Hayley stands, quietly confident, in front of her second grade classmates. I can see myself in her diminutive figure, dark hair, and brown eyes. She speaks into the silence, her clear voice reaching the back of the classroom, where I sit.
“My presentation is on China.” She looks right at me. “My mom, my aunt, and my nana are from China.” Technically, my family comes from Hong Kong, but at her age, Hayley sees beyond geography, straight to the core of our shared heritage.
She holds up a homemade poster. An orange and black dragon, discovered last week on the Internet, plays across the top of the page. “This is a Chinese dragon,” she announces. I feel wonder at the pride in her voice–a wonder liberally laced with gratitude.
At Hayley’s age, I felt alien in both my worlds. When I was 5, my family emigrated to Canada. Waiting for landed status, we lived on a migrant farm in rural British Columbia, where my father worked the fields, and my mother, pregnant with my sister, learned North American housekeeping in the drafty old barn we called home.
Deciding that the farm was no place to raise a child, my parents sent me to live with my aunt in Indiana. I stayed there for only one year, until my family resettled in Vancouver. But in that year, in a small Midwestern town where my aunt and I were the only Asians, I lost my language.
When I came home, my inability to speak Chinese did not worry my mother. Educated in the Maryknoll Convent School in Hong Kong, she contentedly made English our primary language. But on weekends, in the company of my parents’ Chinese friends and their families, I felt out of place; my accent was horrible and my words halting and inappropriate. The other children, with a certain maliciousness, giggled as I struggled. I quickly stopped trying to speak Chinese.
At school, I talked like the other kids and thought like the other kids. But I didn’t look like the other kids. I never voiced my yearnings, but there were certain things I wanted: Light-colored hair. Green or blue eyes. Long thick eyelashes.
Assumed differences, unspoken but real, precariously tilted my relationships with my peers. I never really knew where I stood or how I’d be perceived. Never knew what stereotypes I might encounter.
When my first marriage ended, I finally found the courage to grow into my heritage. I desperately needed to fill the gap within me. Hayley was only 3 when her father and I separated and she and I began exploring the sights and sounds of the Chinese malls in nearby Markham. Three when she had her first taste of authentic Chinese foods: savory wonton noodles, plump steamed shrimp dumplings, the sweet/salty taste of preserved plum.
She cried herself into a tantrum the day she discovered she wasn’t all Chinese, only half. I could not say the magic words and make things all right again. There was no word capable of such power. If there had been, I would have implored my mother to use it on me when I was a child. Only I would have asked for the opposite of what my daughter wanted. “Make me white,” I would have begged.
But not Hayley. Her love for the grace and beauty of her heritage astounds me; her quiet confidence supports me in my own quest. We talk about customs and rituals. She asks questions; I find and share answers. I’ve found that helping girls connect to their culture is rewarding for parents, too.
I watch as she ends her presentation. Hands shoot up. It’s question time. “Are you Chinese?” one little boy asks. “I’m half Chinese,” Hayley says, her face glowing with pleasure.
She accepts her mixed heritage with a comfort that I, three decades older, envy. My pride in my culture grows as I witness hers.
Belle Wong lives and writes in Pickering, Ontario.