In Canada, I’m too Chinese.
In Hong Kong, I’m too Canadian.
I’m always too foreign.
Like all Third-Culture Kids (TCK), I always dread the same question:
“Where are you from?”
“It depends,” I say.
They look at me like I’m an idiot. “You know what I mean. Where are you really from?” They ask.
“Please be specific — My birthplace? My ethnicity? My citizenship?”
And the cycle continues.
I’m another Third Culture Kid with an identity crisis
I’m an Asian, Chinese person — right?
Yes and no.
“No coherent, fixed definition of race actually exists.”
— Ta-Nehisi Coates, What We Mean When We Say ‘Race Is a Social Construct’
I’m Han Chinese by ethnicity, according to the social sciences.
But being Han Chinese doesn’t mean anything.
All ethnicities are arbitrary social groups tied together by a common national or cultural tradition — like race, ethnicity is a social construct.
To keep it simple, I usually tell people that I’m a “Hong Kong-born Canadian.”
However, I only lived in Hong Kong for three years. Despite being born there and being a Hong Kong (and thereby Chinese) national, I’m not a true Hong Konger.
I didn’t grow up in Canada, despite having a Canadian passport and Canadian citizenship from birth, so I’m not a born-and-raised Canadian either.
I’m just another confused TCK.
The Hong Konger in me
I was born in Evangel Hospital (播道醫院), Hong Kong.
My parents are both Canadian and Hong Kong citizens, so I was given Canadian and Hong Kong citizenship at birth.
Ethnically, I am a Hong Konger (香港人) of Han Chinese (漢) descent.
“A language is a dialect with an army and navy.”
— Max Weinreich
Are they just dialects of Standard Chinese?
Are they different languages, but part of the same Chinese (Sinitic) language family?
Here’s a fun-fact—spoken Cantonese and spoken Mandarin are not mutually intelligible.
If a Cantonese speaker had a conversation with a Mandarin speaker, they wouldn’t understand each other. They may recognize a few words here and there, but they wouldn’t be able to communicate properly.
According to 2016 statistics from the CIA World Factbook, 88.9% of Hong Kongers speak Cantonese as their native language. Only 1.9% of Hong Kongers are native Mandarin speakers.
History and politics aside, the language, cultural, and communication gaps between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China doesn’t make things any easier.
I’m (not) Chinese
I flinch when people say that I’m Chinese.
Are you referring to my ethnicity and cultural heritage?
Or are you identifying me as a citizen of the People’s Republic of China?
I wish that I was proud of being Chinese. There’s a lot of beauty in Chinese culture.
Philosophical Taoism (道教), founded over 2400 years ago, contributed many important ideas to the world. It emphasized living in accordance with nature, recognizing that everything changes, and embracing impermanence.
Here are some of Taoism’s key concepts:
Tao or Dao (道): The “Way”. Or “Nature”. It cannot be fully understood.
Tao is the natural order of the universe whose character one’s human intuition must discern in order to realize the potential for individual wisdom.
This intuitive knowing of “life” cannot be grasped as a concept; it is known through actual living experience of one’s everyday being.
Qi (氣): Literally “breath” or “air” — Qi is the animating force of the universe. It is the vital life-force that is present in all living things.
Yin-Yang (陰陽): Opposite or contrary forces are actually complementary and inseparable.
Good and bad, right and wrong, positive and negative, etc. — They each contain within them a seed of the opposite.
Wu Wei (無爲): The art of effortless, effective, and efficient action.
The Three Treasures (三寶): The most important virtues for a meaningful life:
- 慈 — “compassion”
- 儉 — “frugality”
- 不敢為天下先 — “humility”
“Tao alone becomes all things great and all things small.
It is the One in many.
It is the many in One.
Let Tao become all your actions,
Then your wants will become your treasure,
Your injury will become your blessing.
Take on difficulties while they are still easy,
Do great things while they are still small.
Step by step the world’s burden is lifted.
Piece by piece the world’s treasure is amassed.
So the Sage stays with his daily task,
And accomplishes the greatest thing.
Beware of those who promise a quick and easy way,
For much ease brings many difficulties.
Follow your path to the end.
Accept difficulty as an opportunity.
This is the sure way to end up
With no difficulties at all.”
- Verse 63, Tao Te Ching (道德經)
Besides Taoism, Confucianism, and Chinese Buddhism, Chinese culture contributed to world civilization with a variety of innovations, scientific discoveries, and inventions:
- Paper: Invented during the Han Dynasty, sometime between 202 BC — 220 AD.
- Paper money (banknotes): First developed during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th Century AD. True paper money did not appear until the 11th Century AD during the Song Dynasty.
- Gunpowder: First used during the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD)
- Printing: Invented during the Tang Dynasty around 593 AD. Originally used to print Buddhist texts.
- The magnetic compass: Invented during the Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) for divination and geomancy. Used for navigation during the Song Dynasty in the 11th Century AD.
- Tea: A plant indigenous to Yunnan province. First found around 2000 BC.
- Porcelain: First made during the Tang Dynasty in the 7th Century AD.
Ordinary Chinese people continue to inspire the world today:
I’m proud of what my ancestors contributed to the world — Chinese civilization is part of my cultural heritage, but China isn’t my country.
I don’t have a People’s Republic of China Passport.
I don’t have a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Passport.
Officially, Hong Kong citizens are Chinese nationals.
Officially, even though Chinese nationals cannot have dual citizenship and even though Hong Kong citizens are Chinese nationals… Hong Kong Chinese people are allowed to have dual citizenship.
(That’s why I’m a dual citizen of Canada and Hong Kong.)
Even though I spent a lot of my life in different “Chinas”, I was always seen as a foreigner due to my Canadian passport and my English-language schooling.
I’ve lived in three different “Chinese worlds”:
- I lived in Hong Kong for three years.
- I lived in Taipei, Taiwan for two years.
- I lived in Beijing, China for twelve years.
I enjoyed living in all three cities. Normal, everyday people in all three places were just… normal.
Like everywhere else in the world, everyone wants to be a good person and have an opportunity for a good life. Most of the stereotypes, hatred, and discrimination towards others stems from ignorance and fears of the unknown.
Everyone always asks me if Hong Kong and China (the People’s Republic of China) are the same — it’s complicated. It depends on your perspective and who you ask. I don’t have all the answers.
Like most Hong Kong citizens between the age of 18 and 29 (my age group), if I had to identify myself as either a “Hong Konger” or a “Chinese” person…
I’m a Hong Konger.
Higher scores mean more censorship and less freedom of speech, freedom of press, and freedom of information.
I’m not a fan of the PRC government, but I have nothing against ordinary Chinese people in the People’s Republic of China. The people of Hong Kong and Taiwan are awesome as well.
The Chinese citizens of the People’s Republic of China aren’t stupid.
Many of them (especially the ones who are between 18 and 29 years old) are well-educated and are not as brainwashed as Western media would like us to believe — in a land of limited freedoms, they just have no power to speak up or change anything on their own.
At the same time, many citizens of the People’s Republic of China are also ignorant, culturally unaware, and are frankly uninterested in the world outside of “China”.
Sinocentrism refers to the ideology that China is the cultural, political or economic center of the world.
These attitudes of Chinese cultural superiority (Sinocentrism) over other cultures and nations are steeped in over 3250 years of Chinese-centric culture and history.
Fun fact: The name China in written Chinese (中国 or 中國) can be translated as “The Middle Kingdom”, “Centre Kingdom”… Or it can be interpreted with a Sinocentric lens: “The Central Kingdom of the World.”
Sounds similar to a few ideologies throughout the years, doesn’t it?
For example, American Exceptionalism comes to mind:
American exceptionalism is one of three related ideas:
The first is that the history of the United States is inherently different from that of other nations. In this view, American exceptionalism stems from its emergence from the American Revolution, thereby becoming what political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset called “the first new nation” and developing a uniquely American ideology, “Americanism”, based on liberty, equality before the law, individual responsibility, republicanism, representative democracy and laissez-faire economics. This ideology itself is often referred to as “American exceptionalism.”
Second is the idea that the US has a unique mission to transform the world. As Abraham Lincoln stated in the Gettysburg address (1863), Americans have a duty to ensure, “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Third is the sense that the United States’ history and mission give it a superiority over other nations.
In a funny twist of fate, the United States of America and the People’s Republic of China are almost reflections of each other — they are a lot more similar than different in their ideas of cultural superiority.
Back to China.
In today’s internet-dominated world, The Great Firewall of China doesn’t allow for much self-education and independent thought.
“The Great Firewall of China is the combination of legislative actions and technologies enforced by the People’s Republic of China to regulate the Internet domestically.
Its role in Internet censorship in China is to block access to selected foreign websites and to slow down cross-border internet traffic.
The effect includes: limiting access to foreign information sources, blocking foreign internet tools (e.g. Google search, Facebook, Twitter, Wikipedia, and others) and mobile apps, and requiring foreign companies to adapt to domestic regulations.”
Normal people everywhere around the world are usually fantastic — Some are great, some are terrible.
Some are independent thinkers, others are ignorant.
Are people bad and ignorant because they’re inherently evil and bigoted?
Or are they ignorant because the various political, cultural, and societal systems that control their environment actively discourage human unity and independent thought?
Ordinary people are generally pretty good everywhere in the world.
People in power? Not so much.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. “
Who am I?
Between my time in Hong Kong and Taiwan, I also lived two years in Jakarta, Indonesia — the most populous Muslim-majority country in the world.
Besides the May 1998 riots that my family had to flee from, Indonesia was fantastic. The food, the people, the culture… I don’t remember much, but my memories of Indonesia are warm and kind.
In total, I spent 18 years of my life in Asia before I moved to Toronto, Canada to study at the University of Toronto.
Unlike my parents, who are 100% certain of their Hong Kong identities, I’m not.
I don’t identify with any of the places that I’ve lived in.
I also identify with all of them.
Change and uncertainty define my life as a Third Culture Kid.
From a young age, I mastered the art of making friends quickly.
Hello, we’re friends now — Like my fellow international school classmates, my friendships were never certain.
One moment we were best friends. The next, their family had to relocate to another city or country.
I might never see them again.
Losing friends was just a part of everyday life.
I never had the luxury of stable relationships. Maybe that’s why I have commitment issues. My whole life is a revolving cast of characters.
Whether by choice or by circumstance — nobody stayed in my life for long.
I still hate saying goodbye.
Toronto: Diversity Our Strength (?)
I fell in love with Toronto at first sight.
I’m grateful. Every time I land at YYZ, I feel at peace. I’ve now lived in Toronto for eight years.
What makes Toronto special?
Toronto is one of the most diverse cities in the world. Torontonians represent over 250 ethnicities and speak 170 different languages. Over 51% of Toronto’s population was born outside of Canada.
Toronto’s multiculturalism is woven into the City of Toronto’s official motto: “Diversity Our Strength.”
“Toronto gives me big city benefits with small-town living.
It’s clean, it’s safe, it’s secure, it’s a hub of innovation and idealism and it’s beautiful.
But it’s also extremely diverse in culture, people and ideas.”
— Bruce Poon Tip, G Adventures
Like all places on Earth, Toronto isn’t perfect. Canada isn’t either.
Public transit, lack of affordable housing, homelessness, inclusivity, and mental health are just some issues that come to mind.
“Anti-Black racism is a historic, pervasive and systemic issue in Toronto — affecting the life chances of more than 400,000 people of African descent who call Toronto home.”
Systemic racism and discrimination against black people is still a huge problem in Toronto and in Canada.
“Black people are dramatically over-represented in Canada’s prison system, making up 8.6 of the federal prison population, despite the fact they make up only 3 percent of the population.
What is more, between 2003 and 2013, the incarceration rate among Black people increased by nearly 90 percent.”
“We are capable of love and hate.
I understand this to be a choice.
It is impossible to achieve peace through hate; and racism is simply a form of hate. I wonder if we can agree about this?
Perhaps I am naïve to think peace is a common goal for everyone. But I have to believe it. It is the reason why I know we must continue to have this uncomfortable conversation.
Canada has often been seen as a safe haven for immigrants. I am an example of the opportunity that exists here. But we cannot deny that racism exists here, too.
We can continue a peaceful yet resistant approach to issues that run generations deep. And we can reflect on the role we play in these issues as individuals.
A movement for peace and justice is not about hate.
It is about love and humanity.
And that is the entry point to hold constructive conversations about systemic racism.”
Racism and discrimination in Canada still exist today in other forms:
- Discrimination towards Asians (especially people of Chinese-descent during the current COVID-19 pandemic)
- Islamophobia against people of the Muslim faith.
- Discrimination towards Indigenous First Nations communities, where the murder rate of Indigenous women is 4.5 times higher than other women in Canada.
- And much more…
There’s no place like home because home is not a place
There’s so much injustice, inequality, and hatred everywhere I look. It’s easy to get depressed and think negatively about the world.
How can humanity heal centuries of hate and conflict?
“It always seems impossible until it’s done.”
— Nelson Mandela
I must not forget the TCK creed — everything changes.
As the Persians say, this too shall pass (این نیز بگذرد).
For better or for worse, good things follow bad things and bad things follow bad things — Welcome to life.
Maybe I’ll never truly belong, and that’s okay.
Home is not a place, after all.
They say home is where the heart is. My heart’s in my chest — so I’m always home, wherever in the world I may be.
Like in the Hero’s Journey, I’m coming to realize that the home I’m looking for was within me all along.
“I’m now nearly 79.
At 16 I took responsibility for Tibet and lost my freedom.
At 24 I lost my country and became a refugee.
I’ve met difficulties, but as the saying goes: ‘Wherever you’re happy, you can call home, and whoever is kind to you is like your parents.’
I’ve been happy and at home in the world at large.
Living a meaningful life isn’t just a matter of money; it’s about dedicating your life to helping others.”
— His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama