Raised in Canada of Asian descent, I struggled as a youth to reconcile my two cultures. On a trip to Hong Kong, I saw my own duality in a traditional dance.
By Kaitlyn-Lee Mun
It was a Sunday afternoon in early June at Hong Kong’s Kowloon Park. Cicadas buzzed incessantly, delivering a deafening chorus.
On this humid day, the air like soup, people gathered to watch a weekly Kung Fu performance. I was in the crowd, clutching my camera, alongside a group of Canadian students. We had come to work on a documentary about the disappearance of cultural heritages in Hong Kong.
Suddenly a lion reared up on its hind legs, going in for the kill. At the last second it pulled away, circling around, rising up to strike, and then falling away again in a ritualistic trance. The audience roared and cheered, waiting in anticipation. I watched its head twist and writhe under the sun, its mouth gaping in my direction.
The lion reared up a final time and then stuck a final pose before concluding its performance.
The lion is commanded by two forces, joined together to work in unison. I know this dance, because once I was one half of the lion. But it was not here, and it was many years ago.
Then children dressed in red started to march in unison. They resembled miniature warriors. Some of them brandished swords, some staffs. All of them looked fierce.
One by one, each confronted an imaginary opponent. Their moves were swift and powerful, and they never stumbled or missed a beat.
The air changed, and a calm descended. Slow music began, and a group started to perform Tai Chi, captivating the audience.
Watching the Tai Chi performers, I knew their movements, too, because I had spent years practicing those same gestures.
I was halfway around the world from home, but aside from the unbearable humidity, I might have been at a park in my hometown.
“A complex social position”
I was four years old when my parents decided it would be a good idea to enroll me in martial arts. A good idea because self-defense is important and because my whole family did it.
Growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, I wanted to fit in. Other kids played soccer or danced ballet — definitely not Kung Fu.
When Crazy Rich Asians emerged as a box-office smash in 2018, people spoke glowingly of the beautiful, exotic locations, the talented cast and how the film seemed to mark a win for Asian representation in Hollywood.
But there was also much discussion about the complexity of Asian identity, especially for those born and raised outside of the region. Blogger Larry Dang wrote that Chinese-Americans “exist in a complex social position where one part of our identity is always pitted against the other.”
I feel the same applies to Chinese-Canadians.
I wanted to convince my peers that I, too, was a ‘banana.’
Growing up, I wanted to fit in so badly that I started rejecting my family’s culture at a young age. Canadian editor Isabelle Khoo once wrote about how her mother referred to her as a banana — “white on the inside but yellow on the outside.”
I wanted to convince my peers that I, too, was a “banana,” that I wasn’t like other nerdy, foreign, Asian kids. I was cool, right?
Years later I started to accept and celebrate my culture, largely thanks to the Asian influence in Toronto. It seemed that the shame I had felt for being different had dissipated, but I needed to make up for being so out of touch with my roots.
I was in a kind of cultural turmoil. Am I Asian enough, I asked? Am I someone who can represent my people, when I was born and raised in Canada?
It was as if I had something to prove. I took Chinese language classes at university, enjoyed Asian food and made Asian friends. I thought going to Hong Kong would confirm that I do belong.
For a long time I was trying to either be Canadian or Asian. Seeing my reflection in Hong Kong, I realized I could be enough for my people as is.
Connected to the lion
Hong Kong is also in a kind of cultural tug-of-war. Colonized by the British, returned to China but retaining some autonomy, many Hong Kongers don’t feel entirely Chinese and have more of a fluid identity.
A survey by the Hong Kong Policy Research Institute showed that one in three Hong Kong citizens face a “national identity crisis” as they do not consider themselves Chinese citizens. Retired professor Michael Heng concluded that Hong Kong “should accept complexity as the norm” rather than see it as a crisis.
It was on that Sunday afternoon watching the Kung Fu performance that I saw myself in the lion, in the kids and in the Tai Chi performers.
I feel symbolically connected to the lion. It takes two to make the lion come alive, one at the head and one at the tail. Those commanding the head and the tail might have conflicting values, but in the end they work in harmony.
Inside of me there used to exist a similar duality, of someone rejecting, then accepting their heritage. All this time, the lion in me has been fighting itself. But I’ve learned to marry my two, distinctive cultures and to celebrate them for what they are.
(For more News-Decoder stories based on young authors’ personal reflections, click here.)
Kaitlyn-Lee Mun is a student at Ryerson University in Toronto, Canada, studying Creative Industries. She enjoys telling stories and seeing the world. Mun recently traveled to Hong Kong to document some of its disappearing cultural heritages.