Being Cantonese

I never thought about my ethnicity that much until I visited Vancouver as an adult a few years ago.

My parents are from Hong Kong. That is, at least, my mom was born and raised there. My dad, like many Chinese at the time, arrived in Hong Kong as a child, fleeing the Cultural Revolution with his family. He has faint memories of mainland China, barely recognizable for concrete real memories. Whatever the case, the language came with them to the United States and growing up, that was the dialect I knew.

It is language of the local chinatown—in Oakland and in San Francisco. But the big difference was to all the people we encountered there was that after we finished the grocery shopping, the dim summing, and hob nobbing…we returned to suburbia. There was barely any Cantonese classmates at my school and granted, it was mostly Caucasian. But the few Chinese classmates, they were from Taiwan. Rich, elaborate and we spoke English of course.

The few that were Cantonese were the ones that made some deal to attend the schools in my area. Whether it was to use a local address to qualify for education even though their house was miles away in a lower income neighborhood. Or that their parents still worked in blue collar jobs unlike the professional jobs of engineer and nurse that my parents worked.

But the differences in my own subtle privilege never came to light until I was in Vancouver. I had always referred to the city as Hong Kong 2. Visiting at the age of 10 and 20 with my family, the city was so annoyingly Asian. It felt like Hong Kong and I didn’t want to be there, being dragged from Chinese restaurants to Chinese restaurants to Chinese relatives to Chinese relatives. But when I returned at the age of 30, it was different. I was around people who were yes Cantonese, and from Hong Kong, but they were highly educated and embedded well in society. They were not stuck in blue collar jobs, forever hoping that someone will break through the barrier. They already had broken that barrier.

Educated people beget educated people.


I learned that I unconsciously seek people like myself. If I don’t find any, I feel awful and cannot explain why. And I don’t mean just people who look like me, but people of similar background. It explains why when in Berlin, I was stuck with a very uncomfortable otherness that I couldn’t even articulate until I set foot on US soil. That nearly all minorities, even Chinese, were behind service encounters asking me in German, Did I want one or two?

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