Extracting Splinters, One By One

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As a first-generation Chinese Canadian, I was raised in large part by my grandmother, who lived with us, even though she barely spoke English — my only language. We communicated almost exclusively through body language. My parents deliberately chose not to teach me how to speak, read, or understand Chinese, because "I would have no use for it" in Canada. Largely, the decision not to speak to us in Chinese was made by my mother's uncle (who had generously brought her over on a family visa). He impressed upon her the urgency of learning fluent English to advance her career and demanded that she only speak English with the kids at home — for both her own good and for ours.

For much of my childhood, I privately felt superior to my first-generation Asian friends. Despite my parents' laconic ways, and their inability to express themselves in full, I felt as though my speaking English at home brought me closer to the privileged white kids in my grade. I deliberately distanced myself from my heritage, throwing away my thermos lunches, and embracing my inability to speak Chinese as though it were proof of a cultured upbringing — proof that I belonged to a household that didn't struggle. I dated white boys because I had convinced myself I just wasn't naturally attracted to Asians. Secretly, I harboured the belief that only the coolest Asian girls dated white boys, anyway.

It was only toward the end of college — through the critical theory-laden readings that permeated class discussions and campus culture itself — that I first began to really understand the deep and awful tragedy of my upbringing: the colonial violence of this nation, the poverty that my parents and grandparents faced in their childhoods, and the glass shards of internalized racism that have been embedded in me since birth. I am still only now beginning to extract these splinters from my body, one by one, examining them in utter disbelief. How have they been inside of me, virtually undetected, for 24 whole years?

I can speak both English and French, and I wear the hat of a social activist. But without my mother's mother tongue, I have a distant relationship with my parents and an impoverished understanding of my own cultural roots. Where did I come from? This question bears down on me with more weight and urgency with each passing day; both my grandma and great-uncle are afflicted with late-stage Alzheimer's, and my parents are also growing old. When I try to coax my conservative parents into talking about their painful pasts, I feel both empathy and panic. (I'm reminded of those captive panda bears who seem so blissfully unaware of their own endangerment.)

My parents struggled hard for the firsts that I enjoy. Now, I am a first-generation Chinese Canadian, trying hard to preserve the heritage of my parents so that their stories don't end with me.

About Jenn Lee

Jenn Lee is a 24-year-old student currently completing a PhD in neuroscience at NYU. She also co-founded a science advocacy group based out of NYU comprised of doctoral students and professors who are interested in making science a force for social change.

Jenn Lee