The Struggles of Living & Leaving: Life as a Chinese Canadian
“There’s no way you’re traveling to Australia on your own. I’ll take your passport away.”
These were the exact words my father told me after feeling elated at buying a return flight to Sydney during my sophomore year in college. I wasn’t exactly surprised he’d be hesitant to send his daughter off on a solo trip for a month across Australia, but the threats were new.
My mom, who is usually pretty relaxed about these things, wasn’t too happy either.
I wasn’t running away from any crime; I was not planning to elope and there were was nothing sinister about my intentions. I simple wanted to enjoy a holiday- of my own funding- as an adult, without my family.
I ended up going on that trip. Just barely. I was able to convince my parents by promising them I would visit my aunt en route from Sydney to Melbourne so that she could‘keep an eye on me’ during my trip.
Why did I go through all of that, you may be asking yourself right now… its because I have always walked the tightrope between my family’s traditional culture and the Western society I grew up in.
You see, I’m a Chinese woman who grew up in Canada. While my parents are very loving, there were also times when we clashed, especially since they wanted me to be more “traditional” and… I was very progressive in their eyes.
As in, I should put my head down, study and grow up to marry a man with a stable, buy a house and give birth to a bunch of children. But I had other unconventional ideas.
From the get-go, I wasn’t interested in being a doctor, lawyer or accountant like 99% of my relatives were. While I understood how my family defined success, I was the rebel in the family, choosing interests such as art, photography and yoga at a young age. This is not the norm for Chinese children and it probably confused my parents. I knew I wanted to travel — our family traveled a lot — but I knew my family wasn’t terribly keen on me being an independent traveler.
My parents knew I had an interest in the arts but little did they know I wanted to pursue it as a career. They also knew I loved to travel but they never envisioned I would do it on my own. It simply wasn’t what Chinese women were supposed to do.
From a young age, I longed to be independent. I pushed a lot of boundaries.
I remember the first time I broke curfew and my parents and I had a screaming match for most of the night.
The second time I broke curfew they forbade me to pursue any of my hobbies. It got so bad that my sister wrote me a letter in secret, begging me to obey my parents so there was more peace at home.
I’m not here to tell you I didn’t feel upset reading that letter. In fact, I cried most of the night, wondering why I wasn’t good enough in my parents’ eyes. It took me many years to learn that it wasn’t me- that it was merely a clash in their cultural beliefs and my ‘Western’ ideals.
The College Debacle
When I decided to pursue a liberal arts degree I was petrified to tell my father. A liberal arts degree doesn’t exactly provide you with a “stable” job. Part of why I wanted to get one was so that I could get a teaching degree. I wanted so badly to be away from home, from what I thought were parents who didn’t understand me.
Before approaching my dad, I spoke with my mom. By this point she was more open to my dreams and aspirations and told me to tell him that I’m getting a teaching degree for better job prospects. It sounds weird asking him permission to pursue a degree I’m going to pay for at a school I wanted to go to, but if I didn’t it would be really difficult for me to stay at home and maintain good family relations.
So even though he didn’t approve of my choice of college, he approved of my choice of career. A teacher is a “stable” career so he accepted my decision. Little did they know I was planning to graduate, move overseas and never come back.
Even though I had traveled to Australia by myself, when the time came around, my parents were still shocked at the news I was going to travel overseas AGAIN. This time, for a much longer period of time. They were excited I had a job offer, but scared because I was going to be so far away.
At this point, I still felt angry about having the earliest curfews from all my friends (yes, I had a curfew even in college) so I couldn’t wait to get away. Traditionally, children are to live with their parents until they got married, but I didn’t take that route. My parents knew me well enough to know that they couldn’t stop me even if they wanted to. I have always been too stubborn for that.
So they drove me to the airport and sent me off with promises that I would call daily when I reached there.
Learning to Be Grateful
Like most children who grow up navigating a traditional culture in a modern society, I grew older and realized that my parents were strict because it was what they knew- they were clinging to the familiar. They only wanted what they thought was best for me. Although we clashed a lot growing up, I grew to appreciate the love and support they gave me. Like the time my mom helped me purchase a laptop when I moved from Australia to South Korea. Or the times my father drove me back and forth from the airport when I’d visit them.These are not little favors I take for granted, knowing that it was tough for them to accept my lifestyle choices.
I’m also learning to appreciate many of the valuable lessons I had growing up. Like now my mom taught me to be confident in my abilities. Or how my dad showed me the benefits of a killer work ethic (Asian stereotype I know!).
So I grew up navigating two worlds- struggling between our culture and the world at large-and figuring out what it means to develop my own sense of cultural identity as a child born in Canada to Chinese parents.Now I realize that if it wasn’t for the lessons I learned through strict parents and constant rebellion, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Now I am grateful because I understand that a person without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.
Share your experience of growing up with an Asian ethnicity in the comments! Did you struggle with traditional values and modern ideals? Let us know in the comments below!