used to say, “I’m so white-washed,” with pride because I truly believed the only way to be accepted was to remove myself from the “coloured” part of my heritage.

I surrounded myself with white friends because I wanted to be one of them and I used to sit in front of the mirror and examine all of the physical features of my face that differed from my peers.

I was so incredibly proud that I could separate myself from my heritage, but for what?

It has been 13 years since I moved to Canada — I am 21 years old and I’m just starting to realize I shouldn’t have to work so hard for acceptance. It’s not my fault society established racial boundaries for idealized concepts of right and wrong and I regret that it took many years of useless conformity to finally realize being Chinese isn’t something to be rejected, but rather something to be proud of.

Being aware that race is a societal construct and not a personal failure made the difference in the world.

Race is something that is always at the forefront of my mind because society has conditioned me to think that way.

I raise questions about it often and I talk about my heritage a lot — to the point of annoyance, perhaps, but I owe it to myself for repressing that part of me for so long.

Nearly ten years later I am remembering my mom’s advice to not be ashamed my culture and I finally understand the importance of not rejecting the most important part of myself. After all, the people I admire the most — my parents and my grandparents — are Chinese.

In China, students wear a red neckerchief to symbolize the blood of revolutionary martyrs. Every morning when I readied myself for school, I would drape it around my shoulders and tie it with the meticulous care of a six-year-old who had the luxury of investing time in the frivolity of tying knots.

Today I am wearing a red toque with “Canada” knitted in white across my forehead. It’s just as red as the neckerchief I used to wear — curiously the colour has manifested itself in another belonging of mine that symbolizes national pride.

I am Chinese and I am reclaiming the red of my childhood. I am reclaiming my pride.

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