Yesterday, as I was driving down the Granville Street bridge, I made a quick glance to my right checking the expression on my friend Mio’s face. Her eyes were lit up in awe as they lay sights on the glass towers reflecting and catching the sun beams, bouncing off the reflection of the water below. After taking videos of the cityscape, she said to me: “I now understand why you are a city girl, Dom!” She definitely aint wrong.
Mio and I first met last spring when we were flown out and represented our universities to attend JACAC 2015 conference hosted by L’Universite Laval in Quebec City. After a series of logistical changes, we became roommates and spent some too many nights awake talking about all ends of the spectrum: our university degrees, growing up in our respective Japanese/ Canadian cities, hobbies, my dislike for snow/ her love for snow… She spent the last semester at U of A on exchange and came through to Vancouver en route home to Hyogo for the new years. Super excited to see her and show her the sights and eat all the food!
We took stop at Cafe Crepe on Robson for more endless eating to satiate her sweet tooth. As we sat down at a booth, I noticed from the corner of my that the elderly man seated next to us kept glancing over… then it became a more persistent stare as we chatted about nutella banana crepes. Eventually we hear, “Are you Japanese?” If I had a penny for every time I was asked about my ethnicity… I normally have no problem with delving into conversation about the transpacific migration patterns that have resulted in me, but this time I was irked by how the entire situation went down (and of course it got me thinking).
Like it or not, humans are wired for connections. So when the gentleman launched into the ‘where are you from’ question, Mio and I politely indulged him. But then there’s something to be said about intention and follow through. I suppose that maybe I’m becoming more sensitive, but I truly felt like the entire conversation was straight out of Ken Tanaka’s ‘What kind of Asian Are you’ vid. Truly. This man is saying ‘kamusta ka’ to me, which I appreciate and smile back with reply. But then it’s more than that- it’s now spewing greetings in what he claims to by some sort of Chinese dialect he claims is Mandarin or Cantonese, but when I apologize that I don’t understand what he is saying (and I’m certain that he’s not speaking Chinese). He calls me out (jokingly)?) for not being really Chinese/ for not knowing the true language that he’s speaking/ that a white man might be able to speak better Chinese. OK ………. but I know a lot better than to say something, so I bite my tongue.
So then we move on to Konichiwa’s and have you ridden on the Shinjuku and are you familiar with this park in Tokyo that I visited and did you know I love chicken teriyaki? And of course Mio politely nods and entertains the fellow. It goes on. We speak good English, apparently! And then he eventually hands out his business card and says he teaches English.. and has a degree in engineering, and so on and so forth. What do I make of this gesture? (ha)
So I’m sitting here incredulous letting this go on for far too long, watching Mio entertain the guy as he natters on about his love for teriyaki. Eventually he gets up to use the restroom and we get the heck outta there as soon as we can. Mio, who’s been in Canada for half a year now turns and says to me: You Canadians are really friendly! But that was weird.
As human beings, we tend to thrive on cultivating relationships (even now as I type this, the older gentleman seated next to me has been excitedly discussing the front page of Sing Pao with the mother next to him for the last hour). I get that. But at what point do the well-intentioned questions that are meant to exact relatability become more penetrating and border-line offensive?
I knew a lot better than to react and tell that gentleman that his English was really good or to hand him my business card and tell him I studied/ teach English- what would be the point? I knew a lot better than to use knowledge about his ethnicity as cultural capital to validate my assumptions of who he is/ where he’s from/ the background of his community.
Anyway, essentializing cultures is super lame, but I know that we’re all guilty of it implicit or not (think elementary school multicultural day dressing up in ethnic ‘costumes’ and eating the ‘food of our peoples’ ha). So where’s the line between being culturally responsive vs employing cultural synecdoches? (The English student in me is reminded of time spent scanning poems for synecdoches- using parts as a whole. Is this already a thing? Should I trademark this?)
Ended up leaving the cafe and heading to the downtown core for more sightseeing and festivities, but as I was telling M, conversations like those are uncommon for a city like Vancouver- a city that is always asking of me to continue to be influx and perplexed by how others view me, and how in turn I view myself. But that’s for another day.
Ok, good night from a city girl in flight to yet another big city!