Cultural identity conundrums

In my last post, I mentioned I would be talking about culture and cultural identity sometime in the next to near future. Well now’s the time – the wee hours of a Wednesday night, sleepless tossing-and-turning resulting from evening run endorphins, a screaming baby in the basement apartment, and a sale on Lindt coconut chocolate eaten before bed. This is a very personal post. After all, what is the Internet if not a place to toss ideas out into the empty ether, and have them come back ripe with similar thoughts, the occasional sympathy, and ever-reassuring cat gif?


I’ve struggled with the concept of cultural identity my entire life. I don’t mean this in a “well we’re Canadian and isn’t this whoooole country really, like, just trying to figure out what it means to be truly Canadian? Doesn’t our national identity have something to do with Kraft Dinner?!” I mean it to be that I don’t always feel fully Canadian, if that makes sense. But I don’t know what culture is supposed to fill those gaps, either.

Some background information on my background. I’m half Chinese, half Irish, a mix spawned after my parents met playing squash in Timmins, Ontario. As a kid, I would holler about the schoolyard that I was “Chirishadian” – a unique moniker combining my three nationalities, a way to surmise the confusion I didn’t realize I felt until later.

My Gramps and I at Sandbanks Provincial Park in southern Ontario (l), Nana, Pop, and I at their home in Ireland.
My Gramps and I at Sandbanks Provincial Park in southern Ontario (l), Nana, Pop, and I at their home in Ireland.

If we’re talking about physical appearances alone, I stump many.

There’s going to be the acknowledgement of stereotypes here, so bear with me for these sweeping statements: I’m not completely slight as all of my Chinese relatives are. I have almond-shaped eyes, ones my brother say shrink to slits when I smile in photos. But they’re green. The colour my dad’s were when he was my age. I’m tall, strong, and have been called ethnicities ranging from Mongolian to Nepalese to Portuguese (who knows how that last one happened). I’ve been interviewing First Nations leaders when they’ve asked me what reserve I’m from. In grade 12, my high school guidance counsellor asked if I wanted to be nominated for a scholarship for outstanding First Nations students. Cab drivers assume I’m Inuit as they glance my way in the rearview mirror. Perhaps these last few assumptions are really the boldest expression of “Canada” I can claim. People have been placing me in specific “ethnic boxes” my entire life. It doesn’t really bother me (just like the “Hilary Duff” name thing, I’m kind of used to it, frankly). But in all honesty, it’s gotten me a little messed up.

So how does this link to recent travels, you might ask? Good question.

My cultural identity thoughts really came to light when I was in Hong Kong last winter.

An aside: Though I understand the multi-racial make-up of Canada today (and even as a kid growing up in the 90’s), you have to understand where I was raised. At my elementary and high schools in Timmins and Sudbury, I was one of a few Asian students. In grade 11, a girl came up to my locker and asked why I spoke English so well, assuming I was a recent immigrant to Canada. Multiculturalism in big cities is all fine and dandy, but it wasn’t even close to being a given where and when I grew up.

So keep that context in mind. Suddenly I’m in Hong Kong – a place where I’m not the minority. Everyone looks generally like the ethnicity from whence I come. My mom’s family was from the southern part of China, from a region next door to what is now Hong Kong. For the first time in my life, I fit in – appearance-wise, anyways. But it ended there. It was an interesting phenomena being in Hong Kong. I walked into restaurants and up to street vendors and they spoke to me in Cantonese. Because I looked like I would know the language because I looked like them. I spent a day in Macau with my friend who does speak Cantonese, and he had to explain to several exasperated salespeople that no, I wasn’t ignoring what they were saying to me, I simply couldn’t understand.

I was struck with this huge sense of unbelonging. I didn’t look like people at home, and in the place where I do “fit in,” I was ‘othered’ because of my lack of cultural knowledge and language. Boom. The unique, racial ambiguity of the future – where the assumption of ethnicity – even if correct – can’t and shouldn’t be affiliated to an inherent knowledge of that ethnicity’s culture.

My Chinese heritage was neither taught nor hidden from me. Rather, it appeared in wisps – a toonie in a red envelope on Chinese New Year, a trip to my Gramps’ house where, on a plastic-wrapped couch, I would look at the odd relic of our shared heritage. Meanwhile, every other summer we would visit my dad’s family in Ireland, where my cousins, brother, and I would march around town pretending to be the von Trapp children, boggling the minds of strangers as we told them we were blood relatives.

Cousins in Ireland, circa about 1998.
Cousins in Ireland, circa about 1998.

I’m not bitter about my parents’ choice to not instil a deeper sense of cultural values in me. As kids (or at least as a university dad immigrated to Canada in his early 20’s), my parents looked to Canada as a place to create a new life. It’s not my place to talk about my mom’s life growing up as a Chinese girl in Loyalist southern Ontario, but it’s safe to say that neither of us were exactly raised in places that embraced the value of being different. So they, we, I…were folded into the mix of Canada, an attempt to create a homogenous mixture out of many diverse ingredients.

I mention that I’m not bitter…but I’m sad. I’m sad my grandparents passed away before I had the chance to ask them their stories, their histories. I’m also scared my surviving family has forgotten theirs, or has filed them so deep in their mind archives that they’ll never again see the light of day.

My struggle for cultural identity continues, for now. But I’m trying.

At the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.
At the top of Victoria Peak in Hong Kong.

8 thoughts on “Cultural identity conundrums

  1. In a globalized world, we travel and live in so many places and adapt to different cultures that we feel we belong to this whole world, which is a nice thing if you look at it. the world is yours.

  2. Hilary!

    Long time no chat friend. Can you believe we we hadn’t even met in Nepal this time last year!

    I just wanted to write real quick and say that this post really resonated with me. I too struggled with questions of identity this past year. What it means to be mixed and culturally adrift. I feel American, but I also feel that I don’t belong into any mold. I would be interested in talking to you more about this.

    Hope you are doing well!

    Cheers and namaste, Mikaela

    Sent from my iPhone


  3. Hi Hilary! I love your blog (and photography)! This post also resonates somewhat with me. I’m fairly new to the world of blogging. Do you have any tips for someone like me, who is new to blogging?

  4. Hi Hilary. Great blog post. I was born in HK, raised in Canada. Throughout my life, I have struggled with identity despite the fact that I am 100% Chinese; questions about belonging and identity. I can relate to what you are saying. Marginal man theory, a sociological concept explains individuals’ struggle between two cultural realities.

    BTW, I saw you at Capital Ward councilors & mayoral debate last month. I meant to say hi, but didn’t get to. Next time.

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