Unhyphenated: On Being Chinese and Canadian in China

“So are you not Chinese?” The girl who asks me this, the edges of her white coat wrapped around the stool she has just flung herself onto, looks politely confused.

“I am, well, I was born in Canada – ”

“Oh so you’re not really Chinese.” She laughs, and having answered her own question, shifts away from me to catch up with her friend, speaking in rapid-fire Mandarin. We’re sitting in a bar in Shanghai, on couches and stools around a low table. There’s a projection of an aquarium on the matte-black wall behind us, with the apparent intention of making it look like we’re underwater. It kind of works, or at least it, and the chainlink curtain that half surrounds us, makes me feel somewhat unsteady. I’m still trying to work out how best to respond to the girl, because in that moment she was just more casually certain of who I was and who I wasn’t than I have ever been, and because I’m feeling indignant at having been explained so easily. I don’t say anything though, because she’s not wrong: between her, a Shandong native interning in Shanghai, the Shanghainese students and young professionals around us, even my friend who I’m visiting, who grew up in Toronto with me but who has spent the last 6 months in China, there wasn’t much of a question. I was the ‘least’ Chinese. Still, having spent the last year or so opening myself up more to understanding and claiming my Asian identity, at the same time becoming more aware of the ways I was labelled and perceived because of it, there was something particularly cutting in having someone deny it so easily. And of course, I was still Chinese enough so that the next night, at another bar, a white guy apologizes to me in broken Mandarin and bows slightly with his hands together as he does so, even though I’ve just spoken to him in English. Not Chinese enough to be Chinese, but clearly not anything else.

Being both and neither is something that everyone that straddles lines of identity faces, whether those lines are national, racial, gendered or classed (or any/all of those). While that is something that you face to varying degrees in all parts of your daily life, it is particularly striking when a distinct shift in the weighting of those identities can be tied almost directly to an external change. Like a change in geography. That I can be in Canada and stand out for being Asian, or be in Shanghai and stand out for being North American, is at first startling, disorienting, even – as I felt – mildly insulting, but there’s something else to it as well. What that shift does is add an element of choice to how you want to be perceived: by choosing where I am, I can tamper with the scales, if not fully decide then at least sway the direction of my identity that takes precedence. It’s a weird sort of freedom, a larger version of that fantasy of going somewhere totally new and reinventing yourself: here, you barely have to do any work, the place does the reinventing for you. With it also comes the allure of being able to ‘pass’, being able at least at first glance to look entirely unremarkable, entirely like I belong. It’s also impossible to ignore the fact that even when I’m ‘found out’ as foreign, my foreignness means very different things in Canada and in China: balances of global power mean that being a Western person in China carries with it a sheen and a value that being an identifiable immigrant in Canada (or anywhere else in the West) certainly doesn’t. This supposed choice then of which side of me to bring out, which half of the hyphen to land on, is framed by a whole series of questions of how each part of me is understood, both separate from and in relation to the other parts of me. Part of this choice then is not just what I want to bring out, but what I would be wiling to let go of – could I be in a place where I wasn’t recognized as ‘really’ Chinese? Would that be easier than being in a place where I wasn’t ‘really’ Canadian?

Of course, this choice isn’t really a choice at all, since there isn’t a feasible way in which I can get up and move to China any time in the near future. Still, it’s nice to imagine – like I said in my last post, that’s one of the favourite pastimes of overeducated young people, after all. So I spent the next few days wandering around the city with my friend, trying to see if I felt more at home in the winding residential neighbourhoods or the ex-pat clubs. I thought about if I could ever feel ‘Chinese’ enough for the girl in the bar, or if i would always be Canadian in China and Chinese in Canada. Or the third option: being both, fully, simultaneously, existing in a space where I didn’t need to compromise either. Because really, the shift in geography didn’t so much create a choice as amplify an existing one: every space I enter tells me what it wants me to be, and I can choose to comply with that or not. The choice then, maybe, is not to choose at all, and claim a space where I am both, all, sides of myself.

Well, we’ll see how that goes.


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