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I Hope Embracing My Chinese-Canadian Identity Inspires My Daughter To Define Her Own

I was granted an opportunity to pick what I valued from each half of my cultural identity, and the change in perspective empowered me.
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Katharine Chan

How did a second-generation Chinese-Canadian mom learn to embrace both of her cultures? How is she balancing the art of preserving both of them for her daughter?

My best childhood memories involve food. I mean, I don't know a single Chinese person who doesn't love food. My first school lunches marked a journey of learning to embrace both of my cultures:

Some kid in my class: "Eww... are those worms you're eating?"

Me: "No, those are stir-fried Shanghai noodles and they're delicious."

Another kid in my class: "Are you eating a frog for lunch?"

Me: "No, that's just the bamboo leaf that wraps around my mom's famous joong (glutinous rice dumpling)."

At the end of the week, I told my mom I wanted ham sandwiches for lunch.

My mom and I when I was six or seven.
Katharine Chan
My mom and I when I was six or seven.

I'm a millennial born and raised in Vancouver, who grew up in a predominantly Caucasian community. My parents immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada in the '70s.

Being Chinese is a huge part of who I am. When I started school, I realized I was different from everyone else. To avoid sticking out like a sore thumb and drawing attention to myself, I would put my "white person hat" on during school and take it off (along with my shoes) when I came home.

At school, I spoke English with my friends, ate sandwiches and celebrated occasions like Valentine's Day and Halloween. At home, I spoke Cantonese, ate rice, celebrated occasions like Chinese New Year and Mid-Autumn Festival, and went to Chinese school on Saturday mornings. Basically, I had two identities.

As I entered my pre-teens, fitting in included knowing what the coolest trends were and what was happening in pop culture. I started watching American television and listening to American music, and that "white person hat" stayed on a little longer every time I came home.

I wanted to be a blonde with blue eyes, just like Jen from Dawson's Creek or Kelly from 90210.

Rejecting my Chinese culture peaked in high school. I associated being Chinese as my barrier to being popular. It was like my culture prevented me from having that "milkshake" that brought all the boys to the yard. (Come on, Kelis. Most Asians are lactose intolerant.)

I wanted to be a blonde with blue eyes, just like Jen from Dawson's Creek or Kelly from 90210. I didn't look like any of the Spice Girls, except maybe the pregnant friend from the movie — though I just checked IMDb, and she's Japanese. I digress.

In addition to abandoning my culture, I shut my parents out. There was a generational gap as well as a cultural and language barrier that made communicating about things like puberty, mental illness, dating, popularity, body image and friendships difficult. I shared very little with them, even though I was struggling with perfectionism, depression, disordered eating and self-harm during this time.

My Grade 12 graduation picture.
My Grade 12 graduation picture.

Anyway, many bottles of hair bleach and many dozen pairs of coloured contacts later, I started to learn to love myself externally and internally around my first year of university. I was surrounded by those who looked like me. Granted, I was in sciences, where we congregated like a sea of soy sauce. Meeting others who had a similar upbringing made me feel like I belonged.

Rather than being torn between the two cultures, I defined my own as neither fully Canadian or fully Chinese. I was granted an opportunity to pick what I valued from each, and the change in perspective empowered me. I realized I can have both Chinese and Canadian values, because that's what makes me who I am. My identity can change over time, but I dictate how that evolution occurs. This was my "self-discovery phase."

I learned to love myself physically and embraced every aspect of my Chinese look. I love my olive-yellow skin, my straight black hair, my below-Canadian-average stature and my upturned eyes.

During this time, my relationship with my parents changed. I told them about my mental health issues and eating disorder. For this conversation to occur, I tapped into both my Canadian and Chinese influences. The Canadian school system taught me about mental illness and gave me the knowledge and courage to talk about it with my parents. My Chinese upbringing instilled in me my family values and a respect for my parents, providing me with the confidence to know that my parents would always be there for me.

Not only do I love myself the way I am, but during this phase, I realized I wanted to be with someone who could fully appreciate that journey.

Our wedding in 2015.
Katharine Chan
Our wedding in 2015.

My husband is also a Chinese-Canadian, born and raised in Vancouver. We share a similar experience in embracing both our cultures. We speak Chinglish to each other, Cantonese to our parents and daughter.

We hope our daughter feels empowered to know she has a choice to define her own culture and shares with us her journey. Her identity is hers to create, and we hope we can help shape that journey by instilling in her the Chinese and Canadian values that we've embraced.

Katharine Chan

When I became a mom, writing became a means of therapy. I searched online for Chinese-Canadian mom bloggers who, like me, were trying to preserve a part of their culture with their children. The results were limited, but I felt sure that there were other moms who felt the same way. If I put myself out there, perhaps I could start making those connections so others can feel a sense of community — to help them feel connected and to raise awareness about issues that never get talked about. So I started a blog, Sum (Heart) On Sleeve.

My daughter and I playing piano.
Katharine Chan
My daughter and I playing piano.

It's my way of capturing my experiences so that when my daughter is old enough, those tough conversations will come more naturally than they did for my parents and me. I hope that by sharing with her how I came to love myself, it will inspire her to do so as well.

Facebook: @SumOnSleeve

Instagram: @SumOnSleeve

Twitter: @SumOnSleeve

Born And Raised is an ongoing series by HuffPost Canada that shares the experiences of second-generation Canadians. Part reflection, part storytelling, this series on the children of immigrants explores what it means to be born and raised in Canada. If you have a story you want to share to be featured on Born and Raised, please email us at

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