During labour, when my midwife announced, “I see blonde hair,” she might as well have told me she saw a kitten. I’m half-Chinese, and my husband is white, and I did well enough in high-school biology to know she could end up with light features, like her dad, or green eyes, like both her dad and my father’s. Naïvely, or maybe hopefully, I thought she would look just enough Chinese to have some of the same ethnic features I do — the almost black, stick-straight locks, almond-shaped eyes, and rounded cheekbones. Even if they were traits that took me many years to embrace.
In the weeks following her birth, like all new parents, I closely examined her features, wondering if her fair hair and her deep blue eye colour were here to stay. I selfishly wanted a mini-me. I didn’t want people to think I was her nanny or question that I was her mother. Even though my husband will tell me, “She looks just like you — if you had blonde hair and blue eyes,” her appearance made me feel insecure. Offhanded comments from strangers and family — like “She didn’t get your features,” or “She must look like her father” — intensified it, making me feel like I failed as a mother, though it’s not like I could control how our genes played out. Maybe I wished if she looked just a little more ethnic, it would be like having a re-do of my childhood — one that hopefully wouldn’t come with the same challenges.
I’ve been asked, “What’s your background?” for as long as I can remember. Growing up in a small town north of Ottawa in the early ’80s, the daughter of a second-generation Chinese mum and a Caucasian dad, I was an anomaly. I wondered why there weren’t more kids who looked like me and I felt alone. Everyone around me was white — my neighbours, family friends, and classmates. As a young girl I felt ashamed of how I looked because the message I received was to be beautiful was to be white. Flipping through the pages of YM in Grade 6, it was rare to see anyone who looked like me. I desperately wanted to erase my ethnic features to fit in. When I started to wear makeup, I even experimented with contouring my nose to make it look thinner.
It took moving to Toronto for university to finally feel like I was OK just the way I was. These days I don’t mind being asked about my background. I think the question mostly comes from a place of curiosity or a desire to relate. But not always. The first time I remember it being asked, when I was a child, was by a blonde, white woman when my mother, sister, and I were at the local mall. When my mother answered, “Chinese,” the woman replied, “Your girls are beautiful. You should go back to your country and model.” Even at six years old, I knew it wasn’t a compliment.
And it was ironic, since Canada is my mother’s country. Her parents were born here, as was she. My mum didn’t speak any Chinese, and I hardly ever heard my grandparents speak it. I’ve never strongly identified with my Chinese background and the only tradition our family ever really followed was getting red packages at Chinese New Year (and we never got them on actual Chinese New Year, but on January 1). Now as a mum, I want to establish Chinese traditions for my daughter, such as giving her a Chinese name, handing out red packages, and cooking recipes from my grandmother — they’re all a part of a heritage I don’t want to disappear. More importantly, I want her to understand the struggles her great-great grandparents faced as Chinese immigrants and the racism endured by people of colour in Canada, both past and present.
My great-grandmother (bak poh) paid the $500 head tax, required of only Chinese immigrants, to enter Canada in 1919. My grandmother (po po) once recalled to me the racism her family dealt with when she was a child, as one of the very few Chinese families in Hull, QC. The most shocking incident was a fire in the 1930s, set by a group of men who threw fireballs at the restaurant they owned and where the family of 11 lived upstairs. Thankfully, it was quickly put out and didn’t destroy their livelihood or cause any serious injuries. My daughter needs to know how badly her ancestors were treated simply because they weren’t white.
Racism is still a problem in Canada, of course. If current events are any indication (from the racism Meghan Markle faces to the racism Don Cherry dished out), we still have many hurdles to overcome. I know my daughter will never look like me, and because of that, she’s been afforded privileges that may be completely unconscious to her unless I help open her eyes. Maybe if she’s able to see racism as something that’s not a problem faced by “others” but her own family, she’ll be more likely to become an ally.
My daughter is 16 months now, and when well-meaning strangers comment about how fair she is or how she must look like her father, it bothers me less than it used to. Now when I look at her sweet face, I see me — not a reflection of me, but of our bond. Regardless of how anyone perceives her, I hope that by sharing my story and my family’s, she’ll know she’s more than just a girl with blonde hair and blue eyes.
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