When I was a child, Barbie fascinated me. I tenderly held the blonde-haired doll and admired her sleek, toned body. My tiny hands eased her into colorful pink day dresses, and even the occasional satiny evening gown. I combed her long, shining tresses, while I envied her wide, blue eyes enhanced by thick, painted eyelashes.
Everything about her channelled perfection, and I admired her physical beauty. In the 60's when I was growing up, dolls personified the culture at the time. I turned on the television set, and on almost every weekly television shows featuring frontier Westerns like Bonanza, The Big Valley and others like that, some of the attractive women were carbon copy Barbie dolls. Their blond hair, fair skins and large, captivating eyes contrasted with my own darker skin tone, and long, thin black hair. Even some of the actors portraying Chinese women at the time featured in stereotypical street walker Asian roles.
I grew up as a 3rd generation Chinese Canadian in a suburb of Vancouver, Canada. My high school at the time reflected the lack of diversity; in fact, it appeared to me that I was a handful of Chinese or Asian students in a student body that was mostly Anglo-Canadian.
It's fair to say that I grappled with my concept of my identify throughout my childhood, and sometimes well into my twenties.
In one of my class photos in Grade 5, I frowned, stiffened my body, and looked miserable. My mind only lit up when it came to tetherball. This ball on a pole took me out of my shyness, and because I was good at it, my spirits soared.
Still, I didn't like going to school much. My sisters and I often fended off unwanted negative attention from other kids, who called us racist slurs going to and from our elementary school. It took us 2 long blocks to get home and on several occasions, my sister thrust her small brown briefcase at another kid in response to another uncalled for racial barb. She missed, but her intentions were clear--us Chan girls were willing to fight back!
Kids, teens and older people would see us and verbally attack us with no impunity, spewing out well-worn slurs like "Chink," "Go back to China" and "Chinamen." A lot of times, as children we fought back and spewed back our own verbal medicine. It was a back and forth game that sapped me emotionally.
My mother got wind of our troubles at school and one afternoon, the loud speaker called me and my siblings to the principal's office. Instead of berating us for physically standing up to bullies, the principal looked at us sympathically, and he even joked that my sister should have put rocks in the briefcase as an extra way to teach the kids a lesson.
Despite his support, this kindly school official couldn't stop the almost daily verbal abuse that me and my siblings experienced growing up in this mostly Angl0-Canadian city.
School turned out to be a blackboard jungle. The name-calling ripped into my self-esteem a little, and parts of me wanted to escape from being Chinese.
So, I looked towards my parents as role models.
My parents worked hard as the owners of a mom and pop grocer. Because our doors opened to customers on a daily basis, as a child, and later as a teenager, I discovered the city offered little insulation from racial prejudices that raised its ugly head sporadically.
On one occasion, when I was about 10, my mom picked us up from school one day, and some lean, tall, white kid proceeded to call us racial names when we drove by. My mom, who was normally gentle and mild-mannered, circled back in her bulky white chevy, and in her loudest, ugliest voice yelled out "What did you say, punk? What did you ever do for society?" It was as if lightning struck. Her unexpected reply to his name-calling brought back a wall of silence from the previously talkative kid. The kid said nothing, head facing downwards, and slunk away. Of course, my Mom's snappy words owe a credit to Clint Eastwood's character in some crime movies like Magnum Force where he frequently faced off against criminals using words like "punk" and other insults.
If some kids singled me out because of my skin colour, it occurred to me that I was as Canadian as they were --their culture was mine as well. I ate what they ate, watched their own TV shows, and read their books with tons of British influence. It ran the gamut from the original Jack and Jill version to books with British characters that were popular at the time.
I couldn't find supportive ethnic content in the school library. The school library offered literature that was outrageously devoid of books featuring nonstereotypical ethnic characters and themes of diversity acceptance.
Because I also liked writing stories as a child, my preteen mind struggled to create characters that reflected my Chinese background. The characters I wrote featured Anglo or white protagonists -- such was the influence of Anglo culture on me.
I loved eating Chinese food, and fortunately, as I grew up, my parents introduced us to Chinese culture via the gastronomic route. Occasionally, my dad treated us to late-night Chinese meals featuring sizzling hot ginger beef and crispy breaded almond chicken served on a bed of crunchy fresh lettuce. Sometimes, we feasted on steaming whole dungeness crab laden with garlic black bean sauce. Afterwards, dad drove casually past various Chinese grocers where he pointed out that some of the owners suffered financially. In fact, by the mid-seventies, chain grocery stores and 24-hour mini market franchises emerged with frightening speed, threatening the viability of mom and pop Chinese grocers.
Our frequent excursions outside the city helped strengthen my Chinese identify. Almost every week, my mother bundled us into a white 4-door Chevrolet and took the hour long ride to Chinatown where we savoured tasty pork buns, creamy butter tarts and dined on barbecue meat, rice and other dishes. Walking down the bustling streets of Chinatown, I blended in seamlessly, watching merchants call out the prices for various dried soup herbal medicine. I enjoyed our outings and especially looked forward to visiting our 80-something grandfather who lived independently on the west side of Vancouver, surrounded by spacious single family homes.
Because me and my siblings didn't speak Cantonese, my soft-spoken grandfather spoke some English and he always welcomed us to his neat ground floor apartment tucked away in a heritage building. It was the kind of space that surprised me with it's dainty elegance that included an antique piano. His quaint room also featured a cabinet full of Christmas wrapped and unwrapped bottles of Johnny Walker and similar hard liquor. But my eyes always trailed to the dual cherry oat framed oval portraits of a refined Asian man and woman looking regal and stern at the same time --undoubtedly my grandfather's parents. He told my mom once that he came to Canada as a house boy and sometimes cried of hunger. He eventually scraped together some money to open up a thriving grocery store, where my mom sometimes worked before she met my dad-coincidentally working as a server in a Chinatown noodle restaurant.
Our weekly food trips into Chinatown, and my nurturing, compassionate atmosphere at home gradually fueled my pride in being a Chinese Canadian. My dad busied himself, hiring local people to make and sell a myriad of colorful hanging baskets and potted chrysanthemums in his joint grocery and flower business. Although some customers spewed out racism coming to the store, my dad rarely gave it much of a thought, once telling me to just ignore the abuse and take the guy's money --payback for a cruel world.
I realized that no matter how difficult or hard school life was for a shy, Chinese girl, it was important to stand tall, continue to pursue our business goals, and ignore any detractors. My dad walked away from the grocer business to pursue other activities like ball room dancing and real estate. Despite his limited education, my dad's success inspired me to continue dreaming big, even if obstacles come in the way.
The portrait of the young Asian man and woman, with their steely and strong faces, served as another source of support during my youth, encouraging me to embrace my identity with pride. While I may have experienced moments of uncertainty as a young girl, the unexpectedly calm and robust support from all my close and distant relatives I encountered as a child and a youth instilled in me a life-long appreciation for myself and my Chinese culture.