Monthly Archives: September 2014

Standing In My Doorways

The Lower Mainland is a place of mixed identities, not only racially but also in terms of political thought, lifestyle, etc.  Whether here by choice or not, the residents of Metro Vancouver are exposed to forms of cultural hybridity and must learn to deal with it sooner or later.  Many choose to experience cultural hybridity only at the levels that they are comfortable with, like through an occasional ethnic cuisine.

And there is nothing wrong with that.

However, for 40 plus percent of Metro Vancouverites, the issue of hybridity, the act of balancing the hyphens, is more complicated.  Cultural hybridity can mean (naturally) a variety of things whether it is one’s genetic make-up, cultural and philosophical way of thinking, or interplaying between languages and customs.  Fred Wah’s thoughts on hybridity are formed from his life, his background and his environment; some of his ideas are drastically different from my experiences and understanding of cultural hybridity.

In a recent interview with Ricepaper Magazine, Fred Wah offers his thoughts on hybridity.

“I’m talking about the identity here much beyond the discourse around the race and identity, partly because when we’re talking about hybridity, we have to go beyond notions of mixed blood and mixed race.  My whole pitch about hybridity is that it’s an in-between place, and that is a space that I want to occupy.  I want to be there.  I don’t want to be Chinese or Canadian.  I’m neither.  None of that was a choice that I made.  So one can choose: not choose identity but choose how to be in a place.  How to occupy that space you’re in and claim it as yours is a difficult thing.  Because race is a cultural construction.  “Who are you really? “  Well then that starts to get into more an experiential thing about how we each of us experience whatever percentage of mixed you might be.”

“If you don’t go through the door, if you just stand on the doorway, you are, of course, an obstacle.  People have to go around you or whatever, push you aside.  BY standing in the doorway there’s the advantage of being able to see both rooms.  And I’d like to explore that metaphor in a sense of my view is I think perhaps more fully informed when I occupy that space.” -Ricepaper Magazine 18.4 

Fred claims the space in-between, the space that is hardly talked about and less travelled, as one of the ways he mediates hybridity.  In Diamond Grill, the soda fountain station becomes a physical manifestation of one of these spaces.  Fred proudly claims, “The soda fountain becomes my territory,” and he boasts that his is the “smoothest, shiniest, snazziest soda fountain in town” (41).  As discussed in class, the soda fountain station is a particular installment in the café.  It is hip, modern, popular, and very mainstream Canadian, serving thick milkshakes in “real milkshake glasses,” (32) but it is a snack station, and not even part of the kitchen, a nowhere space that Fred claims, similar to his hybridity.

On the other hand, the comfort diminishes significantly once Fred is out of his private space.  He does not like going to cafes in Chinatown because he feels insecure.  “It’s not safe,” he says, “I don’t know who I am in this territory and maybe don’t want to” (136) because of the unease over the discussion of his ethnic background.  He cannot fully integrate with the Chinese crowd because of the way he looks, and because he lacks other cultural indicators such as language or cultural and historical understanding.  His name, Wah, nevertheless, reminds him that he has Chinese roots, something that has marked him all his life.  He is not ashamed of his mixed background, only “Sometimes… rather be left alone” (54).  However, all his life, growing up as a visible minority in limbo made him conscious of his place, and finds comfort in his private spheres.

I came to Vancouver from Korea when I was 10, and while I am not ethnically hapa, I have my experience of hybridity as well.  I lived in very “white” neighbourhoods, went through the Catholic school system, hardly had any Korean friends, and with my mother not being with me, I was very “mainstream,” to be polite.  When I was 20, due to my Korean citizenship, I went to Korea and served in the Korean Marine Corps.  I also subsequently lived in Korea for a couple of years after being discharged, and I experienced Korea as a society.  The search for identity has always been an issue with me, and it continues to be an ongoing, transforming process.

In terms of my cultural understanding, I suggest a different view from Fred in understanding hybridity.  I view my cultural identity as 100% Canadian AND 100% Korean.  Originally phrased by Sandy Lee, a former MLA and writer from NWT of Korean descent, this view of understanding hybridity liberates cultural dilemmas that people who live within multiple cultures continuously encounter.  First, the mathematics itself (100% + 100% = 100%) is defiant, yet somehow not ridiculous.  Moreover, it liberates me from thinking of my ethnicity as a limitation, and rather as an adaptive tool.  As I am comfortable with the customs of both cultures, I can smoothly code-switch, and take advantage of many circumstances.  Nevertheless, such attitude should accompany my knowledge of both Korean and Canadian culture and identity, and it is my responsibility to refine my understanding of both cultures if I am to claim both identities as Korean and Canadian.  A personal challenge for me is to work on my Korean language because, according to my reasoning, it should be on par with my English despite my proficiency in the Korean language.  Mostly importantly, it gives me a platform to think about how the society should proceed in terms of dealing with ongoing cultural fusion and hybridity.

Unlike Fred who felt comfortable in the “in-between” space, the Metro Vancouver community is ready to claim multiple cultural identities, not only evidenced by the physical ethnic make-up, but also by the active ways in which the young people engage and have esteem and understanding of multiple cultures.  The HapaPalooza Festival is a good example of such demonstration of claiming both mainstream and ethnic space in a way that is harmonized with the rest of the community.  There is no need to faction oneself into a cultural group, nor is it pertinent in 2014, in Vancouver, BC; rather, learning to understand and co-exist with hybridity (whichever way you interpret it) is an insightful way of living on the West Coast.



Works Cited:

Kaye, Anna Ling. “Standing in Doorways: On Hyphens and Hybridity with Poet Fred Wah.” Ricepaper Magazine Mar. 2014: 6-10. Print.

Wah, Fred. Diamond Grill: 10th Anniversary. Edmonton: NeWest, 2008. Print.