We were made to move.
My parents immigrated to the Canadian prairies in 1978 with the promise and hopes of the great North American Dream.
They were from a little place called Laos, where the average temperature is 25 C (77 F) all year round; in the prairies, it fluctuates from -35 C (-31 F) to 30 C (86 F), depending on the season.
They left the comforts of home — their families, careers, language, life belongings and culture — to experience a new-found freedom from the political oppression that was taking over the country at the time, a culture overrun by a state of fear.
The church family who sponsored my parents in their move to Canada said my parents were fearful, like timid mice when they first arrived. The move over initially brought shock and confusion. Life was difficult.
I remember hearing about my parents’ first experience of a Canadian snowfall. At first, both of them bolted outside without proper winter attire from the home they were boarding at, just to see, feel, and taste the white snow. They later bundled up, and played like children for hours in the fluff. They knew how to enjoy those little moments in life that bring a smile from ear to ear.
I was born in the ’80s in Edmonton, Canada, and I experienced some level of adversity growing up. I felt like I was at a disadvantage because of my skin colour. I never saw children who looked like me on TV, in books, or in movies. And there weren’t any G.I. Joes who looked like me, either.
I recall the kids at school poking fun at me because my parents were ESL (English as a Second Language), how they pointed out how my skin tone was different from the standard white. There were very few other visible minorities in the school: First Nations, Chinese, and Lebanese.
Colouring self-portraits in school was always a nerve-racking task. When I would use the peach/skin coloured crayon, kids would say I needed to use the yellow crayon because that was supposed to be for me. This was very confusing to me as a kid; when I looked at my own skin, I didn’t see yellow.
Kevin, a Chinese kid, was one of my best friends back then. He was the closest person who could understand my ethnic culture. We would have similar types of lunches that strayed away from the standard bologna sandwiches.
At a very young age I felt and carried shame. I remember wanting so badly to “be white and eat at McDonald’s,” like all the other Caucasian kids. I wanted it to the point where my mom would cleverly say to me, “If you wash your face and bathe more you will become more white.”
Every now and then my parents would treat me to McDonald’s — and that was when I felt very special, because I felt like I fit in.
I wonder if my parents felt like their culture was disappearing when their young son came home from school upset about the food we ate and the way we looked. I look back and believe they just wanted life to be easier for us.
So I felt like I was a western Caucasian boy who followed the cultural norms during the day, and an Asian by night.
I also befriended the First Nations boy and we would play together sometimes at recess and after school. My teacher was consistently angry with him because he was always the “bad” kid. It probably had a lot to do with his race and less with who he was as a young boy. Once my Grade 3 teacher got so mad at him during class, he grabbed him by the shirt, dragged his back against the wall, and yelled at him in front of the whole classroom. It was pretty traumatizing for a kid to witness.
Later on in my teenage years I also experienced a harsh form of hate. It was Canada Day, and after the fireworks were over, I split off from my group of friends to head home. A few young white drunken fools approached me for the sake of belittling me, trying to coax me into a fight. One of the smart fellas proceeded to call me a “F&#!ing chink,” while the other guy was mimicking what was supposed to be Chinese language. I thought, “Of all the days, Canada Day is when we are to celebrate our country’s great diversity.” Needless to say, I moved on and walked away. Unlike Bruce Lee, I couldn’t take on three dudes.
So how do we overcome such ridiculous, ignorant behaviour?
I’ve come to learn that the people who believe they are entitled to oppress others are often the ones who are the most hurt and need the most help.
During the last decade I’ve noticed people who envy my skin tone; some even go to tanning beds to get that sweet light chocolate brown tone. I am Canadian and proud of my ethnic heritage. I will remember my roots and be thankful for what I have been given.
So I’ve been able to forgive those who have offended me. I’ve moved on. Because life is too short to let anger, hate, and injustice consume you. We all need grace at some point in our lives.
The shame I felt as a child, somewhere along the journey, turned into fear. We should never deny ourselves opportunities to move beyond that fear. Identify what that fear is all about, get to the root of it, and move past it. Because real change is root change.
The more I align myself to become who I am as a child of God, the more alive I am.
We were made to move. Now get moving.
Photo (Flickr CC) by CatDancing.
Originally published in the January/February issue of Converge Magazine.