Tip of my tongue

Navigating the silences of being Chinese and female

Memories murmur. In my flesh, in the flesh of the world. My migration story, beginning two decades ago in 1995, is made up of many of these murmurs and some have taken years to unearth and delve into. When a new friend in the seventh grade asked me if I ate dog, I thought it a strange question, said “no” and told no one.

It’s not like my family talked about what it meant to assimilate into a new country. We didn’t talk about the immigration experience — however life changing — we simply quietly and peacefully attempted to blend in. Even after an incident outside a Canadian history museum in Montréal when a First Nations man yelled in our direction to “go back home,” we collectively flinched a little and huddled closer… but still, remained silent about it.

I didn’t realize it until many years later, but I’d ached to debrief these types of experiences.

I longed to be enveloped in thought and talk of home and belonging, silence and invisibility, the intricacies of race and gender. I wanted more than to just be. Maurice Merleau-Ponty said that being is synonymous with being situated, and I wanted to figure out where exactly I stood. To forge my here, my narrative.

It wasn’t until the last year of my undergraduate degree that I took Dr. Anne-Marie Lee-Loy’s Asian literatures class. I was scared, worried, and unsure of even enrolling.

During those four months, while learning about the poetry carved into the walls at Angel Island and reading the plight of some Banana Boys, I experienced a sea-change.

I began to question my dual and enduring loyalties to “home” and “back home,” how language is used to oppress and keep people like me in our place, and the dislocation I felt despite looking, feeling and being told that I was very much assimilated into Canadian culture.

I began to seek out the history of the people who helped develop this land but who aren’t the first inhabitants. These were the people of my ancestors’ homeland — China — a place I’ve never been but that still clings closely to me. This became particularly pertinent when I moved across the country to Vancouver for grad school in 2008.

“On the streets in Havana [chino chino chino],” from the photo series Descent/Consent (2013)

Reclamation of the heritage I sought hard to hide and shed in my formative years, thus, became a crucial necessity in my early twenties. I devoured the texts of Trinh T. Minh-ha, bell hooks, Adrienne Rich, Ien Ang, and Sherene Ranzack. They express what sorely resonates with me but that I still have trouble articulating. They helped me realize the importance of interrogating experiences.

I dug back into my murmuring memories. During my undergraduate studies, I had one encounter where difference had never been felt so subtly and simultaneously harshly on both sides of my skin.

I interned for a fairly prominent white Canadian artist at his home studio and he revealed an idea for a photograph he wanted to make. The focus would be on a woman’s mouth next to a heavily chipped wine glass; there’d be a bit of blood on her lips.

He mused about taking some test shots. Very casually, he offered the comment that my lips were “too ethnic.” I remember nervously responding with a small laugh, an “Oh okay, that’s fine,” and the warm blushing on and below my skin’s surface.

Like that time with my family in Montreal outside the museum, I went home, remained quiet and told no one. I tucked it into the folds of my silent tongue and it wasn’t until months later in passing conversation that the memory resurfaced and I started to consider the implications of the statement.

Detail from “Honey I’m home is where the heart is” (2009) — a work that prompted a professor visiting my studio to offer the second comment I’ve received on my “ethnic lips” (his words)

It’s commonplace and practice to define ethnicity as non-whiteness, non-Western-ness, and here was this older man whose whiteness governed his behaviour and thinking. His very world. Having never interrogated the statements uttered at me before, I knew it strange, felt it strange, but couldn’t explain exactly why.

Imagine my relief when I discovered Adrienne Rich’s concept of “white solipsism” almost two years later while in grad school. The tunnel vision of white solipsism simply does not see non-white experience or existence as precious or significant.

Understanding this and having a name put to this type of behaviour somehow verified that it wasn’t just all in my head.

To realize and recognize that there are people who have the tendency to believe and act as though whiteness described the world was eye-opening. However. I still struggle with questioning if racist and discriminatory behaviour is just that or if I’m simply being too sensitive and need to “lighten up.” I still struggle with finding my voice in times where my differences are called out, always in transitory moments, always by men.

That one man I bumped into and when I apologized, called me a “stupid chink.”
The other one who remarked that my steering of a shopping cart was “just like on the road.”
The ones who instinctively have to test out their use of Mandarin or Cantonese on me.
The ones who remark with surprise that my English or accent is great!
The one whose “Me love you long time” comment amused his friends and all I could retort with was “are you kidding me?”

And still, that last time at the 7-Eleven was the only time I’ve spoken back.

It’s hard to reply when you don’t know what to say.
When you’re not sure if you heard correctly.
When you wonder if it’s even worth your time and energy.
When there’s always a threat of violence on the other end.

“Upon entering a convenience store [me love you long time],” from the photo series Descent/Consent (2013)

Mitsuye Yamada’s words that invisibility is an unnatural disaster for Asian women, reverberate in my chest. Silence and its resulting bouts of invisibility is admittedly hard to break.

I see being quiet as a symptom of my cultural background, my upbringing and my personality. I see it hand-in-hand with shame because in times of oppression and denigration, I cannot help but see being quiet as a failure of the self, my self. And I question that perceived failure constantly.

Shame, a powerful instance of embodiment, “arises from a collision of bodies, ideas, history, and place.” Beyond merely a blush, it transpired in me easily, immediately and involuntarily as I fought to assimilate into Canadian culture.

As a 9-year-old landed immigrant, I pronounced ‘three’ more like ‘tree’ and became determined to rectify my speech, which I thought betrayed me. It was just one staunch reminder of my Otherness, of “‘back home.”

To my parents’ disappointment, I dropped my middle name (Wen Xian 文贤) from official documents when I was 16. I didn’t want to put other people through having to pronounce it, or rather, I didn’t want to put myself through having to hear other people attempt it. It’d been painful up until that point.

When forced to admit my differences to others and to myself — when I was younger — I felt embarrassed and ashamed. Moments of hyper-visibility when I most wanted to disappear led to these trivial ways of behaving, which I now lament. In my naive head, my actions were justified as simply necessary for integration.

Maxine and I, chalk on blackboard paint performance (2009)

But then I took that Asian literatures class at the age of 21 and, indirectly, shame became a teacher. It led me to the realization that I wanted and needed to own up to, and play a more active role in my life as a Chinese-Canadian, an immigrant, a woman, a settler.

Shame and interest are intimately linked, with the former always being conceived of in the latter. Together, they question our value system. They ask what is important. Thus, the shame that caused me to conceal my differences gave way to a different kind of shame. One born of the guilt resulting from that concealment.

All of a sudden, it became necessary to acknowledge and reconcile my heritage. To do so means asking again and again — what it means to live on this colonized land, as an immigrant and a settler, to have this skin and certain types of interactions.

From the photo series I am on Musqueam Land (2010)

Before I left Singapore and after — once my family settled in Mississauga — I was asked repeatedly why we were leaving or why we’d moved. “For a better life,” I mouthed many, many times. For my parents, this meant less stress and more opportunity — be it in education or work, for us kids. The words had not much weight for me at that age. Now, I interpret it as having given me the chance to own experiences and sentiments I might not otherwise have.

If we’d stayed in Singapore, would I be as jointly fascinated and disturbed about how I and others embody the subjectivities of Chinese-ness and womanhood?

Would I even be filing away instances of belittlement and silence, or think that shame could have positive and productive outcomes?

Every story is a travel story, Michel de Certeau wrote, and in mine, having enduring emotional and historical attachments to Asia is part of that story.

Sharing my body with the flesh of the world and going back and forth trying to make sense of one another is part of that story.

Getting my tongue stunned into a giant knot in confrontations is part of that story.

Having rich and frustrating conversations about identity and being is part of that story.

The “better life” in Canada that my parents afforded me with came coupled with all of these pleasures and complexities. I believe that I owe it to them and myself to keep interrogating and articulating these experiences the best I can.

This text was adapted from my MFA Visual Art thesis, “A Question of Priorities: Unmapping Through a Diasporic Femininty(2010). Versions of this piece have been presented as artist talks at the University of British Columbia in 2015 and Emily Carr University in 2018, and appears in the Canadian publication Living Hyphen (Vol. 1, 2018).

Chinese-Canadian visual artist, flâneuse, daughter of a diaspora | The intricacies of identity and being, over and over | clareyow.com