Confessions of a Hyphenated-Canadian

Posted: 3rd September 2011 by admin in Uncategorized

Few questions are as problematic as, where are you from? For me, this question would immediately be met with a dart of the eye or a notable pause in the conversation. Regardless of what answer I give, more questions would invariably surface about my background – not that I have anything against being interrogated like a racially-profiled passenger in a customs line-up. It’s just that my ethnic roots are a bit more complex than most people are used to and it simply takes more time to explain.


As a Philippine-born Chinese immigrant to Canada, when I’m asked the question, “Where are you from?” there seems to be an assumption on the part of the inquirer as to what my response ought to be. Being ethnically Chinese with East Asian features, the expectation would be that I came from China, Taiwan or Hong Kong. Though my ancestors did come from China, it wouldn’t be true to say that I was from China. And if I were to say that I was from the Philippines, the reaction I usually get would be something along the lines of “Oh, I thought you were Chinese” – which is not exactly false either.


Even more problematic is if I were to say that I was from Canada. Having grown up here – the place I have lived, worked, and spent my formative years in for the past decade – it is not too much of a stretch if I were to declare that I was from Canada. This is where I live now, where I’ve built my life and where I feel a certain sense of attachment. And yet there it is – am I from Canada? From being the operative word, defines it as: used to specify a starting point in spatial movement or used to indicate source or origin. Clearly from this definition, I don’t particularly qualify to say that I’m from Canada, unless I ignore the earlier part of my life, erase my origins and start from when I first moved to Canada. Isn’t that what immigrants do? They come to Canada for a new beginning – to reboot from zero base and start anew.


Deleting the earlier part of my life, however, would be like denying my very own existence. We are who we become because of our past. Though many immigrants come here with the mindset of starting life anew, there is still that lingering desire to go back to the place we left, to who we once were. The attempt to mimic the lifestyle from “back home” is evident by the scores of ethnic grocery stores, restaurants and cultural centres found throughout the city.


To reconcile the problematic question of spatial origins, I usually end up introducing myself as Filipino-Chinese-Canadian. That sums up “where I’m from” in three short words. Although these three words do not define me as a person, it’s evident in our society that where we come from is an important, if not an integral, part of our identity.


My story may not be unique to other Canadian immigrants. It’s entirely conceivable that there are people out there who have an even more complicated story than I do, with more hyphens. On the other hand, some may argue that the need for the hyphenation is unnecessary for Canadians. With Canada being a multicultural society, it is assumed that there will be Canadians who have diverse backgrounds. But it is the individual stories of our origins that come together to make up our society, which shapes and defines what it means to be Canadian. To me, the hyphenation is as unique to the individual as it is to the Canadian identity.


And this is coming from a self-confessed hyphenated individual.


*This was taken from a column I wrote for the Source newspaper in Vancouver.