Our 12 year old is doing a project for school about the origins of her family called “Your heritage”. It consists of two questions: “Why did your family immigrate to Canada? How do you celebrate events?”
This is akin to the family tree project which regularly crops up in elementary school. No big deal, you say? It is if you’re adopted. It is if you’re a kid who wants to fit in and be like everyone else. It is if you, as most kids want at 8 years old, to follow the instructions given by the teacher EXACTLY. I had a battle royale with one of my children doing this task. She insisted she wasn’t going to include her country of birth – China in her autobiography. No way, no how. She was uncomfortable wearing the adoptee hair-shirt and hated it when anyone questioned her about her family, about being Chinese, about her perceived heritage. She finally relented and admitted to being born in China. To her amazement, nobody in the class batted an eyelash when she ‘fessed up. She turned that corner and when confronted with the same task her little sister is currently tackling, wore a cheongsam to school and served up fortune cookies to go with her presentation. (Don’t bother chiding me on the authenticity of the fortune cookie. It was her clever way of dealing with the irony of her life.)
In the 18 years of parenting we have been asked countless times “How are you keeping your children in touch with their culture?; Do they speak Chinese?” I understand the intent of this query and perhaps it is a uniquely Canadian question with our attachment to a national multicultural policy. The questioner is eager to express approval for any and all efforts to infuse the child with ethnic pride. But the flipside of that is the tacit disapproval when told “No, they don’t speak Chinese.” Once in a while I’ll make an attempt to explain the difficulties of teaching a child a language you don’t speak and inculcating a culture that isn’t yours. I don’t launch into a polemic about cultural appropriation or ask when the questioner became a Canadian though it is often tempting.
Do our children know where they were born? Yes.
Do our children have a connection to their birth country? Maybe.
Are they culturally Chinese? No.
Are they racially Chinese? Yes.
Do we celebrate their heritage? Yes, but not by trying to be Chinese.
Our oldest daughter has a close friend who is Vietnamese by heritage although she was born in Canada to a family who fled the post-war tribulations. Together they debate who is more ethnic: my daughter who was born in China or her friend who was born here? It’s a wacky argument that goes to the heart of the dilemma of preserving and acquiring heritage. When do immigrants become members of the culture they’ve adopted and can adoptees reacquire the culture they may have lost? Tricky questions.
Nonetheless, our 12 year old is grappling with answering the questions in her school assignment. She properly collected the history of her parents and grandparents and their arrival in this country. She told her teacher that we’re just regular white folks and we don’t really celebrate any particular heritage. Strike one. (That’s not ENTIRELY true. I’ll have a shot of scotch on Robbie Burns Day.) So the teacher asked her to talk about marking Chinese traditions to which she replied we don’t really do that either. Strike two. The solution? We trotted out the old standby story of my husband’s family fleeing Ireland following the Irish rebellion in 17-whatever and my father striking out from post-WWII Scotland to make a better life in Canada. Nothing like a good cliché to sum up heritage. Oh, and the decision for the ethnic Chinese contribution? Fortune cookies and a cheongsam. Turnabouts fair play, don’t you think?