Illustration by Kelly Grevers
Growing up my parents told me I was Korean-Canadian. I resented that. Why couldn’t I just be Canadian like the other kids? I mean, like the white kids in my neighbourhood. They didn’t have to eat rice and kimchi, bow to their elders, or go to Korean school. They got to play Nintendo, eat spaghetti and talk back to their parents. They were so cool. I just wanted to be Canadian.
My high school class was pretty much Asians, and Italians. And remember that time South Korea won over Italy in the 2002 FIFA World cup? Ssssss. Walking down the hallways where the ginos were tall and tough, a tiny Korean girl who liked soccer got pushed, cursed at. Where were the Canadians during that? Had Canada qualified, just, suspend your disbelief for a moment, would that have united us all, cheering for the land in which we live? Canada, this community of communities, a collection of fragments, could we be united in our differences? Did this cultural mosaic exist?
Then university. Wilfrid Laurier University. A sea of attractive white girls and guys who like their Hollister and TNA, with the brown kids and Asians in business and science, all conveniently tucked away. And then there was the token Asian in English. Hi! But I didn’t smell like rice or curry. Well, no one noticed, and I got by. Except when we got to talking about white privilege, and suddenly I was on the flip side. This girl – yellowww. I had been doing so well too, blending in, you know?
I used to think of myself as a twinkie: Yellow on the outside, white on the inside. I used to think this with pride! Shit. I was so “Canadian” – Yo what does that even mean? To be “Canadian”?
Looking back, I see the facts from my life – it was being white-washed. To conform to the dominant ideology of the ruling aristocracy of upper-middle class white people. Have a house in the burbs, kids that play hockey and soccer, and use the Tim Hortons drive-through. Is that not what it is to be Canadian?
And the harsh truth, if you happened to be from an “ethnic” group, meant giving up your mother tongue, not flaunting your different, non-Judeo-Christian practices, learning how to cook spaghetti and meatballs, not feeding your white friends curry or seaweed. (Uh, Gross!) It meant pretending that you had an equal chance no matter your “ethnic” background. It meant pretending that it was not at all because you weren’t white that you couldn’t be cast as Mary Poppins in your elementary school musical! True story! (…I’m not bitter…) It meant pretending that you, too, could live in a “multicultural” society whilst pledging allegiance to the maple leaf, to our home ON native land.
So where did I stand? I fell for so many of our Canadian narratives. Multiculturalism – Pierre Trudeau. Peace-keeping – Romeo Dallaire. Hockey – Wayne Gretzky, Mario Lemieux, Stevie Y, Martin Brodeur, Jarome Iginla. The English language…
You know, I study English. I can give you a great overview of the English canon, of the lauded English writers and poets. You know they’re mostly men. White men – but that’s another issue. The point is, after four years of OSAP-funded academic indoctrination, I realized what English could do for me, for once, finally. I could use it. I hijacked it, English. It became my tool to overrule our ethnic differences, through speech. And despite the fact that I learned it because my parents immigrated to Canada, a land of colonialism, I could take these words I learned and use them for my freedom.
Freedom from the canonical works that allow only the dominant voices. Freedom from our differences that alienate. Freedom to decide the words that came out of my mouth, and to create, myself.
White privilege is not mine. No thank you! I don’t want that stuff. I’ve had my share of those consequences, and that’s been more than enough.
All I need are my words that give me a privilege beyond skin colour, beyond Canadian identity politics. That my grasp of English, this language spread over the world colony by colony, is now my key. The key that brought me to poetry, this space, where I am finally free. My key to the language that allows me to speak up and tell you my story.