“This is for your own good,” my mom said. “You’ll understand your culture better if you surround yourself in the community.” This all too familiar talk that made me want to pull out my hair was my weekly Saturday lecture as I sat brooding in the car while my mom drove me to Chinese school.
I remember hearing lowered voices on my first day. No one knew why I was there or if I was even Chinese. All I could do was sit in my seat, stay quiet, and pretend that I couldn’t hear the discussions around me. Who was I? Why was I there? Did I even speak Mandarin?
Over time, no one cared to discuss the mixed-culture girl sitting in the back of the class anymore. But it was clear that I wasn’t the same as my classmates, and I would never be.
Going to Iranian school was no different. I was an outsider who could only say a few words in Farsi: ‘Salom,’ ‘Houbi,’ and ‘ghormeh sabzi.’ In sequence, “hello,” “how are you,” and my favourite Iranian dish. You could only imagine the deep conversations I had in those classes.
The weekend battles attending these schools were all rooted in my heritage.
My parents met in Toronto and got married soon after. There were no church bells or a big white wedding dress. There weren’t 200 guests or a big cake with fondant flowers. It was just a small town hall wedding, and a year later, I was born.
My parents worked hard, not only at their jobs but also in understanding each other’s cultures. My dad is Iranian and my mother is Chinese, yet they have been able to make it work.
They took time to appreciate and embrace each other’s culture, and to this day, I still think my mom makes better loobia polo. So when I was growing up, it never occurred to me that growing up between cultures was different. I felt secure in who I was.
I was exposed to both my Chinese and Iranian culture during childhood, and my parents made sure that my sister and I were equally proud of both sides. As I grew up, I learned why it was so important to be secure in myself.
My third identity
To me, my diverse background is simple enough to understand. I can get by without discussing it. But once it gets mentioned, I have people in shock with jaws dropped and a dozen of questions not too far behind. I go on airplane mode for most of these questions, which typically involve me ‘proving’ that I am Chinese and Iranian and not just pranking them.
Being Chinese-Iranian in Canada has come with its own set of challenges. I have three sets of rules, three cultures, and three communities to navigate.
While it is not abnormal to tweak ourselves a little bit as we change environments, being mixed means that my whole identity changes depending on who I am with and where I am.
There is the constant struggle of having to ‘play up’ one of my cultures based on my environment. And yet, none of my efforts have ever been enough.
I am being treated in a way where I have to ‘choose’ a side, yet no side will accept me. I can communicate in Mandarin, but I don’t look Chinese enough. I look mostly Iranian, but I don’t speak Farsi. I was born in Canada, but I am not white. I have learned to accept this; it is my reality, and I know I will always be secure in who I am.
Finding security in myself
I think a large reason why I am secure in who I am is because of my family’s open-minded way of thinking.
I remember visiting my family in China and walking down the streets of Beijing with my Chinese grandparents. Everywhere we went, my sister and I would get questions about where we were from and if we were related to our family. As a child, I didn’t realize I looked dissimilar from my grandparents, but my nai-nai and yei-yei never made me feel any different. They overcame the cultural tensions that exist and accepted my father, my sister, and me.
I consider myself lucky to have had such an open-minded family because I know this is not the case for everyone. I have friends who have a side of the family who won’t speak to them because of unjustifiable prejudice.
While my family has done much for my security, I have come to accept that my background does not totally define me. A large part of it is developing my identity in other ways. I have had to overcome the Western influences in my life, and I accept that I can’t change my heritage. It is and never will be something I can control, but I can look beyond what people have to say about it.
It all boils down to two things: you can either reject your culture or you can not let it define you entirely.
Being part of multiple cultures, especially in Canadian society, I have faced many instances in which I could reject one or both of my cultures. But instead, I choose not to; I see my heritage as a piece of my identity, but not all of it. It has defined my childhood, my values, and my beliefs, but there is more to me than that.
Growing up between cultures has taught me a major lesson: to embrace my heritage whilst ignoring the conversation surrounding it.