Être chinois à Ottawa

We saw the first rough-edit version of the film yesterday, and worked all day to craft it into its final version. The film is funny, profound, disturbing and beautiful all at once. Congratulations to editor Meiyen for all her hard work and fabulous results!

After the screening, Parker and I sat down to begin scripting our voice-overs. Here’s a little excerpt – maybe you’ve had some similar experiences growing up?

Growing up Chinese in Ottawa

I was always swinging back and forth, like a pendulum, about my Chinese identity. At a young age, I idealized the notion of school (so not surprising that I’m a teacher now!), even setting up a classroom in our basement to “teach” my brother, my “student”. I begged my mother to go to school, but at the age of 3, the only one available to me was Chinese school, so she enrolled me.

At the age of 5, I began French immersion, and so I learnt all three languages at once – though English eventually won out as my dominant language. From time to time, I yearn for the Cantonese proficiency I had as an infant – I spoke better Cantonese then than I do now! With Chinese school on Saturday mornings, Chinese cultural activities on Saturday afternoons, Chinese church on Sunday mornings, and dim sum Sunday afternoons, it’s perhaps not surprising that I felt a disconnect with who I was the rest of the week, which was extremely “Canadian”.

In my early childhood, I actively rejected everything Chinese, eventually quitting Chinese school, but also disliking playing with Chinese children, and correcting my parents’ English. This was all from a place of shame and embarrassment.

Once a teenager, the pendulum swung the other way, because as all teenagers do, I wished to be different and special. One way of being special was to be exceedingly Chinese, and so I brought chopsticks to school to eat lunch with, I became intensely interested in Buddhism (my career goal was to become a Buddhist nun), and talked to my friends about what little Chinese culture I knew about.

Pendulum swings again on visit to China

The pendulum swung again when my mom brought me to China for the first time after high school, when I met my grandmother and extended family for the first time, and visited our ancestral village. I was very impressed by the collective nature and agricultural systems of our village (for the same environmental reasons I still have today, I think), but overall, the trip left me with a sense of disquiet, because I didn’t feel accepted by Chinese, even my own family members, who said I was “dark” and “fat”, not helping my already fragile teenage self-esteem.

The next year, I was accepted to many universities, but deliberately chose the one I knew would have the fewest Chinese people: Trent University in Peterborough, Ontario.

The pendulum only centered itself when I started to recognize my experience in different cultural products such as Giant Robot magazine and Wong Kar-Wai’s films – these gave me a sense of pride in being second-generation Chinese. Eventually, I put two-and-two together and realized that it’s pretty unusual to grown up the way I did, and that my real place, where I felt most comfortable, was within the Chinese community in Montreal, and that’s where I belonged.

I hope the film will provoke a similar reaction in people whose pendulums are swinging, and that recognizing themselves in these stories will give some inner peace.

Une réflexion au sujet de « Être chinois à Ottawa »

  1. I like the pendulum metaphor! Describes my own trajectory perfectly.

    Haha, « dark » and « fat »! I was called the same by my family!

    In fact, your story reminds so much of mine that I wonder if these experiences are not universal to all Chinese children growing up in Canada…

    Can’t wait to see the documentary to find out the answer! 😉

    xoxo

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