“Hi Halmoni,” I say, as I draw my Korean grandmother into a very loose, awkward hug. “Hi say-quoi-yah,” she beams back at me, purple puffer jacket, tattooed eyebrows, and all. My grandparents are very predictable people; Halmoni will measure herself against me and tell me I should enter the Miss Universe beauty pageant; Haraboji will draw out a long “Hii,” pull me into a very brief hug, and give me two or three solid—and I mean solid—pats on the back.
I am grateful for every minute I get to spend with my grandparents, but seeing them in the flesh is bittersweet. It reminds me of the time I told Haraboji that I was going to take an introductory Korean language class at McGill. I never actually ended up taking the course, and it pained me when every time he came over to visit, he would ask me if I was still taking it. I shook my head and muttered that I would start trying to learn on my own soon—a promise I knew I wouldn’t keep. I wanted to take the class to stop feeling so much like a Korean fraud, and more importantly, to be able to speak freely to my Korean family. I wanted to know all the stories that couldn’t quite pierce through the language barrier.
Growing up mixed Korean-Scottish in a predominantly white town in southwestern Ontario, my search for a sense of identity and belonging has felt, at turns, humiliating and insatiable. As I enter my twenties, however, I’ve begun to see this confusing existence not as something to lament, but as something beautiful and inordinately complex to explore.
Simmering on low heat for several years prior, my racial identity crisis erupted in my first year of studies at McGill. McGill’s Upper Residence felt packed with hundreds of self-centred, loud, white people. More than being excluded, I felt repulsed: Who I was couldn’t have been further from the culture I had been plunged into. Outside of the more glaring reasons for my alienation—like the astounding dominance of the thin, white, and blonde ideal—lots of other small things bothered me. For one, people wasted disgusting amounts of food in the dining hall. My Apba taught me to scrape out the last grain of rice out of the bowl, and I always used chopsticks to nitpick out the final few half-grains stuck to the sides.
I thought that my proximity to whiteness would grant me back-end access to the “best four years of your life” university experience that I was expecting—but it never really did. Through various conversations with other mixed East Asians, however, it was affirming to find out that my experience was not an anomaly. Serene Mitchell, a U3 Arts student born in Taiwan but raised transnationally between Asia and the west coast of Canada, remembers being astonished by the unabashed displays of privilege among the much of the McGill population.
“[I remember] feeling so [...] isolated, feeling like I don't have anything in common with these people at all,” Mitchell said, recalling their first year. “I think that's when I started doing a lot of thinking and I was like, ‘if this is white people, this is not me.’”
But it was those very experiences of Othering and alienation that led Mitchell to explore their Asian identity in more depth. She added, “I feel like because of how horrible it was, it pushed me to reconcile with my Asian identity, because [...] the fact that people make me feel like I can’t have it makes me want to have it more.”
And oh, how badly I wanted my identity. After being chewed up and spat out by my first year of university, I felt the sudden urge to explore, and confront, my Asian identity. But how? The most obvious starting point was through my Haraboji—translating to “grandfather” in English. In my eyes, he embodied a lifetime’s knowledge of Korean culture, traditions, language, and lived history. I wanted to know all these things too; I wanted to be able to answer any Korea-related question anyone ever had for me just like my grandfather could. It was as if I wanted to become my grandfather himself. Not far into my tragic hero’s journey did I confront the realization that becoming a walking encyclopedia on Korean culture wouldn’t make me any more Korean than I already am.
After that, I latched onto something different, something that Katia Lo Innes, BA ‘21, calls “boba liberalism.” Said to be coined by the now-deleted Twitter user @diaspora_is_red, the term points to the rise of bubble tea as part of the “substanceless trend-chasing spectacle” that is mainstream Asian-American—and Asian-Canadian—liberalism.
“Once boba liberalism kicks in, and you see your cultural identity as things that can be bought and sold, and you’re mixed, you are always going to have this idea that you’re deficient,” Lo Innes said. “You have a scarcity mentality that tells you have to do all these things to catch up.”
The term critiques the idea of reaffirming one’s racial identity by purchasing commodified and mainstream “Asian” products. Another Twitter user, replying to the original thread, continued: “It’s capitalist consumption presented as ‘API-ness.’ Buy more Crazy Rich Asians tickets, sell more boba, go to raves, wear this brand. It’s reliant on capitalism.”
Although I was never a materialistic “boba liberal,” I certainly struggled with the temptation to outwardly display—and perhaps, perform—my Asian-ness. I was never obsessed with purchases, but I was still obsessed with their shadow: Performance. I knew I just desperately wanted to prove to people—especially to white people—that I was Asian, that I was Asian enough.
“If you look at things as a performance for other people, you're not going to feel it, Lo Innes said. “But if you look at your own personal rituals, I think a lot of it [is] actually quite cultural. Like boiling water or taking shoes off to wear slippers. And they’re not ‘capital C’ culture, I’m not doing a tea ceremony every morning, but those are all cultural habits.”
At some point along the way, I, along with Lo Innes, was added to the Facebook group "Subtle Asian Traits." Its 1.9 million members make funny, relatable posts about the “Asian experience”: Asian dads making kids cry while helping with math homework, fans cracking jokes about their favourite K-dramas and anime, strict parents pushing their children to be doctors and lawyers. While I related to some of the memes, I often felt like an outsider—even, an imposter—in a community I was supposed to fit into.
“A lot of the Subtle Asian Traits discourse, and also a lot of mixed-race and cultural identity discourse is really based on consumption and what you do,” Lo Innes said. “It’s kind of shallow. Being Asian isn’t just going to get boba or having parents that beat you with a wooden spoon.”
But the unsettling feeling of not feeling Asian enough obviously runs deeper than being unable to relate to a universalized Asian experience. Many of my worries are linguistic, existential, even generational. Earlier this summer, I decided to walk down to Montreal’s melting-pot-of-a-Chinatown for the first time, expecting to find some comfort. Instead, I felt disoriented. As I walked through the stores, pouring over all the things that I used to see lying around my grandparents’ house, I felt lost trying to navigate a space written in languages and characters I didn’t recognize nor understand.
The dichotomy is dizzying: I saw so many familiar Korean things, but they felt oh-so distant, foreign, and out of reach. It's akin to how I feel around my Korean relatives sometimes: They speak to me in broken English, marvel at my mixed features—my curly hair, mostly. I always nod along, catching some words and comments here and there. My Apba spoke to me in Korean when I was a young child, but eventually stopped. I never learned the language.
If there’s one thing that keeps me up at night, though, it’s grappling with the fear and sorrow of the possibility of the Korean line fizzling out in my generation. If I feel so disconnected from my culture now, it hurts to think about how disconnected my future kids might feel. Haraboji and Halmoni won’t be alive; I won’t have any Korean to pass onto my kids; and so many family stories will be left untold, caught behind the rigid language barrier dividing the world between my grandparents and me. Michelle Zauner, the half-Korean lead vocalist and songwriter of indie rock band Japanese Breakfast, asks herself a similar question in the opening chapter of her memoir Crying in H-Mart: “Am I even Korean anymore if there’s no one left to call and ask which brand of seaweed we used to buy?”
Lo Innes, too, has grappled with long-term generational anxieties, but finds comfort in the fact that Chinese culture is always in flux—not something stuck in time, about to be lost.
“What I try to tell myself is that if I try and claim too much of Chinese culture as I know it, it ends up becoming kind of the archaic, fake version that I’m trying to feed my kids and that isn’t that cool,” Lo Innes said. “Culture in China is always changing and it changes with me and it changes with everyone who is Chinese, so I think a lot of people are being less traditional.”
And change does it ever: When I visited South Korea in 2016 with my grandparents and family, I was shocked to hear from both Apba and Haraboji that they felt like outsiders there. My grandparents were born in Korea, but moved to Toronto in 1968. Haraboji said that the dialect had changed so much that he—a native Korean speaker—could at times barely comprehend what people were saying.
It made me think about the diasporic yearning to return to the homeland. The thought of travelling to the place my ancestors have lived for hundreds of years sounds soul-replenishing. But while visiting South Korea was beautiful and thought-provoking, I realized that the place itself would be no silver bullet in reaffirming my racial identity.
Connecting to geographic places outside of the homeland is important too. Born to an Italian father and a Korean mother, Catherine Young Zambrano, U2 Arts, said she feels most at home in Toronto, where she lives right in-between her two cultural neighbourhoods.
“In Toronto, my mom’s house is in between College Street and Bloor Street. On College Street, it’s Little Italy. And on Bloor Street, it’s Koreatown. And [we lived] literally right in the middle,” Zambrano said, smiling. “What I love about going home is how close I feel geographically to each little town of mine.”
Lo Innes and Zambrano inspire me to see my complicated relationship with my cultural identity as a beautiful, intricate thing to treasure. Instead, I think I’ll start asking myself questions like: How do I find genuine connection to culture? How do I learn to accept everything that I am, and realize that everything I am not? How do I come to peace with myself?
Food was an entry point to Korean culture for me. Although there aren’t many Asian grocery stores in the Plateau area where I live, I enjoy biking down to Chinatown or up to the Jean-Talon area to visit Marché Oriental. One time, annoyed by the meagre 2 lb bags of rice sold at grocery stores around me, I hauled a 15 lb bag of ‘extra fancy’ Calrose rice—otherwise known as sticky rice—several kilometres back to my apartment. In my grandparent’s house, you will never find the rice cooker empty. For Zambrano, making her mother’s dumplings is a way of connecting to Korean culture.
“I make them for my roommates, make them for my friends, and make them for my dinner parties,” Zambrano said. “Everyone loves them a lot.”
Food is my care language. I prefer chopping vegetables and preparing a birthday meal for a friend to buying them a gift. This summer, I made bibimbap for a close friend’s 20th birthday. I spent the morning julienning the carrots and cucumbers, marinating the spinach, making the sauce, and arranging everything in the bowl perfectly. Together, we celebrated his 20th in the park just outside of my apartment.
“Food is a great way to reconnect because it’s a universal language and has a universal way of caring for yourself and caring for others,” Lo Innes said. “Often, [...] being mixed and not speaking [...] your mother tongue, [you begin to ask yourself], ‘how do I communicate these feelings to people without the vocabulary to do so?’ Food is a great way to find that vocabulary.”
From Korean barbecue, to mul naengmyeon, to dotori-muk—a wobbly, nutty, acorn jelly—to a simple bowl of fresh, steaming rice, making and eating Korean food brings me so much comfort.
Though I cook for myself much of the time, food is best enjoyed in company. Renée Laberge, U2 Arts, made space for herself in Upper Residence in first year, sharing bits of Chinese culture and food with her floormates. “When I was in residence, I made a point to let people know that not only am I half Chinese, [but that I also] fucking love the culture,” Laberge said, beaming. For Autumn Moon Festival, Laberge’s mother sent her mooncakes, so she cut the mooncakes up into tiny pieces and put them on a plate outside for people on her floor to try. For Chinese New Year, she cooked dinner for her entire floor.
My Haraboji is my cultural rock. As I was reading over the final versions of this feature, I decided to call him. I could hear his excitement emanating through the phone when he picked up. After explaining the topic of my feature to him, he surprised me when he said he felt the same way. When he travelled to Korea for the first time in 53 years back in 2016, he said Koreans there treated him like he wasn’t a full Korean. But back in Canada, he knows he is seen as an immigrant—fully the Other, fully Korean. I sat still in my chair, processing his words. They shook me because I had always seen myself as not-Asian-enough in his shadow. Hearing about his alienation from both places challenged the idea I had held onto for so long: That having a cultural identity is something you are born with, and is something that sticks with you for the rest of your life. That because Haraboji was a full Korean, born in Korea, that he would stay Korean for the rest of his life. The fact that even Haraboji—who epitomized Korean-ness in my eyes—was still navigating his own cultural identity at the ripe age of 84, showed me that feeling Asian is so much more complex than I had previously allowed myself to believe.
Stepping out of the metro station near Place-des-Arts one lonely night this summer, I passed by an outdoor MUTEK festival performance. In a plain white T-shirt that hung loosely off her shoulders as she pulsed to the beat was Ciel, a Toronto-based DJ hailing from Xi’an, China. As I swayed to the ethereal, head-bumping electronica, suddenly I was crying. It was a simple revelation, but an important one: There is no single way to be, or feel, Asian.
Illustrations by Xiaotian Wang, Design Editor