By Jan Wong
At a scholarship fundraiser last month, I appeared on a panel with two other Canadian authors, memoirist Wayson Choy and novelist Vincent Lam. Asked how our heritage had influenced our writing, Wayson, a gentle and wise man in his late sixties, reminisced about growing up in Canada.
“I was a banana,” he said, “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.”
I flinched, but I knew what Wayson meant. I grew up in 1950s Montreal in the shadow of discrimination The head tax had discouraged Chinese from coming to Canada, but three of my grandparents readily paid it. In 1923 Parliament slammed the door shut. The Chinese Exclusion Act wasn’t repealed until 1947, only after Chinese-Canadian veterans of World War II demonstrated in Ottawa—in uniform.
Attitudes didn’t change overnight. I was still “yellow on the outside,” always the “other,” even though one grandfather arrived, before the head-tax days, in 1881 when Canada tapped the truly desperate to build the Canadian Pacific Railway through the Rockies. At elementary school, Sunday school and summer camp, everyone asked where I was born. Occasionally I was congratulated for my English.
I thought I was Chinese. In 1972, at 19, I left for Beijing in search of my roots. Living through Chairman Mao’s xenophobic Cultural Revolution was a different experience from Wayson’s (who has his own dramatic coming-of-age story, set in Vancouver.)
My years among the Maoists taught me many things, including the revelation I wasn’t Chinese. I was not “white” inside. I was Canadian through and through. That’s why I no longer hyphenate myself. After three generations in Canada and more than a century in this country, I am Canadian. Period.
We must be mindful that there is no default template for a Canadian. We are all “the other.” Regardless of our “outside” colours, we are all Canadian.
I teach journalism at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, N.B., where the majority of my students are white kids from the Maritimes. (Exceptions include a few aboriginal students and some foreign students, mostly from mainland China.)
In class one day, I brought in a story from the local newspaper about a restaurateur charged with illegally storing bear meat in a cooler on her premises. The headline: “Chinese restaurant owner charged with …”
I asked if anyone saw anything wrong with the headline. No one did. After all, the owner’s name was Le Binh Tina Tu and the restaurant was called “Mandarin Palace.”
“She was Chinese,” said one student, slowly.
Would they identify a deli as a “Jewish restaurant”? Or presume that an owner named, say, Goldman, was Israeli? “Am I Chinese?” I asked. “Or am I Canadian?”
My students shifted uncomfortably. For a fleeting moment, I felt sorry for them. But I’m not one to miss a teachable moment.
Together we re-read the story. I said the owner’s name suggested Vietnamese heritage, but her citizenship remained an unanswered question. The mainstream media, including the CBC, had covered the story, too. While more sophisticated and avoiding the words, “Chinese restaurant owner,” the subliminal message had been the same: Chinese eat endangered wildlife.
A few days later, I went to the Mandarin Palace for the first time. Business had declined precipitously in the wake of the scandal and some friends, including my pal, Rabbi Yosef Goldman, had suggested a solidarity dinner.
Tina Tu, the owner, was away. I chatted up the waitress to learn more details. Tina had been keeping the meat for a customer, a friend who had a valid license to shoot bear. Was his ethnicity relevant? No more, I suppose, than that of Tina’s. The waitress said he was a professor at the University of New Brunswick, a white man. But the media missed that bit.
Jan Wong’s most recent bestseller is Out of the Blue: A Memoir of Workplace Depression, Recovery, Redemption and, Yes, Happiness. She divides her time between Fredericton and Toronto.