Intersections is a new features sub-section exploring multiculturalism and diaspora in Toronto. Students consider how their cultural backgrounds have influenced their experiences, perspectives, and stories.
I don’t have a culture. At 10 months old, I was adopted from China by a single, white Canadian woman. I grew up in a semi-rural town populated almost entirely by white people. In that strange circumstance, any meaningful connections I might have had to the culture of my birthplace or the culture I was surrounded by have been erased.
I don’t have a history. According to my mother, I’m from a “dirt poor” rural village, but the orphanage either didn’t have or didn’t provide any further information. My name was originally Yi Shulan, but I don’t know if my birth parents gave me that name or if the orphanage did. I don’t know the day I was born. My official documentation says December 16, but I suspect the orphanage just took a guess and assigned it to me — a fairly common practice, I’m told. My entire history is foggy, a series of unstable estimates. It’s impossible to have a culture without a history.
One of my middle names is Shulan, a testament to my mother’s attempt to connect me to my Chinese heritage. She enrolled me in Mandarin lessons as a child, took me to Chinese celebrations, read me Chinese folk stories, and still gives me a loonie in a red envelope every Chinese New Year. None of it ever took. There was no innate connection I had to the culture of my homeland, no cinematic eureka moment when I heard the spooky red dragons at the new year’s parade calling to me.
Those who know me, and I with them, often make jokes about me being ‘whitewashed.’ It’s true. I bring casseroles for lunch. When I look in the mirror, I’m sometimes surprised to see East Asian features just sitting there on my face. But I don’t expect to see a white woman staring back at me either. My relationship to whiteness is more complex than being whitewashed. I can’t help that whiteness is all I’ve really known, that I’ve lived the majority of my life surrounded by it, but I was only ever surrounded — never included, never embraced.
The racist taunts of bratty white kids in primary school and the subtle digs at my poor math skills in middle school made it clear from the start that I was alien. I didn’t see this otherness as a bad thing per se, but I was acutely aware of it. In high school, East Asians were one of the smallest minorities — I can remember maybe 10 others in an approximately 1,100-person student body. Suffice it to say, the whiteness was intense. Rugby was quite popular.
U of T, then, was a bizarre shift. After over a decade of constantly standing out, I suddenly blended right in, although only on the surface level. If anything, U of T’s large Chinese community only further impressed upon me my alienation. At the frosh week clubs’ fair, I passed by a giant Chinese students’ association booth, and it didn’t even cross my mind that I counted as a Chinese student. I likely walk past hundreds of Chinese students every day, and every day it’s an out-of-body experience to be among them yet feel so distant.
Earlier this year, The Varsity began translating articles into Simplified Chinese. I was sitting on a couch in the paper’s office on one of the first days the translators came in. They filled up the newsroom tables in front of me and began chatting to each other. I saw myself in each of them, but they were speaking a language I couldn’t understand. In them, there was a life that could have been mine in a different world.
My uncle, who was born in Canada, once told me that I should be grateful to my mother for adopting me, implying that my life wouldn’t have been much otherwise. I’m not close with him, but even within my more intimate family, I’m not one of the crowd. Once, when I was wearing a long robe coat that tied closed like a kimono, my mother well-meaningly told me that I looked “Oriental.” She meant it as a compliment.
I do try to remind myself how lucky I am. I wasn’t killed or left for dead as a newborn because I was a girl, a tendency of poor families in a culture that values boys above all. I escaped growing up in an orphanage. I was adopted by a loving, albeit unaware, family and given opportunities I couldn’t have dreamed of in China. But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that somewhere along the line, I was robbed of a sense of cultural identity and belonging by my circumstances.
Being cultureless is something to which I’ve become accustomed but haven’t accepted. I still can’t tell if it’s liberating or lonely to float through life untethered and without a people you can call your own. When others make reference to their own cultures — something as simple as naming a recipe or humming a song — there are small, fragile threads of my own past that I grasp at to make me feel like I, too, have a place in the world. A birth date on a health card. A middle name.