vancouver island-based author and artist

Happy 149th Birthday, Canada: Now who do you think you are?

 A grainy photo of me near the Peace Bridge, downtown Calgary, a year ago on Canada Day.

A grainy photo of me near the Peace Bridge, downtown Calgary, a year ago on Canada Day.

One year ago today, I stood on a crowded patch of grass on Prince's Island, my fingers interlaced with those of my ex-boyfriend.  We had shuffled around to find a good spot, now isolated from our friends who had gotten left behind on the other side of the park.  We stared eagerly up at the sky together.  Then, at around 10:45 PM, we heard the first loud crackling sound of the night and the sky lit up.  For the next twenty or so minutes, everyone's eyes were on the Canada Day fireworks.  It felt like magic.  With swirling explosions cascading from the clouds, the sky glistening - we didn't even notice the sunset that night.  Amid the long lines, pushing and shoving; the crowds of people, young and old, and in every colour; we weaved our way through the frustration, and it was worth it.

Until I got home that night and saw a post go viral on Facebook.  It was written by someone in Calgary, who I assume was not of Asian descent, reporting an act of racism he witnessed on Canada Day.  From what I remember, it sounded something like this: said witness was watching the fireworks with hundreds of other Calgarians in a public place.  He overheard a Caucasian man say to an Asian man, who was also present with his wife and young children in tow, "Get the f**k out of our country, you f**king chink." The Asian man calmly replied, "I'm a Canadian citizen, I was born in Canada," and the racist man continued to berate him using profanities.  I can't remember how the story ends, but if you want to go through my News Feed, I did share it.  I also expressed my sadness upon reading it because I'd just come home from a great night with my then-boyfriend and our friends.  I already knew that racism was alive and well in Calgary before that day.  But what I didn't expect was how racism would make its blazing comeback across the world, and how the progression into 2016 would mark the beginning of a new era of old-school fear and ignorance.

I'm not writing this to talk about politics.  I'm writing this because today is Canada Day once again, and this year, I'm halfway across the world in Singapore.  For the last six weeks I've been traveling around the world alone, from the Netherlands to Israel, to the Philippines to meet my extended family for the first time, to Okinawa, Japan, to Hong Kong, and now here.  You could say I've been trying to find myself but I prefer to say I'm getting lost on purpose.  I have found myself as a consequence, though.  Small pieces at a time.  Through making sense of my past by learning about my parents and where they came from, to all the things and places that I came from, all leading to the answers to my present and future uncertainty.  I've matched faces to the figures I didn't previously recognize and names to the faces that I did.  And when I contemplate what it means to be Canadian, and what Canada celebrating 149 years of independence from Britain means for me, here are my thoughts.

Like the man who was racially discriminated against during the fireworks last year in Calgary, I, too, am a visible minority who was born and raised in Canada.  My parents immigrated from the Philippines in 1978 with my two oldest siblings, and a year later, my brother Chris was born in Toronto.  He is also a first-generation Canadian, and all four of us were brought up quite well-immersed in Canadian culture.  I didn't show up until 12 years later - a menopause baby - and to an even higher degree than my older siblings, my Canadian identity became the default for how I would grow up to define myself.  By a certain point, I literally had to look in the mirror to remind myself that I was different than my Caucasian friends.  Or my Chinese friends.  Or my Korean friends.  Like most Filipinos, I blended in with other [racial] groups easily.  What I didn't know, and wouldn't know for the majority of my life, is that this misplacement of identity is a token trait of Filipino culture which its people have deeply internalized.  For 300 years, the Philippines was ruled by Spain, and has since been fought over numerous times by other more powerful nations.  Today, the Philippines is very obviously a prepubescent younger sibling to America, that wants nothing more than to be just like its big fat Kuya (older brother).  The first time my cousin walked me through Ayala Terraces in Quezon City, I looked around the outdoor food court and saw only American chain restaurants.  I asked her, half-jokingly, "Am I in Vegas or Manila?"  We laughed, as she bought me a smoothie from Jamba Juice.  I would spend the next two-and-a-half weeks exploring my native homeland, meeting the likes of Nike, The Gap, and TGIFridays at every turn.  While I was there, I did buy a lot of clothes from Bench and ate more than my fair share of pancake breakfast sandwiches from Jollibee.  But real Filipino culture?  You had to dig for it.  And what you didn't have to dig for was practically living on the streets, sending their children to you with open palms.  The identity that the Philippines wears on its face that's true to its roots is not its religion or happy tourist ads.  The true identity that you'll see the Philippines wearing is its poverty.  Yet you can only really see it once you strip off the designer American brands that the country's people insist on wearing.

What identity does Canada wear on the outside?  Since last fall, I've heard more about how attractive my prime minister is than anything else.  Oh, and that it's cold.  But how does the world actually see Canadians?  Well, I have one word that sums this up that's decidedly un-Canadian in its delivery: pushover.  The perception that Canadians are polite - too polite - and say sorry too often creates a big, cold nation full of pushovers.  A quick breakdown of the word 'sorry' points to the fact that this word is ultimately an apology.  You apologize when you do something wrong.  So when Canadians say sorry for bumping into people (and sometimes not even people), for having to put up with other people's issues, and for the circumstances of other people's misfortune, what are we really saying?  What have we actually done wrong?  Nothing.  Yet we insist on being sorry for being alive, over and over, from not having enough change for our coffee - that's what the Interac machine is for, duh - to the far bigger things.  I've called this out in public before.  I was working at a coffee shop in Canmore and three guys on a road trip from Ontario came in to buy coffee.  I was ringing them through one-by-one and each of them proceeded to say sorry for something completely unrelated.  It was as if they were finding excuses to be sorry.  When their fourth friend walked in later - after apologizing to his friends for taking so long to park their truck - he ordered a coffee from me and threw in an apology as spare change.  As politely as I could (because that's what Canadians are supposed to do), I said to him, "You don't have to be sorry!  It's just change!"  And the guy laughed, along with the rest of his friends.  I, however, am not a good liar.  I could barely contain my frustration and this was evident by the way I raised my voice.  My coworker piped up, "They're Canadian, they're just being polite!" and I was ready to rip the till out of the counter and smash it over her head.  I went to therapy for this (saying sorry, not the incident).  Apologizing for who you are is NOT okay.  Yet my entire country prides itself in its self-deprecation and calls it being polite.  Mix that with the complete lack of Filipino sense of self, and you have a very hard case to crack in a Filipino-Canadian woman who's traveling the world trying to "find herself."  Now, after everything I've learned about the Philippines and everything I know from being born and raised in Canada, what am I?  Am I Canadian?  Am I Filipino?  Can I be both and still be something sound?  Because when you look at the makeup of both these cultures, there's evidence that both of them are a little lost.  If you were to ask both Canada and the Philippines what they are, and to rate the stability of their sense of self from 1 to 10, I don't think either of them would give you the most confident answers.

Today, Canada celebrates 149 years of independence from Britain.  That's 149 years of Confederation, and in the grand scheme, that is not a particularly long time.  Canada is also an immigrant nation, founded by the first European settlers who came over and decided to disrespect the First Nations people who already lived there.  With this, they brought not only guns and disease but also racial discrimination to our glorious and free land.  And thus, it was written: being Canadian is not, and never has been, synonymous with being "white."  I grew up with the privilege to embrace this identity, and the nature of my upbringing encouraged me to choose to do so fully.  My answer to the "where you from?" question has ALWAYS sounded like this: "Canada."  And when people ask, "where are you REALLY from?" I would again reply with Canada.  Because Canada is the only home I've ever known.  Citizenship is my birthright.  I figured it was the ignorant asker's problem if they couldn't wrap their head around the fact that I wasn't white.  For the record, I do have Caucasian friends who are immigrants to Canada.  This should not be a difficult concept to understand.  Being a visible minority does not make you an immigrant.  Growing up Canadian made me understand this - yet every Government of Canada Immigration ad I've ever seen features Filipino or Indian people in it.  So maybe that's where the askers' ignorance came from.  If said asker would continue to press, I sometimes gave up and told them what they wanted to hear.  "My parents are from the Philippines," I would finally mutter, exasperated.  This finally satisfied them.  It was like telling them my parents came from a foreign country made their day, and whatever momentary fantasies they had upon meeting the "exotic" woman that I am were finally filled, and they could move on with their ignorant lives.  No, you didn't just see a tanned, tattooed ghost because I look Asian but I sound exactly like you.  I'm Canadian, just like you.  This was the biggest problem I had when discussing my nationality.

What will I say now?  Probably something like this: "Philippines.  But I was born and raised in Canada."  It feels foreign.  A part of my spine tingles because it doesn't sound right.  It sounds like a lie.  Because I don't know what it's like to live in the Philippines.  I don't know what not having hot water feels like, what having limited personal choices feels like.  I got just a tiny taste of it when I visited, living in the homes of several of my cousins and aunts and with their own families.  But it isn't the socioeconomic standard that I was born into that makes that statement feel wrong.  It's the fact that I have no reference point of Filipino culture to offer.  I didn't grow up with Filipino friends.  I didn't eat Filipino food, and my parents only ever spoke Tagalog at home when they fought (which was most of the time, I should mention, therefore not picking up on the language is something I don't have that much of an excuse for).  And when I look at what Canadian culture has to offer, there isn't much.  Canada prides itself on being a nation of respect, cooperation, and equal opportunities.  As a new-world, immigrant nation, Canada hands each of its citizens and permanent residents a blank page on which to write our own Canadian story.  With all the things that drive me crazy about Canada, I do understand now how much of a privilege this is.  That, and the fact that I was handed my blank page from birth - not after leaving behind a country, a culture, and a huge family behind on the other side of the world, nor getting tangled in the bureaucratic red tape of visas and work permits for years and years.  I got to bypass all of it, and whether other people understand it or not, I am Canadian first.  My parents are from the Philippines, but I was born in Canada.  This is my country of citizenship, and I am Canadian.  And I'm definitely not sorry for it.

So today, on Canada's birthday, I wish a Happy Canada Day to all my fellow Canadians back home and abroad.  We are NOT the greatest country in the world.  But that isn't something to be sorry for - I think that's actually what makes us great.  I'm thankful for the fact that my passport makes traveling the world hassle-free.  I'm thankful that a good number of my basic services are paid for, even if the waiting times are sometimes insane.  I'm thankful that our elections are fair, and our politics are less cutthroat and sensationalized as they are in other countries.  I'm thankful my prime minister calls himself a feminist and that he values his wife and children and maintaining the normalcy of their family life.  I'm thankful that we are blessed to have a variety of natural resources available in our country that we don't have to import from other places at the massive expense of the population's tax dollars.  And I'm thankful to live in a country with clean air, hot water, affordable housing, accessible services, and legally-guaranteed equal opportunities.  If not for the sacrifices my parents made almost 40 years ago, in order to give my siblings and I the opportunities that we have, I wouldn't be able to say so.  I'm thankful for that, too.  Never again will I take these things for granted.  I am Canadian.  That is an incredible privilege.