The Right Trousers
A bit of a change of pace for this post, while I put on my ‘serious’ trousers. You know, the ones with the knife-edge crease and the sober belt loops. They chafe a little so I may remove them at intervals. I want to thank Anne of the delightful Middle aged Momma blog for inspiring me to write at length on my childhood experiences.
Those of you looking for the usual cartoon and silliness? Normal service will be resumed – I just thought I’d share my personal (I dislike that term ‘journey’) experiences with you. Perhaps you may even find it silly . . .
Where Are you From – a Dialogue
I am always happy to answer that question, in spite of the fact that it seems to lead to followup questions, as if my answer were somehow not satisfactory, or dancing around a much more juicy and warty truth.
ME: Winnipeg. (in answer to preceding question)
Random Stranger (RS): Uh huh. But where are you REALLY from?
ME: (stifling urge to push my eyeballs into my skull with my thumbs) Yup, still Winnipeg. Heh! Heh! Cough.
RS: Okay, but where are your folks from?
ME: Oh. (funny you did not ask me that in the first place, is that an interrogation technique?). Well, my mother is originally from England, and my father was born in Vancouver.
ME: (to put RS out of their self-imposed perplexity) My father’s parents were from Japan and came to Canada in the early 1920’s. My father met my mother, and hey, Bob’s Your Uncle, ta DA! Behold! The miracle that you see standing before you . . .
RS (penny dropping, lights go on): Ooooh! (scurries away)
I have been through many such iterations of that conversation. As a (holding nose as I say this) visible minority, they have been unavoidable. My favourite is: WHAT are you? Gets right to the point, and is typically a question asked by kids, and a few adults, sadly. (what BREED are you, were you a rescue?) For my sister, the questions take on a different tone: My, you’re exotic looking. Like a tropical plant I saw in a conservatory once.
3 Guesses, the First Two Don’t Count
Depending on my mood, my answer will vary. If I am feeling playful, I might say, Well, look at my face. What do YOU think? 3 guesses. (Very few have EVER guessed)
I grew up in a predominantly White neighbourhood, German, Ukrainian, Jewish, Polish. There was one Japanese girl in my school (Wokako was her name, though perhaps that was her pejorative name) and I never spoke to her. That was the extent of other non-White ethnic groups. I did not even meet a Black person until I was in grade 8.
The Métis and Canada’s Strained Racial Relations
In any case, Winnipeg (which had, and still does, have a poor reputation in North America as a particularly racist city) was a never a favoured settling place for Asian peoples given its landlocked position smack dab in the middle of North America. Winnipeg has one of the largest indigenous populations (Métis, among others) in Canada, and perhaps this is the key to the racism problem.
Métis comes from an old French word meaning ‘mixed’. According to Wikipedia, the Métis are members of ethnic groups native to Canada and parts of the U.S. that trace their descent to indigenous North Americans and European settlers..
White people (some not all), at the time I was growing up there, had a very combative and hostile relationship with First Peoples. I remember vividly at age 10 being asked to leave a public pool; not by staff, but by a patron, who stated, ‘I don’t like Indians.‘ What was I going to do with that information? I promptly left, and something told me not to mention this to my parents, especially my father, who worked a federal job in Indian Affairs, as it was called back then. I eventually did return, (loved swimming, the sting of chlorine in the eyes) though the incident shook me a bit.
Cue the Violins . . . and Kazoo
I did not suffer many other such incidents and, in fact, enjoyed a great childhood, and had a pretty big circle of (yes, White) friends. However, in school, a Mrs. Miller seemed to single me out for wrongdoings and, such was her ignorance, thought I was Chinese, in spite of my clearly Japanese surname. She dubbed me the ‘Chinese Chatterbox’ given my reputation for loquaciousness and need for attention through ‘comedy’. (one day I came to school wearing my mum’s sunglasses and rode that schtick for a week or so) The name, of course, stuck, and I was known as that for the entire year! It is so hard to be on all the time, I can tell you. I did and made it look good.
Later that year, Mrs Miller cobbled up some imaginary infraction that excluded me from the eagerly anticipated Winter Carnival, which hurt like hell then, and still resonates to this day. I still remember crying quietly, knowing I couldn’t go, the entire class silently regarding me. I could not say positively that Mrs Miller had it in for me because I was ‘other’. It certainly felt like it.
This is not a ‘poor me’ diatribe, by any means. I am trying hard not to drift into that territory. I thought that it might be of interest to some, who are not familiar with life here in Canada, and our strained relations with the First Peoples, and other non-White races.
To High School, and Beyond
In high school, for the most part, I did not encounter such racism. Certainly not from staff, although there was some invective hurled at a few Asian groups, from other students. I had moved to Vancouver by then, which, of course, completely changed the playing field in terms of race and racism. Any fracas that I became involved in was a result of not my not being able to shut my mouth, rather than anything race-based. Thanks a lot, mother, for my flapping tongue.
I did have some mild incidences when my perfectly enunciated speech, and ability to use multi-syllabic words came as a surprise to some other kids. They probably expected some form of Mickey Rooney-esque pidgin English. I would have done that 100% if I had had the foresight!
AM I Hyphenated?
In conclusion, let us return to the title of this post. Who do you identify as, Wilt, you ask?(Which is strange, why do you talk to a white screen?) Are you a hyphenated Canadian? That is, do you identify as Japanese-Canadian, or as a Canadian with Japanese heritage? A Japanese with maple syrup in their veins? Some are more militant than I am in their own stance, possibly owing to negative experiences. Myself, I have no problem with identifying as Japanese-Canadian. Since I am the third generation of our people to reside in Canada, I am sansei. My father is nisei, my grandfather issei. My children are yonsei. (I’ll spring it on them one day)
Hope you enjoyed this post. If you made it this far, bravo. Go have a well-earned lie down. I am delighted (and proud) to tell you about my background, and often will, to captive audiences at the bank, or at the grocery store. They say the Japanese are a quiet, introverted lot and that is true, by and large. However, those who follow this blog (you know who the two of you are) will know that my mum is English, that is, from England. As Eric Idle says, ‘Say no more.’
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