What is my Canada?
If you are a Canadian who has been keeping some kind of attention to the news or social media, you probably know that Canada is 150 years old this year.
As we approach our nation’s birthday on July 1, we can probably guess that this birthday is not going to be any ordinary celebration.
Indeed, it was revealed that the price tag for this big birthday bash (because hey, Canada will only turn 150 once) will be just about half a billion dollars, give or take.
That’s some serious birthday cake right there.
But with all the pomp and circumstance that come with celebrating such a milestone (and it truly is one to be commemorated), there understandably has been a lot of counter points to our celebration from some parts of the Canadian population.
Which leads me to this question: how Canadian am I, really?
My fascination with this topic started in a first year Canadian history class.
As part of my International Studies minor at school, I have taken a few history classes to supplement the core courses.
Truth be told, it was also fun for me to do. I had always enjoyed history, as proven by my unwavering love for social studies and eventually going on to take History 12 in high school, followed by three History courses thus far in post-secondary (the world from 1300-present, Canada post-Confederation to the present, and World War II, in case you were curious).
In this particular Canadian history course, we were asked to write a final paper in lieu of an exam on any topic or event, as long as it is relevant to the time period of post-Confederation and had some significance in Canada’s history. 150 years of history, believe it or not, is a lot of history to sift through, so I decided to stick with my roots. I wanted to learn more about the Chinese in Canada, specifically Vancouver.
I knew some of the basic things: there was a head tax, there were race riots, there was anti-Chinese legislation. As a person of Chinese heritage, that sucked to read about. Though we are a much more tolerant society than we were 150 years ago, the fact that people who looked like me weren’t allowed to own land, vote, or practice professionally at one point in our city’s history struck a chord with me.
So I explored more. I ended up writing a paper on the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown and how gentrification, or the process of renovation of deteriorated urban neighbourhoods by means of the influx of more affluent residents, impacts and could potentially erase the history of Vancouver’s Chinatown.
Without going into too much detail here about the contents of my paper, I argued that gentrification is serving as an eraser, and it effectively erases the history of the Chinese here in Vancouver.
Presently, Vancouver’s Chinatown is part of the Downtown Eastside (DTES) and is considered to be quite run down and poverty-stricken. Rewind 100 years and we see that the solution of a “Chinatown” was a way for the European-Canadians to keep all the Chinese together and separate from the rest of the population. Though conditions were poor and ghetto-like, the Chinese thrived in these neighbourhoods and communities for the Chinese, as they did business with each other and served as a home away from home with common physical features, language and culture.
As I did more research into this topic and read about the ways that Chinese people were treated in a city that I now call home back 100-110 years ago, it led me to reflect on my own identity: as a Canadian, as a Chinese, as a Chinese-Canadian.
I am a first-generation Chinese-Canadian.
My mom was born in Hong Kong and my dad was born in Singapore. Both sides of my family are Chinese, through and through. Both of my parents pursued post-secondary education here in Canada, in Calgary of all places, and after graduating with their degrees, they immigrated to Canada, got married, and started their family.
I am a first generation Canadian in my family, as are my two younger sisters. Thankfully we had grandparents that were close to us that allowed us to keep many cultural practices, such as actually speaking Cantonese, writing and reading Chinese, and celebrating Lunar New Year and Mid-Autumn festival. We had Chinese food pretty often and we would have family visits, both here and abroad, to see other family members.
Whenever prompted, I would always say that I am Chinese-Canadian. I would never just say Canadian; I would always make the distinction that I was of Chinese heritage. This would happen naturally, for reasons unknown.
I was never ashamed of being Chinese. I would happily tell people that I was, and it never bothered me that physically, I looked different from other people in my class. In fact, I loved that I was Chinese. I always thought that it was pretty cool.
I always thought that it was cool to be Canadian, but I never really felt attached to it.
This isn’t to say that I don’t appreciate Canada – I love Canada. Over time we have grown to be a more tolerant, accepting and multicultural country, though we still have a lot more things that we need to get into motion. The fact that I am a Canadian citizen means a lot of things: I am able to practice my religion freely, I have the right to vote and the ability to go to school, and I can feel relatively safe at all times of the day, wherever I go. Particularly in Vancouver, we are blessed with mountains, water and forests, city meets nature, and so much cultural diversity.
It also typically means that I apologize a lot.
But all jokes aside, I always felt more attached to my Chinese roots rather than my Canadian ones. And to this day, I still feel that way, which probably is why I always will refer to myself as “Chinese-Canadian” or even just simply “Chinese”.
So here comes Canada Day.
Like all other Canada Days I have celebrated in the past, I will go to some picnic or party, watch some fireworks, have some food, and enjoy it with friends and family. Aside from the fireworks, this is also how I typically celebrate my birthday.
Is this me being unpatriotic? I’m not boycotting Canada Day, but at the same time, I don’t feel any particular need to deck out in red and white and sing “O Canada” at the top of my lungs.
I love Canada. But somehow, I feel disconnected.
The one thing I can’t figure out is why.
Is it because I’m apathetic or unpatriotic? Is it because I’ve had horrible past experiences with Canada Day celebrations? Is it because I know a fair bit about the history of the treatment of Chinese in Vancouver, and it’s led to a bit of harboured anger? Is it because I simply don’t care and it’s just another day to me?
I hope to find out soon.
This is part 1 of my 2-part Canada Day special. For someone who doesn’t really celebrate Canada Day, I sure write a lot about it.