Saturday, January 23, 2010

We're a homely bunch.

One can never truly be vegetarian AND Chinese.

Well, you can. But you can't, really.

I found myself in Markham this weekend at a lively Chinese dinner, where the concept of vegetarianism meant eating fish and vegetables cooked with beef or not eating at all.

Markham, which has a huge Chinese population, is a weird place. It's foreign in the sense that it feels like a different country, yet it's not. Imagine a peanut where the shell is Canada/Canadian culture. You crack the shell and in the interior is this Chinese core. That's what I think of when I think of Canadian suburbs such as Markham or Richmond where large numbers of Chinese people settle down. And that's pretty unique.

Anyway, back to the dinner...it's been a while since I've been in a suburb, so as we drove to the restaurant, I was filled with bewilderment, unease, curiosity and even a little dread. Suburbs, and to an extent FOB (fresh-off-boat) culture is a throwback to my past life. Needless to say, I felt a bit uncomfortable and out of my element.

Attending a Cantonese celebration is quite the production. There's always an abundance of unidentifiable foods and protocol that must be followed. Tea cups must always be full, the most prominent or oldest guest is served first, the lazy Susan is always teeming with steaming dishes, there are always bowls with hot liquid and lemon, there's the usual jovial yet loud banter that sounds like arguing to the outsider, the prerequisite (almost fist fight) over the bill, and the disgusting bathrooms. The loos at Chinese restaurants, no matter how clean or high class the restaurant is, are always disgusting. Mops, buckets, pink soap, fake flowers and paper littering the floors are a must.

It is damn near impossible to eat a strictly plant-based diet in the Chinese mind. Of course vegetarianism exists in China. Many Buddhists eat no meat, but they are far outnumbered by carnivores who enjoy tripe, chicken feet, cow tongues, shark fin and whole pigeons. And a vegetable or mushroom that was cooked in chicken broth or next to a big ol' slab of beef is considered vegetarian. "Here, you can eat this...it's a tomato!" Nevermind that I can taste the cow juices when I bite down. I used to be a pretty hardcore vegan in my younger years, but I have since mellowed out. I don't think it's necessarily a betrayal of my morals, rather I'm trying to keep a cultural flexibility. A saving of face for my host. It's either this or not eating or being a big inconvenience for your host.

Don't get me wrong, I love the vivacity of Chinese meals. Everyone is always in a good mood and boisterous, and there's this unique banter that goes on. The Chinese sense of humour is hard to explain in English. It's very quick and witty. In a sense, it feels like bull-shittery and making fun of each other, yet it's purpose is to keep the conversation and laughs going. Meals together are supposed to be light-hearted and filled with lots of laughter. So everyone jabs and jokes at dinner.

After dinner, I went to my first FOB bar. For one, it was strange to be in a place where I wasn't a visible minority. These strip-mall bars are filled with booths, games, weird bong-like beer dispensers, vending machines with toys and Chinese snacks. When we sat down and ordered beer, they gave us this dice game. It's meant to be a drinking game, and of course it involves math. How stereotypical...Asians can't let go of their math even when drinking!

My big Markham outing was like reverse culture shock in many ways. Like I said, I haven't been in a suburb in a long time, and it's been even longer since I've been completely surrounded by Chinese people. My life in downtown Toronto is pretty different, and as a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese person), I've been accused of being white-washed or a banana (white on the inside, yellow on the outside), but I don't think that's fair. My work, schooling and interests have me running in mainly western (or at least non-homogeneous) and diverse circles, so I can't help it if I don't necessarily identify with FOB culture.

Sometimes it's difficult to balance who you want to be vs. what others expect you to be. Because I'm Asian, people look at me and have certain expectations of what I'm like. Chinese people expect me to be more Chinese. Non-Chinese people expect me to be more Chinese but in a different way.

Maybe it's about picking and choosing, when you straddle two cultures. I suck at math and don't know much about Manga, but I like rice and drinking warm water. I can pick up things with chopsticks, but I don't know how to play the piano. I can't read Chinese, but Chinese New Year's is one of my favourite times of the year.

I guess there's not much you can do, other than be true to yourself. You can't please everyone, so you might as well please yourself.

1 comment:

annispadafo said...

you are a brilliant lady. your brilliant words. and your sheer honesty. the whole "banana" analogy is fucked. I am angry with the banana analogy. I will quote Yo Majesty: "Fuck that shit".