April 13, 2016
How I Found My Identity Being a Mixed-Heritage Canadian
Katrina Laura Reika Kitahara-Ng
If someone were to ask me my cultural identity today, I would confidently reply, “I am a Japanese-Chinese Canadian”. This however, was not always the case. Being a mix of two Asian races, people don’t often assume that I would have much identity crises in terms of what culture I identify with. Admittedly there were times when I would deny my Chinese heritage, or push away my Japanese one simply because I had the misconception that one identity was superior than the other during those times. One may think, “Chinese and Japanese culture are so similar, how could that cause any confusion?”, but those who understand the historical conflicts between the two nations will understand some of the discomforts I’d felt as a child born of two distinct cultures and raised in a Western nation.
I was born in Canada as the eldest of three daughters in 1994 to my Japanese mother, and my second-generation Chinese-Canadian father. My father was an Olympic athlete for Canadian table tennis, and he and his team would sometimes go to Japan for training and tournaments. My mother happened to be working at the hotel my father’s team stayed at, and that was the start of their relationship. My mother moved to Canada to be with my father, and I always feel that this is one of the biggest sacrifices one can make – leaving behind one’s family and friends to be with somebody in another country takes so much courage. Growing up, my father emphasized the importance of my mother teaching us the Japanese language as well as Japanese culture. He also tried teaching us Cantonese, but unfortunately because he was so busy working to provide for our family, the Cantonese stuck to us less. Regardless, it is clear that maintaining our cultural identities was very important for my father. According to his logic, we would learn fluent English in school easily but have a much harder time retaining our mother tongues; I thank my parents every day for having blessed me with the ability to be bilingual. My mother essentially raised us in a “Japanese manner”, and all three of us sisters began identifying more with our Japanese background – something that seems like a common occurrence with mixed-heritage families.
The typical accounts of growing up as Asian-Canadians or Asian-Americans dealing with racism never particularly resonated with my experiences growing up. My sisters and I were raised in Markham, Ontario – a part of the Greater Toronto Area just outside of the Toronto core. Markham is an area known for its high population of Asians; I saw more Asian-Canadian children at my schools than any other ethnicity – I almost fit right in. Almost. This was where I hit my first wave of inner conflict – most of the children in grade school were Chinese-Canadian and spoke Cantonese among themselves; because I could not speak the language I felt left out at times. For a short period of time, I resented not being able to communicate in the same secret language. All the while this was happening, I still identified with and thus respected more my Japanese side – more than my identities as Chinese or Canadian.
The real turning point for my equal appreciation for all my cultures really came into play when I moved to Japan in 2015 and lived there for about two years. I suppose, living in Japan was definitely different from simply visiting, and truly opened my eyes to all aspects of Japanese culture. I saw the many good things about Japanese culture, such as the courteous nature of citizens, and the overall patient, considerate behavior of people. I was able to celebrate holidays and special events just as my Japan-born friends always had. I visited different parts of Japan, such as Hokkaido and Okinawa and absolutely fell in love with the various cities. The food in Japan is remarkable and being in Toronto, I often miss the delicious dishes I could easily obtain while living in Tokyo; even something as simple as a convenience store rice ball I find myself craving. The customer service in Japan is at such a high level that I often find myself disappointed in Canadian service in comparison. Because Japan has such an extensive history, I find it intriguing and interesting to study, more so than I ever had studying Canadian history. I was able to understand, and thus appreciate Japan in ways I was not able to in the past – and for that I will be forever grateful to have received that opportunity.
At the same time however, I began realizing things about Toronto that I missed, and even thought at times, “why isn’t it like that in Japan?” regarding a number of issues. I missed the true “multinational” aspect of Toronto – something that became glaringly clear to me while living in a mono-ethnic country such as Japan. I missed eating authentic foods from other countries, lamenting how my favourite ethnic dishes had been altered to fit the Japanese palate. I longed for days when I could wear sweatpants in public without being socially ostracized. I cringed at the idolization of specifically Caucasian foreigners in Japan, how so many Japanese girls could go ga-ga over a mediocre man simply because of his ethnicity. I noticed and often critiqued the workaholic nature of Japanese people; if people have no need to do overtime in Toronto, they should not have to do so to succeed in Japan, I thought. In many ways, I began to appreciate my birth country in ways that I didn’t think were possible before. I suppose with this, I was able to confirm that while there is no perfect country, each nation has admirable traits as well as things that may be less than ideal. At the end of the day, I will always respect and admire the countries that I am a part of because ultimately their positive traits will always overpower any negatives that may exist.
While my internal self has at this point learned to embrace all the cultures that I am a part of, I still am sensitive to my perceptions of racial prejudice present in all three of my cultures. For example, I will always use my mother’s maiden name in Japan for fear of discrimination. Japanese people will never outwardly be rude about race, but with all the distain for Chinese tourists (albeit it seems Chinese tourists have a bad reputation worldwide) and talk of Chinese-Japanese political conflicts, I prefer being seen as Japanese while in Japan. Simultaneously, I will never mention without being asked that I am Japanese while in China. Many Chinese people compliment my Japanese characteristics but I find that because Chinese people tend to be very prideful in their culture, they will typically respect me more if I were more Chinese. While living in Canada, I am always adamant to confirm to the person I am speaking to, that I am indeed fluent in English and that I am Canadian-born to ensure I am not being mocked. Some would point out that my thoughts are outdated, and that I need not worry so much anymore, and in fact I would definitely agree with these people that my thoughts are unnecessary.
So, what exactly is the point I am trying to make? I suppose, one, is to encourage readers to be kind; being of mixed heritage can be tough and depending on cultural dynamics, can cause identity crises. Second, I want to convey to readers the importance of appreciating cultures and ethnicities in their natural states, and that being able to recognize the flaws in a culture is necessary if one desires to thoroughly experience and understand a culture. I realized that I didn’t have to choose one culture of mine to love the most; to the contrary, I would be the happiest if I learned to embrace all my cultures and find pride in being a part of all of them, which I am proud to say I have accomplished in the present. In a world that is becoming increasingly multi-ethnic, we as mixed-heritage children are allowed to be proud of and represent the cultures we are made of. I am proud to say I have attended my Canadian style high school prom. I can hold my head up high when I tell people I have attended my coming of age ceremony in Japan while wearing a traditional furisode kimono. I am able to proclaim my love for my grandparents’ village in China. Always be proud of every aspect of yourself, and life will become much more enjoyable. I’m glad it only took me 20 years to figure this out, because I know that being able to appreciate my background will only add positivity to the rest of my life.