Confessions of a Chinese-Canadian girl living in Sri Lanka

“Do they like Asians there?”, I asked.
Pause.
“No, not really”, she bluntly replied.

That was 6 weeks ago and I distinctly remember thinking that I could handle the stares, the stereotypes, and the judgement in Sri Lanka. I passed the “Chinois! Chinois!” test twice with flying colours in Morocco and beat the “Jambo….Mzungu!” level in Uganda. The big boss, Sri Lanka, would be a walk in the park.

What I got right was that the racial challenge in Sri Lanka was going to be the big boss. What I got wrong was the fact that it was going to be a marathon.

When I walk down the streets in Sri Lanka, I can feel eyes on me like a hawk (though nothing will beat the stares I got in the Mumbai airport). Half of me wants to wither away and the other half of me wants to yell at them and say “YES I’M NOT WHITE MOVE ON”. 100% of the time, though, I try to ignore the stares and, in turn, stare at anything else but them. I’ve come to learn that ignoring something is my speciality.

Maybe it’s the fact that I’m going to be here for 7.5 months instead of the month I had spent at a time in Uganda and Morocco. Maybe it’s the fact that I don’t have as strong of a local support network that I had on my Global trips. Or maybe it’s the pressure to be perfect working for my first international NGO. Or maybe it’s just my brain weaving tales of self-doubt.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not all the time that I feel like an outcast as a Chinese-Canadian girl. Working in an office that advocates for gender and ethnic equality makes me feel secure, hanging out with the staff makes me feel valued, and making new friends is exciting. It almost makes me feel like…a white girl…?

Growing up as a Chinese girl in the classic Canadian suburb meant that I grew up identifying myself more as a white Canadian girl than a Chinese-Canadian girl. I grew up abandoning my race, culture, and values because I was embarrassed to be identified as one. In time, living in Canada was easy because I found a way to identify as both, as a Chinese-Canadian, who has a knack for living a “white life” – and I’m okay with it.

But the reality is this. Though I am a Westerner, I am not white. I am a Chinese-Canadian girl, who is, on the surface-level, very different. I have stereotypes attached to the colour of my skin, jokes cracked about the shape of my eyes, and a preconceived notion that I should be good at math, be a business woman, and, potentially, lie and cheat my way for money. I am not white, and I will never be able to know the benefits or drawbacks of being one.

Here in Sri Lanka, women are second-class to men. Foreigners, especially female foreigners, are at a disadvantage because of our “loose morals” and tendency towards prostitution. And race can, unfortunately, put a damper on things

I will feel the consequences of my race but I will try my best to chip away at the stereotypes.

After chatting with my roommate, she reminds me that we should be in it to win it for all of the ladies in Sri Lanka (and beyond) who don’t have a voice to fight against patriarchy. Despite my skin colour, her skin colour, or anyone else’s for that matter, we are all human. The things our eyes have seen, the stories our ears have heard, and, even more, the stories that we are writing for ourselves have so much more value than the colour of our skin or the shape of our eyes.

Yes, it has, at times, been hard in Sri Lanka and I’m sorry to report to you that it’s not all unicorns, rainbows and fairies. Regardless, at the end of the day, I’m grateful for the people I’ve met so far, this beautiful country, and my supportive friends and family.

If you’re following my journey in Sri Lanka, do be reassured about this:

It will be hard and tough as balls (do people say that?). But if you think I’m only going to put 50% because I’m a Chinese-Canadian in Sri Lanka, you are hella wrong. I will find my way and I will put in 100%. And then 50% more.

That’s 150%.

See, I am good at math.

Personal mandate: Prove the stereotype wrong.

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For the love of food: cultural appropriation edition

Preparing Chinese food is a lengthy process that takes patience and impeccable skill. It takes a lot of gung fu, hard work and skill, to conjure up the richness of the flavours and teach them to dance. But somewhere along the way, the art of Chinese food has been discounted to “a genuine, authentic, Asian cuisine experience for $6.99 at your nearest Manchu Wok!!”

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It’s only authentic Chinese food if it comes in a box like this

I’m sure many Canadian immigrants can relate to the “staple dish syndrome”: Pad Thai from Thailand, pho from Vietnam, curry from India, spaghetti from Italy, and dim sum – with all the glory of fung zhao (chicken feet) and ngau pat yip (yes, you guessed correctly: tripe, aka a cow’s stomach chamber) – from China.

A recent article from The Washington Post by Ruth Tam looks at the cultural appropriation of food. What happens when the same dish that immigrant families were mocked for is sought after?

That’s exactly what Ruth asks: “How do you feel when white people shame your culture’s food – and then make it trendy?’ More than a last name, Ruth and I share similar musings as our cultural dishes shifted from “weird, smelly, and disgusting” to “authentic, genuine, and exotic”. Growing up in a predominantly Caucasian neighbourhood, I had my fair share of friends who would comment on the way I smell after

The best meals are more than the sum of their ingredients; their flavors tell the stories of the rich cultures that created them. When the same respect is afforded to immigrant food as traditional “American” food, eating it will sate us in more ways than one.

I urge you, travelers and foodies alike, to embrace the fullness of different cultures but don’t let it be defined by an “authentic experience”,  a “genuine temple”, or an” exotic food”. A lesson I will indefinitely carry in the next 8 months.