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Thankful to have been an outsider

Thankful to have been an outsider

by Julia Cheung


This is my self-portrait at age 11 – a masterpiece for a school project. My teacher was not impressed and didn’t give me a very high grade (I guess the teacher did not sense the circa 1990 coming onslaught of gothic cool). My immigrant parents were not moneyed. They worked hard to make a home in Calgary, Alberta. They raised four children and took care of aging parents. They were thrifty. So I didn’t grow up with quite the same amount of stuff enjoyed by my middle-class Canadian schoolmates and neighbours.

But I don’t think a lack of money is what makes the girl in this portrait frown.

As a youngster, my mother-tongue cut me off from society at large. Fluent, bubbling tones of English contrasted with the harsh, tonal shouting of the lovely, stuttering Cantonese that was my linguistic nest. At the grocery, the library and school, I was a practiced outsider. When I mastered the English language and my mother-tongue faded to a guttural murmur that floated sometimes menacingly, sometimes calmly, just under the surface of my consciousness. Always, my skin colour formed the first barrier, my culture the second and my creed the third.

Social isolation was a familiar friend. These dividing factors accompanied me throughout primary school and junior high. Focus on the Family’s publications were my solace. The best moments of my day were when I’d come home from school, throw my backpack on the floor, and find a glossy new copy of Clubhouse Magazine or later, Brio, sitting on the kitchen table, waiting to be devoured along with the afterschool snack. I lost myself for hours, flipping the pages, revelling in the comfort and the stability that America housed  a safe subculture, a shelter from the storms of secularism where people like me still believe in God and that the Bible was true.

When high school threatened on the horizon, my parents brought me into a church community where I finally felt my fit. It was a small but precious enclave from the onslaught of white Canadian culture. Colour, creed and culture were shared amongst this church group, a motley collection of immigrants from Hong Kong and their second generation progeny. I discovered a new slice of society, a new nameplate: the CBC — Canadian Born Chinese.

I balked at this transition at first. For I had struggled for my first conscious dozen years to become as Canadian as I could, as English-speaking, as with-it and as “cool”. Being Chinese, my classmates had already established, was not cool.  Now I was discovering for the first time that being Chinese could be a legitimately accepted and acceptable identity.

So at this new church, I would have to cast off that Canadian-Banana persona that I had fabricated, and re-embrace my original identity – yellow through and through (bananas aren’t yellow through and through – they are yellow on the outside but white on the inside). In Calgary, in the early 90s, a Banana would have wanted to be known as a Granola kind of girl. She would hate Chinese food. She would hike, ski, and rollerblade.

In this new church community, I began to realize that I could be Chinese and be proud of it. I didn’t have to be a Granola. I could eat Chinese food and love it. I could speak Cantonese, joke about Hong Kong pop culture and defer to my elders – and be okay with it. I initially resisted going back to my roots. But fighting upstream had taken its toll and gravity pulled me back down to where I felt like I belonged. CBC youth group became my haven. Monday to Friday, at school, I was still a fish out of water, different, panting, afraid, alone. Friday night, I was safe and I was home in the comforting warmth called “fellowship”.

Today, I’m part of the majority culture. Vancouver is the most Asian city in the world, outside of Asia. I no longer stand out and I no longer need to run to youth group (or to Focus on the Family) for shelter. Vancouver culture is far more open to diversity and multiculturalism.

But my childhood journey reminds me of the loneliness of immigrant life, and I thank God for His church and for His people – for the men and women who took the time to plant churches for immigrant populations, to make us feel at home in a strange land. I’m also thankful to have known what it felt like to be an outsider, isolated, and alone. I have more empathy for outsiders, and a greater understanding of how Christ briefly became an outsider, shunned from His Father’s presence, for us, His people.

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