No Ching-Chong Here

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“Yeah, but where are you really from?” It’s a question familiar to many Chinese-Canadians who grew up feeling torn between different cultures, identities and places. Tomorrow, seven young Montrealers of Chinese descent will share a roundtable discussion on what it means to be Chinese in a multicultural Canada: General Tao, Kung Fu, Ching-chong: Chinese Identity in a Multicultural Canada.

I met up with three of them last week at Magic Idea, a popular Chinatown café. Shuang Liu is a 19-year-old college student who is one of ten students allowed to skip her undergraduate studies and enroll straight into dentistry at McGill University in the fall. Sandra Lee is 26 and an environmental activist. Cedric Sam, also 26, is a web developer who runs Smurfmatic and the upstart subway-oriented restaurant review site Métro Boulot Resto (to which he has graciously allowed me to contribute). As we made introductions, a Jay Chou song came on and the café staff cranked up the stereo. We almost had to shout.

I started with the obvious question: why pick a title that plays so heavily on stereotypes? “The media plays such a huge role in how others see us,” Shuang answered. “When you think about Chinese food, you think about General Tao. When you think about a Chinese guy, you think he must do kung fu and talk like ‘Ching-chong ching-chong.’ The influence is huge and how I perceive myself is not really separate from that.”

Like many young Chinese-Canadians, Shuang has struggled to find her place in Canadian society. Born in Beijing, she immigrated with her family to ethnically homogenous Sherbrooke when she was two years old. (They later relocated to Quebec City, which isn’t any more diverse.) After a few years of being the only Asian kid on the playground, Shuang adopted a non-Chinese name, Melissa, to better blend in. It wasn’t until after her family had finally moved to more cosmopolitan Montreal that she decided to change it back. “It’s a name I’m really proud of. My parents happened to have the same [family] name and ‘Shuang’ sort of means ‘bringing together.’ It’s really beautiful,” she said.

Having lived as a child in two nearly all-white, all-francophone environments, Shuang has a unique perspective on Canadian identity. Her home life, she said, was entirely Chinese, but beyond that she found herself in a society with a totally different culture. “I would go on the playground and it would just be a different world. I’m still trying to find that balance between how Chinese I am and how Canadian I am,” she said.

Cedric Sam’s experience was a bit different. He was born and raised in Montreal and has spent his whole life on the West Island. His parents are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam and Madagascar; they moved here in the 1970s as students. Although his parents speak Cantonese at home, Cedric’s first language is French. Becoming fluent in English, and improving his Cantonese and Mandarin, came as a sort of cultural awakening when he began attending university at McGill.

Another turning point for Cedric was his first trip to Hong Kong in 2002. It was the first time he had been immersed in such a thoroughly Asian environment. “I had never seen Chinese people who were intellectuals,” he told me by way of example. “Going to Hong Kong made me see that you can have a normal country with, well, Chinese people.” It also clarified, to some extent, his own cultural identity: he felt himself identifying more with the other North American-born Chinese he met in Hong Kong than with the locals. Still, since that trip, and a subsequent one in 2005, he has made an effort to “be more Chinese.” Part of that has manifested itself in his fascination with Chinese indie music from Hong Kong and Taiwan.

Sandra Lee still feels strongly attached to Hong Kong culture. She lived there until her family moved to Toronto when she was 10. “I’ve always loved my language and been proud of my home culture,” she said. “[When I moved] I was actually angry that I was forced to learn English! I felt like I had to start all over again.” Sandra became almost giddy with excitement as she talked about the richness of Cantonese wordplay, something lacking in the English language’s more blunt approach to communication.

Still, Canada suits Sandra just fine. “What’s important to me is being plugged into different cultures at the same time,” she explained. That, in part, is why she is trying to launch an NGO that will raise environmental awareness in Montreal’s different ethnic communities.

One of the biggest reasons why Shuang, Cedric and Sandra have helped organize this weekend’s roundtable is simply to provide a forum for other young Chinese-Canadians to talk about their own identity. Everyone is welcome—the discussion will take place in English and French—and Cedric hopes to start things going with a few simple questions, like “How do you define your identity?” Given the diversity of Chinese-Canadian experience, especially in a linguistically and culturally complex city like Montreal, that alone should provide enough fodder for an afternoon of talk. “It’s a way to speak out, to say that we’re here,” Cedric said. “I would have liked to have had a thing like this when I was growing up.”

General Tao, Kung Fu, Ching-chong: Chinese Identity in a Multicultural Canada will take place at 2 p.m. on Sunday, June 3, on the fourth floor of the Chinese Family Service Centre, which is located at 987 Côté Street in Chinatown.

Another version of this article was originally published in Hour magazine.

This entry was written by Christopher DeWolf , posted on Saturday June 02 2007at 10:06 am , filed under Canada, Demographics, Society and Culture and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink . Post a comment below or leave a trackback: Trackback URL.

One Response to “No Ching-Chong Here”

  • Siqi says:

    interesting event, and one I would attend if I were in montreal. I used to think (a little arrogantly) that living as a sort of “international citizen” and dispensing with cumbersome notions such as national identity is possible, if not desirable. Then I realized that’s only a luxury afforded by toronto (the ephemeral, rootless, “post-modern” city) and my experience growing up in two countires. I’d be very interested in how things are perceived in montreal, a place with a much more entrenched idea of identity.

    alas I will probably find out for myself when I visit Sudbury, ON for work next week.