Don’t Shame Your Mom’s Broken English When You’re the One Who’s Monolingual
My Failure to Understand the Significance of Cultural Identity
After the events of the Atlanta mass shooting in March of 2021, I wrote an article for Next GenerAsian expressing my frustrations with the system and antagonization of Asian Americans. Much of the details mentioned in that article are directly connected to this reflective piece.
I’ve always had a strong fear of judgment and public ridicule all throughout my childhood. As I explained in my previous article, my parents are Chinese-Malaysian immigrants who were able to adapt to the norms of Canadian society; but in doing so, they had to abandon parts of their own cultural identities. My dad immigrated to Canada with his family in the 1970s, and my mom followed along in the 1990s.
My family made too many sacrifices to create a better life in Canada just for me to end up being an ungrateful and ignorant daughter. Fear of being bullied for embracing my culture paired with my dad’s own childhood racial trauma convinced my parents to shelter me and my sister from many things.
My dad and my aunt would be in their backyard with my grandpa and grandma as they'd bai sun, which in Hakka Chinese translates to "honouring the Gods." The Buddhist practice involves praying with incense sticks at a household altar traditionally used for, as stated, honouring Gods, ancestors and bringing good luck. White children in the neighbourhood would peek over the fence and see them doing this practice. They would notice the "foreign" foods used as offerings, which grossed them out, leading to them teasing, bullying, and shouting racial slurs at my aunt and dad.
Since hearing this story, I realized how my dad continues to internalize racism and refrains from opening up about his own struggles with identity.
Now in my second year of university, in a new city, childhood trauma follows me everywhere. In a place where I have barely any other East and Southeast Asian friends, I feel stranded and constantly reminded of my stubborn refusal to learn more about what it means to be Chinese-Malaysian. Why is it that when I walk in Chinatown I feel at home, but also like a tourist? I can’t communicate with my own people, and while I do understand parts of the dialect, they assume I’m not even Chinese.
Growing up, I pushed as hard as I could to dissociate from being Chinese-Malaysian and I’m starting to resent my younger self for it.
I always told my mom to speak English and refused to attend Chinese school because I felt ashamed. I told my family that I wished I wasn’t Chinese. I thought I was better than other Chinese kids because I could speak fluent English but in reality, they were multilingual and I was just monolingual. Plenty of times I also tried to play off the fact that I resemble someone of mixed race and did everything I could to escape my Chinese identity. As I approached my teenage years I also started to wear a lighter foundation pigment whenever my skin started to tan.
The most vivid parts of these memories are the times I’d refuse to bring Asian lunches to school because of how my peers teased me.
All of these behaviours and failures to accept, share, and embrace my culture aren’t isolated to just me. I am just one of several kids who never felt proud of their cultural identity and heritage because of how society framed us.
Those damn lunchbox moments changed me. Had I educated and informed my ignorant peers about how important food is to our culture I wouldn’t be as much of a banana (jook-sing) as I am today.
Why did I force my mom to pack boring sandwiches and western foods when I could’ve embraced the culture and felt nourished, comforted, and proud of our vibrant cuisine. I had multiple chances to stand up, but I didn’t because of fear. Those kids who harassed me were just kids with no wider understanding of the world. The hate attributed to us through sinophobia, yellow peril, and the model minority myth dented my childhood and I cannot escape it even today.
I continue to hold the weight of the world on my shoulders – to carry on what little knowledge I have of my culture. For my future family and next generations, I have the chance to correct all the mistakes that I made. I had let social shame, conformity, and assimilation force me to become something that I am not. As the loss of culture begins, all attempts at preservation become extinct.
While I haven't fully felt comfortable with my identity as an Asian woman, I’m trying to now. Much of the racism and sinophobia I have experienced changed my perceptions, attitudes, and actions. The Atlanta mass shooting was a pivotal moment in my life that forever changed my outlook on social movements and justice for the Asian community. As I’m more educated and informed about the history of my culture, I will work to dismantle the colonial systems of oppression that prevented me from learning my mother tongue or being proud of my heritage. I’ve been embracing our food, languages, and all aspects of culture while continuing to learn more about my people by reclaiming and restructuring the narratives surrounding my identity, something that I should have done since the beginning.
How have you struggled with embracing cultural identity? Did you ever experience a moment where your perception completely changed? Let us know in the comments!