Photos by Elaine Lok
At times, I wanted to crawl out of my skin so I didn’t have to confront the reality of my altered identity that I had constructed for myself.
“You act so white…are you even from here?” joked one of my mother’s friends. Taking her obvious bait, I answered: “Well…I was born in Taipei but I was basically raised here in Hong Kong.”
She replied excitedly, “oh, you must be one of those international school kids… kind of like ABCs [American Born Chinese].”
This was one of the many similar conversations I had with other Asians who were living in Hong Kong. These interactions were replicated when I visited my relatives in Taipei. No matter how fluent my Cantonese or Mandarin was, I was still “foreign” to many other Asians.
Growing up in an international school in Hong Kong forced me to split myself into two. The first side of my identity belonged to my Taiwanese and Shanghainese heritage, operating mostly in front of my parents and my extended family. The second identity was the “white-washed” version of myself, one that appeared during interactions with my Caucasian peers.
Much of these desires to separate from my ethnicity stemmed from my transition from a local school in Hong Kong to an international school, one filled with the children of expats. At my previous school, the impact of my ethnicity on my interactions with my peers never once crossed my mind. All my friends had been inconspicuously Asian and shared a similar background with mine. We all spoke Cantonese with one another and this environment felt familiar to me.
However, upon arriving at an international school, I realized how different I was. Barely anyone in the class was of Asian heritage, and everyone only spoke English for the majority of the school day. As soon as I recognised these differences, I felt a sudden urgency to fit in. At thirteen years old, I learned that people would have predisposed assumptions of me before I even spoke. Therefore, I wanted to prove that I wasn’t like the “other Asians” and I tried desperately to escape the “Asian stereotype.” These scrambled attempts of assimilation created more internal confusion as I began to lose grasp of the essence of my ethnicity. I was in a state of alterity.
This continued through my adolescence, in which I was in a constant limbo between “not being Asian enough” and being “too Asian.” Growing up in this environment was extremely confusing and to protect myself, I would try to appease everyone. In front of my parents, I tried to only speak Cantonese and Mandarin, whilst in school, I only spoke English. I morphed into identities that became foreign to myself. However, I would still get called 鬼妹仔, which roughly translates to “white girl” by other Asians.
My efforts to create a different version of my identity didn’t help anyone, including myself. Through my failed attempts, I was still subtly reminded by my peers that, “by the way – you’re Asian.” I became deeply uncomfortable when people reminded me that my behaviour stemmed entirely from my ethnicity, with strange but commonplace questions such as, “oh… is that an Asian thing?” They weren’t curious; they wanted to condemn me. This led to a series of self-rejection of aspects of my identity because I wanted so badly to just “fit in.” These remarks acted as a constant reminder that I was neither Western enough nor Asian enough. At times, I wanted to crawl out of my skin so I didn’t have to confront the reality of my altered identity that I had constructed for myself. It was easier to wear a mask in front of others instead of revealing my discontent of how I was being treated because of my ethnicity. I felt fragmented and disorientated, afraid to speak honestly about the self-resentment brewing in my stomach.
My reality was built by the expectations of others. Internally, I became more and more defensive when people asked me questions about my ethnicity or where I was raised. However, I didn’t want to seem like the “overly sensitive girl” who couldn’t take a joke or two. Instead, I brushed off the uncomfortable remarks and appeared nonchalant to these racist comments. In this constructed reality, it seemed like the only option was to “blend in” and suppress my “Asianness.” It reflected the rejection I felt by others towards my Asian identity. I absorbed this hatred and wanted to negate my core self.
Then I moved to Toronto, where these interludes of self-rejection bubbled over. Though the city of Toronto is diverse, many are still ignorant of the multifaceted and international culture of Asia. To them, I couldn't possibly be fluent in English seeing as I had never lived in the West, and they voiced this dissonance openly with belittling comments such as, “you don’t have an accent at all… are you mixed… like half white?” My isolation from my environment was further aggravated by my interactions with racist strangers during the outbreak of COVID-19. “Stop it with that Chinese shit!” yelled a Caucasian man whilst pointing to my face mask. I was livid and bewildered, but I continued to suppress my anger knowing it wouldn’t help anything. To me, these exchanges only served as more barriers for my already-contentious assimilation in this strange environment. I felt so deeply that my history was meaningless compared to my outward appearance - or, worse, any ludicrous conclusions strangers drew from it.
Through long FaceTime conversations with friends who were also studying abroad, we recognized the complexity of our upbringing. We longed for understanding from others but lacked confidence in sharing aspects of our ethnicity with them. We craved acceptance but never revealed the source of our isolation. My friends and I agreed that we were afraid of judgement and misunderstandings from others. This was reflected in the shallow connections we made with new acquaintances in our new cities. I felt uncomfortable with my vulnerability. Thus, these connections were limited as I rarely revealed myself fully, afraid that if I spoke authentically, I would be overbearing to others.
On one chilly night out in the city, my friends and I returned to our dorms in hopes of finding something warm and substantial to fill our stomachs. We sat down munching away on toast and started chatting about the night. I looked out the window, snow was pouring down and everything was white. In my dazed state of mind, I realized how far away I was from home. At that moment, I blurted out, “I miss home.” These words flowed freely without hesitation. I was at my most raw state and I wanted so badly to be understood. I felt lost in this new world. I proceeded to tell my friends that it wasn’t because I wasn’t having fun or because I didn’t like the city, but because of the total loss of familiarity. To my surprise, everyone listened intently and reassured me that my feelings were not isolated. I was met with curiosity from my friends and we spent the rest of our night sharing stories about our upbringing. I felt warm in the comfort of knowing that my experience was shared, that feeling foreign from my identity was a familiar struggle for most.
By speaking truthfully, I created space for myself and others to become vulnerable with each other. I embraced my cultural heritage and confronted the reality that misunderstandings around my ethnicity will always exist. Practicing vulnerability is similar to working a muscle. Emotional discomfort is inevitable, but with time, I grew more comfortable in sharing different sides of myself with my new friends.
Instead of desperately redefining my identity for others, I allowed the values of my ethnicity to come to the surface. By doing so, I regained authority over my reality and my cultural identity. There was no longer the pressure to fulfil a single narrative for myself or others. Yes, my upbringing is a very long story and no, I don’t have an accent even though I wasn’t born or raised in the West. I’ve searched for the roots of my ethnicity and allowed them to reconstruct the physical and internal attributes of my culture.
My interactions broadened, I found myself subconsciously meeting strangers who were also from Hong Kong, one of which was the owner of my favourite camera store in Downtown Toronto. I found comfort in knowing that my experience was not isolated and was shared amongst other diasporic Asians. I allowed myself to be vulnerable in front of people, sharing pieces of my experience living in Hong Kong and Taipei. But I also wanted to bridge a cultural misunderstanding from others who weren’t like me. If I don’t vocalise my discomforts of racism towards Asians, who will? Who will speak for me? Who will represent me and my unique experiences?
During the Winter break, I returned to Hong Kong with a newfound perspective. By leaving home, I understood that my biculturalism didn’t need validation from outsiders. The core of my identity could not be found in others. At times, I spoke Cantonese with a foreign accent and made numerous grammatical errors. Though embarrassing at times, there was no urgency to keep up the illusion that I had previously constructed for myself. My sense of self was strengthened beyond such crutches.
The imperfections in my mannerisms and accent serve as a representation of my diverse upbringing. Instead of attaching these to shame or embarrassment, I celebrate these flaws as a part of ethnic identity. I acknowledge the limits of understanding my heritage for myself and others. The constant questioning from others only reflects their curiosity on my experience as a bicultural individual living between Hong Kong, Taipei, and Toronto, and not my personal failure in being a universally perfect symbol of these worlds. I welcome these conversations in hopes of demonstrating the nuanced diversity of Asian experiences.
My relationship with my ethnicity continues to evolve as I reconcile with my Asian identity. Concurrently, through the vocalisation of these internal conflicts, I have become more empathetic towards the experiences of others. Moments of self-doubt often appear like an allergic reaction as my mind attempts to escape uncomfortable situations. Instead of withdrawing myself, though, I confront these realities as a tool to gain more insight into my bicultural self. It may be hard for some to separate observation and preconception as people see what they expect. Harmful misconceptions of Asians are often perpetuated as we are too afraid to vocalise our anger, as there is no room for us to do so. However, I have learned to value my Asian heritage more than the validation from others. Therefore, I communicate my discomforts towards racist comments clearly (and louder for the people in the back).
The penultimate Asian experience does not exist, and cannot be adequately captured in a single story, or even in many. By unrooting the truths of my ethnicity, I acknowledge that the nature of my upbringing is complicated and some may never understand that. However, I can reveal these pieces of my bicultural identity to remove expectations set by others, or at least lessen their ability over how I feel about myself. The power to define my ethnicity occurs internally through acceptance. Encouraging myself and other Asians to be more honest about their cultural identity empowers us all. . By doing so, we can protect our heritage and control our narratives.