In response to “The Hyphen” 

I wrote a post (very early) this morning about the hyphen: an abstract concept that I (as well as many others) use to conceptualize a racial/national identity that is conjoined by a hyphen – that is, at least in my case, what it feels like to be a first generation/third culture child.

The experience of growing up as a first generation child is vastly different than growing up as a second or third generation kid, and it is also different than growing up as a migrant. Which is not to say that the experience of people who grow up as such are invalid, of course. It’s just that the hyphen manifests itself in different ways.

It’s strange to think about dysphoric experiences, especially when one comes from a “multicultural” country like Canada. You’re allowed to celebrate who you are – your culture, your practices, your beliefs – with the expectation that you won’t be kicked under the rug for being different.

It certainly wasn’t like that growing up. I remember spending a long time loathing myself for being Chinese in a predominantly South Asian/Caucasian school. The people who identified as Chinese in my schools were East Asian, not South East Asian, and in that way, I was not pure: I wasn’t really Chinese, I wasn’t really Canadian.

The erasure of my Chinese identity started when I was young, slowly eradicating Chinese food from my lunches, refusing to wear traditional garb, and finally, in high school abandoning the language I grew up speaking. I insisted on being called Canadian – who needed the qualifier of “Chinese” anyway?

But no matter how much I tried to erase, I could not shake the fact that I felt uneasy with things like Self-Actualization, a humanist and predominantly western concept of tending to the self; it just doesn’t exist in Chinese culture because as a group, the Chinese are not individualistic (rather, they are collectivistic, and this sways how they view the notion of self).

This, I think, is something that has affected me the most in thinking about myself and my body as entirely my own and within my control – my parents do not view it as such.

The concept of the self, and focusing on the self FOR oneself, is seen as taboo, no matter what reason you do it for. This is part of the reason why mental health issues are on the rise in Asia: we are not encouraged (allowed?) to talk about things that affect us as individuals, especially if they affect us negatively.

When I was younger and was going through depression, my dad told me that feeling that way was selfish. A few years later I found out that he, too, went through depression, but told no one. In western society, mental health still bears a stigma, but at least societally, we have more efforts to promote speaking up about it.

This bouncing back and forth between my surroundings and my roots has always been something I’ve struggled with; I experience invalidation when I don’t like something that is traditionally Chinese, and I experience invalidation when I like something that is.

I think it’s part of the reason why I despise fusion food: alongside the fact that the rhetoric used to describe fusion food is often racist and demeaning to traditional culture, I also feel a little jealous Bao Down’s buns – you exist as a fusion between the East and the West, and people love you! You sad, taco-looking, sorry excuse for a bao are more accepted and comfortable in my society than I am as a human being. Your existence is validated by the high ratio of modern vs. traditional steamed buns on Google Images.

But the thing is that the fusion of culture is not the same as the fusion of food. Once you tear between the hyphen in which you exist, you can’t go back. You can try, of course, but you will always hold values and morals that clash between the two halves of you. You can try to step outside of those expectations, but someone will be looking down on you for doing so.

In my experience, my body has been split in two: I am Chinese now, in a particular surrounding, but elsewhere I am Canadian. I can never exist as both unless I find an environment that allows me to be both. To elaborate, I am Chinese in my home: those who are older than me have authority, and I must respect those who are older than me even if they do not show me the same respect. Outside, I am Canadian, where I show respect to those who mutually respect me and where age does not define your authority upon me.

These values clash. They will always clash. You will do things on one side of the hyphen that will make the other side of the hyphen feel guilty. You will question your parents when they say something you disagree with, and in turn, you’ll be called disrespectful for expressing a feeling or belief that is dissimilar to theirs. You must apologize for being an individual. You must apologize for growing.

As I mentioned, being a woman within these boundaries is even harder because you’re balancing your racial/national identity with your gender identity; I can’t imagine how difficult it must be for someone who must also balance their sexual identity and/or a stereotypically “uncommon” gender identity as well.

There is always a sigh of relief when I find someone who goes through similar experiences as me. The hyphen is isolating sometimes because you don’t know how you can relate to the experience of others, nor how others can relate to your experiences.

In short, the hyphen is something I’m still getting used to, even after twenty years of life. I’m not sure if I ever will, completely.

Featured Image: Euler conjunction is in the Public Domain.


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Self-proclaimed jack-of-all-trades. Intersectional feminist. Educator/linguist in training. Fashionista, food-lover, and fairly poor hand-eye coordination.

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