Aaron Chan standing with his hands in his pockets by a wall.
Over the years, Aaron Chan (pictured) learned to reconcile all his identities. Credit: belle ancell/Daily Xtra
Opinion
19 min

The complicated journey towards identity as a gay Canadian man of colour

I’ve grown up trying to navigate what it means to be gay, male, Chinese and Canadian. It turns out I can be everything

When my short film, Stay, was scheduled to screen at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival in 2010, I received an email from a local gay publication asking me to do an interview. Naturally, I was thrilled (I love talking about myself, but don’t get to do it much in person). One interview question stood out to me: “When you add your sexuality to the mix, what unique obstacles do you as a gay man of colour have to deal with?”

Although the reporter asked about being a gay man of colour, I felt the answer couldn’t be confined to just two layers of my identity. Because it would be one thing to be queer in China or Hong Kong (where my father and mother are from), but it’s another set of difficulties in Vancouver. At the same time, the question touched on the perpetual crisis of identity prevalent in Canada (and particularly Canadian literature, it seems; an English professor in college once half-joked that Canadian writing is either about identity or incest).

His question should’ve really been this: When you add your sexuality to the mix, what unique obstacles do you as a gay man of colour have to deal with specifically in Canada?

Answering this question is not easy. To begin, I’d have to go back to how I even identify myself, which I’ve never really given much thought about. I’m aware of all the different pieces that my hybrid identity consists of, but how much I identify with each of them and how that plays into what I call myself hadn’t crossed my mind. Perhaps it was time I examined myself more closely.

I’m reminded of an instance when working as a writing tutor on campus at the University of British Columbia. Most of my colleagues were also coincidentally Asian and Canadian.

“Would you say you identify as Chinese-Canadian, or Canadian, or something else?” one of them asked me one afternoon. I mentally clothed myself in both terms, trying to see which fit me and felt most comfortable to wear.

“Canadian, for sure.”

Their surprised faces met mine. “Why? Don’t you feel like you’re leaving out the fact that you’re Chinese?”

“Why do I have to add my ethnicity to my nationality? I feel like being Chinese is encompassed in saying I’m Canadian. Calling myself Canadian doesn’t mean I’m not Chinese. We’re a diverse country, right?”

They nodded, considering it. “That’s an interesting way of looking at it.”

I didn’t think it was particularly interesting, but then again, it’s a subconscious process, how one chooses to identify themselves. I’ve certainly called myself Chinese-Canadian on countless occasions and at some point, I must’ve stopped to analyze what it truly meant to label myself as such, subconsciously or otherwise.

I was born in Canada. I didn’t immigrate here when I was a kid, so I don’t hesitate to claim my nationality as Canadian. There is no doubt there.

The tricky part is whether or not to tie ethnicity with nationality — and also why or why not. We North Americans like to hyphenate our nationalities. African-American. Korean-American. I feel like most of the time, we do this out of reflex, because it is more common than simply using your ethnicity or nationality alone to describe you.

Author Aaron Chan as a child
A photo of Aaron Chan as a child. Credit: Courtesy Aaron Chan

I can certainly see the merits of using a hyphenated descriptor. It presents both your ethnicity and your nationality in one. A package deal. At the same time, I can’t help but feel like by telling people I am Chinese-Canadian, I’m implying that my two identities are mutually exclusive. If I tell people I’m Chinese, they may believe I was born in China or Hong Kong. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I feel as though people automatically make certain assumptions about me, such as my language skills and upbringing. And at the same time, I declare myself as simply Canadian and my friends and colleagues look at me funny, expecting my ethnicity in there somewhere too. Neither of these is who I really am.

It’s this mentality that bothers me. It’s as if I must be ethnically white to be able to use the lone descriptor of Canadian, which I don’t believe at all. No one labels themselves as Caucasian-Canadian; less often, we see or hear terms such as German-Canadian or Irish-American or Australian-American. Though some people use them, I can’t help but think that sometimes white people just round up their nationality to Canadian because all the other white people do it too — and because no one bats an eye when they do so. Of course I acknowledge that part of this may just be a generalization and sure, maybe I have a secret mission to get back at white people for racism and colonialism and the atrocity to human ears known as EDM.

But even when, for instance, I’m on the bus or the SkyTrain and I hear Caucasian people around me speaking in Irish, English, Australian accents who mention having lived in Canada for a few months or a few years, or even when they don’t mention it at all, I can’t help but feel like other Canadians — and really, the rest of the world — would consider them to be more typically Canadian simply because of their skin colour than me, despite the fact that I’ve only ever lived in one country my entire life. I know this thinking is wrong, that I’m projecting my thoughts onto and blaming the public, but it’s difficult not to feel like this when I’ve come across so many people who have, in turn, made me feel like Canada is not my home (or the numerous times I’ve been strolling downtown and someone hands me a flyer for ESL classes, no doubt assuming I don’t speak English well because I’m Asian).

“Where are you from?”

When my sister visited her friend Anna in Winnipeg, a friend of Anna’s exclaimed, “Wow, your English is so good!” My sister simply stared at her, while Anna did a facepalm. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I’ve had someone ask me, “Where are you from?” — only to follow up with “No, where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?” when I reply I’m from Vancouver.

I fucking hate when this happens to me. It is beyond annoying; it is well within offensive territory. Intentionally or not, whenever this happens, people make me feel like I don’t belong and that Canada isn’t my true home, like it’s impossible for them to believe someone who isn’t white could be born and raised in Canada, that I must be some sort of immigrant and they won’t stop asking until they’ve traced back my migration route. And because of this, there’s also an air of smugness, of superiority from the inquirer that makes me automatically have a negative impression of them. If people asked about my background more tactfully (for example, “What’s your background?” or “What’s your ethnicity?”) I would have much less of a problem with it. Instead, I end up resenting their ignorance (and I don’t like feeling negative! Argh!).

It all came to a head one time at a screening at the Vancouver Queer Film Festival. I was seated next to an older gentleman with round glasses. While we waited for the film to begin, he turned to me and made small talk. It started out the way it usually does.

“So where are you from?”

Familiar with how only saying “Vancouver” can be misinterpreted as where I currently reside, I tried my best to be clear. “I was born in Vancouver.”

“Ah, I see. I mean, are you from China? Or Hong Kong?”

I bristled at his words. I had just told him where I was from, but I knew what he was really asking.

“My parents are from China and Hong Kong, yes,” I said, barely able to keep the equivalent of an eye-roll in my voice.

“Oh, I see.” I thought that was the end of it. He had already placed me outside of Canada, making me feel like an outsider, but that was nothing new. I shrugged it off. We returned to staring at ads for local businesses on the screen in silence.

“Where in China are you from?”

Oh my fucking god. I was so angry and exasperated that I was only able to growl through clenched teeth, “I don’t know. I’m not from China,” and he backed off. It was yet another one of those instances where I apparently couldn’t call myself a Canadian without having to concede that my parents — and by extension, myself — were from elsewhere.

In that moment, I thought back to how I used to joke that the next time someone asked me where I was really from, I’d turn the question back on them, just to see how they’d like feeling un-Canadianized. Detecting a European accent of some sort in the older man’s voice, I posed the alienating question to him (with some residual seething in my voice).

Sweden, he told me.

“Where in Sweden are you from?” I inquired, self-satisfied at my pompousness.

He mentioned the name, somewhere just outside of Stockholm. He had arrived in Canada when he was 17.

Unfortunately for me, he didn’t seem at all bothered by me trying to place him away from Canada, perhaps because he actually grew up in another country. It also likely had to do with him being white and thus unaccustomed to racism and its nuances. But maybe he was nonchalant because he really didn’t care what a stranger thought of him and felt assured enough to call himself a Canadian regardless. I had tried to highlight a double standard and make someone feel like an outsider the way I constantly felt,  but I failed. At the very least, I hoped mirroring the same question would inspire empathy and understanding but instead, it seemingly did nothing. Mostly, I felt disappointed at the injustice of it all.

Who gets to be Canadian?

What does a Canadian look like? Everyone will give you different answers. I remember watching the opening ceremonies of the 2010 Winter Olympics on television. Sure, the games were set in Vancouver, but judging by the entertainment in the ceremonies, it was a broader, Canadian theme: the RCMP, a giant spirit bear puppet, Indigenous peoples, and fiddlers representing the Maritime provinces. It was all spectacular and impressive, but something felt lacking. My best friend Chelsea summed it up best when she lamented, “I know it’s kind of mean to say this . . . but they’re the Vancouver games! They’re our games, so they should be about Vancouver. We shouldn’t have to represent all of Canada. I don’t care about fiddlers!”

I think what she was driving at was that fiddlers are cool, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any in Vancouver. With visible minorities comprising more than 50 percent of Metro Vancouver’s population, and given the important role the Chinese, among other minorities, played in the history of Canada, it was disappointing (but not altogether surprising) that neither the opening nor closing ceremonies included anything that truly reflected Canada’s multiculturalism. I didn’t see myself there. We didn’t see ourselves as Canadians.

The history of Chinese in Canada can be traced back to the 18th century — and possibly earlier — even before the influx of workers who toiled away on the national railway. The Chinese were largely viewed as “others” and job stealers by the white Canadians; segregated from the rest of society, the Chinese built their “Chinatowns.” Despite the fact that Chinese families have lived in the country for generations, many Canadians continue to believe they aren’t true citizens. Colonialism, in all its glory.

And this borderline xenophobia goes both ways. Growing up, my mom used to tell me, “Don’t forget that you are Chinese first, above all else” — “all else” meaning Canadian. I’ve tried to explain my nationality to her, to remind her that until I was 23 I had never set foot in either China or Hong Kong (or Asia, for that matter). She just waved me off.

To my mom and likely other hyphenated citizens, it doesn’t matter where you are born. Ethnicity trumps all.

I’ve had customer service jobs where people approach me and automatically start speaking in Cantonese or Mandarin. Although I try my best to converse, I almost always resort to Chinglish — easy words in Cantonese, everything else filled in in English, in the vain hope that they will understand. Most of the time they don’t, or they get a vague idea. At least people are really understanding about my rudimentary language skills; once they hear me struggling with the language, they ask if I was born in Vancouver. When I tell them yes, they usually say, “Ahh” and nod, and I can’t help but feel like I’ve let them down.

When I tell my mom of my embarrassing run-ins, she clicks her tongue at me. “That’s why you should’ve stayed in Chinese school. More and more people are speaking Chinese these days. I keep telling you how it’s an important skill to have.” Many times, I have pointed out the fact that we live in Canada, where fluency in English is more important (as evidenced by me frequently helping her spell words to be written on cheques and sick letters, but the irony is lost on her).

Comedian Margaret Cho jokes about her childhood, “It’s hard when you’re a child of immigrants. You spend half of your day in America, and the rest of your day in a foreign land,” emphasizing the last two words as if it is an exotic and magical realm.

When I was a teenager, I often slashed the pages of my journal with a pen, venting about my mother, “I feel like I’m living with someone from China!” She didn’t understand nor speak English very well, and mostly communicated with me in Cantonese. Getting good grades and studying were her highest priority, and were enforced. She yelled at me if I didn’t practice piano; if I went out, I had to basically give her full disclosure of who, what, where, when, how, why. Sometimes, I was cognizant enough to see that we are simply two very different people living in different societies in different times. However, this realization only served to make me feel further from my family and my culture, instead of reconciling us.

Aaron Chan as a preteen. Credit: Courtesy Aaron Chan

I’ve met other Chinese-Canadians who nonchalantly toss out, “Oh, you’re a banana too, eh?” or “I’m pretty much white-washed too.” To me, both “banana” and “white-washed” have negative connotations, as if I’m rid of any and all Chinese culture aside from my skin. At first, I wholly rejected this term. The concept of being yellow on the outside and white on the inside makes it sound as if I’m a white person in yellow-face and Chinese drag. It just seems so odd to me to claim such a thing, but I realize I’m speaking from the experience of being a first-generation Canadian to parents who were actually born and lived in Asia.

On second thought, is that not who I essentially am? I’m an atheist compared to my Buddhist mother; I don’t really follow the Lunar Calendar and I’m certainly not as traditional as my parents. The only things Chinese about me are my skin, the fact that I eat Chinese food, and my recollection of a moderate amount of Chinese words and phrases. I’m into classic movies, Sarah McLachlan, and internet access for all. Seems pretty non-Chinese to me.

Oh, and I’m gay too.

Gay-Chinese-Canadian?

For the most part, being gay and Canadian isn’t really a point of contention (except maybe if you live in Alberta). Yes, there are still issues here and there, like in 2006 when Stephen Harper held a vote in Parliament to re-address same-sex marriage even after it had been legalized.

It would be naive to believe that you can be out and queer all across Canada, regardless of where you go. There are still gaybashings; homophobia and transphobia continue to linger, and will probably do so for years to come. For the most part though, I felt like it was okay to be gay growing up. The Vancouver Public Library had lots of books about and for teens; I discovered and attended a gay youth drop-in. Although my high school had a gay-straight alliance, the rest of the school seemed fairly indifferent to it. When I came out to my aunt at 14, she advised me not to tell my classmates because teens were bullied and sometimes killed due to their sexual orientation. I remember disbelieving her warning because she lived in the US and didn’t understand that things were different in Canada. At the time, I was all too familiar with gay teens getting assaulted and harassed (from the many young-adult gay-themed novels I read, not having experienced it first-hand), but I never believed that people at my high school were homophobic enough to enact violence. Sure, I heard people say homophobic shit every day, but it was so casual that it suggested stupidity and ignorance rather than a broken jaw.

My mom once casually mentioned, “Everyone has a sickness. Your sister’s sickness is that she stays out too much and too late.”

“And mine?” I asked, not taking her seriously.

“Yours is you’re gay.”

And the sad thing is that I knew she genuinely believed it.

***

It might be obvious, but the part of me that struggled with homosexuality was my Chinese side.

“How can you be gay? No one in our entire family is gay,” both my father and mother told me when I came out to them in my teens. I’m pretty sure that although it would appear that no one in our current extended family is gay, it doesn’t mean they aren’t. (Just because someone marries someone of the opposite sex doesn’t mean they’re straight. I have a specific relative in mind who may be gay but I probably shouldn’t mention who they are). It also doesn’t mean that no one in the entire line of Chans in the history of the world has ever had a homosexual experience.

Needless to say, being Chinese and gay has been, and still is, a battle. In Chinese culture, it’s a taboo subject. And because so few Chinese gay men (and probably women too) come out, there is little discussion, education and understanding around it. Chinese people are supposed to get married and have kids, to pass on the family name. It’s not a Chinese thing to be gay.

In the months and years after I came out to my mother, I forced myself to tell her about the dates I had, queer events I attended, and relationships I was in. For the most part, my mom said nothing or, if she said anything, there was a long pause, followed by something along the lines of, “Don’t get into that stuff right now. Just concentrate on school.” Conversations were so awkward, so stilted and unnatural that I really wondered if it was worth it to keep bringing up my sexuality with my mom, making both of us so uncomfortable that we avoided speaking to each other the rest of the day.

Even as China and Hong Kong become more modern and open, older generations still remain traditional. My dad cited how being gay wasn’t natural. My mother advised me never to tell my grandparents because she said they wouldn’t understand. I’ve met dozens of gay Chinese men who are in the closet, some firmly (and happily so). When I tell them I’m out to my Chinese family and have been since I was a teenager, they look at me wide-eyed as if stunned I’m alive to tell the tale, then ask me how it happened.

Aaron Chan as a teenager
Aaron Chan as a teenager. Credit: Courtesy Aaron Chan

Let me say this: I’m proud to be gay and Chinese. It might be a strange thing to have pride in, and it’s a little complicated to explain. Part of it is having the courage to defy what others and the heterosexist culture you grew up in want you to be in order to be yourself. If it’s true that zero of my ancestors were openly gay, I’ve broken tradition, broken taboo.

In a wider context, although it may be unfair to compare myself to other gay Chinese men for the sake of feeling proud and superior, it does make me feel somewhat special to know that I can come out to my parents, my friends, and my work, and lead an honest life while some of them remain afraid to lead the lives they truly want. Of course, I wish they could join me and live freely too. I’ve tried to explain to them that coming out is really not as bad as they make it seem, but fear paralyzes them, sadly.

A few years ago, there was controversy when a group called Parents’ Voice opposed an anti-homophobia policy proposed by the Burnaby School Board. The parents consisted mostly of immigrant families — more specifically, religious Asian parents. They claimed that the policy protected queer kids but not everyone else from bullying; they later added that the policy would force their kids to take sex education classes and learn about homosexuality. Despite accusations of being homophobic, they insisted they were not, that it wasn’t the issue.

When the story broke, I couldn’t help but feel like I knew exactly what these parents were doing. On the surface, they tried to appear reasonable, their concerns legitimate. It was the classic Chinese thing to do. But whenever they spoke of their children, all I heard was, “I don’t want my child to be around gay things because I am threatened by them.”  Whenever they mentioned how they weren’t homophobic, I translated it to, “I’m very homophobic. I was taught that gayness is a terrible thing. Teaching my kids that it is acceptable is wrong.”

When they claimed that news media didn’t understand their culture and background, I wanted to shout, “Well, I’m gay and Chinese, so I do understand. And I think this is clearly about you, so stop hiding behind your kids — who, by the way, already know about and accept gay people. Sorry. Someone had to break it to you.”

Once again, it seemed like there was a clear divide: there are gay people, and then there are straight Chinese people. No in-between.

I think this discrepancy can be explained quite simply: if no one speaks about homosexuality and no one is out, then of course it seems like being gay is non-existent in Chinese culture. And which depictions of queers have they likely seen? All those white celebrities living in those Western countries where men can marry men and everyone basically walks down the street in their underwear for all to see. In such a conservative society, it’s no wonder older Chinese generations misunderstand and disapprove.

Not that the gay community is super accepting of Chinese queers either. Which isn’t to say it’s completely unwelcoming; I’ve always walked down Vancouver’s Davie Street without incident. The few times I’ve gone out to the Pumpjack Pub or to other gay clubs or bars have been uneventful (too uneventful, I’d say. What do I have to do to get a handsome stranger to say hi and buy me a drink?).

But when you think of the gay community and its members, who do you picture? Perhaps some of the gay subgroups: hairless twinks and burly bears, whatever the hell otters are; older gentlemen who lived through the HIV/AIDS era; regular dudes like Neil Patrick Harris and Matt Bomer; not so regular dudes like Elton John and Perez Hilton. How many of those people did you imagine were white? How many were of colour?

When the Burnaby School Board was in the news, the policy’s supporters were slinging their own hate. “Say goodbye to your businesses you Asian pricks, you will be run out of town. We will protest your stay in Canada and your fucking corner shops. Goodbye!” someone posted in response to one of Xtra’s articles.

As awful as that comment is, in their defence, this sentiment and others like it was directed at the older, ignorant demographic that many considered unreasonable and illogical, not necessarily at those like myself. But a racist statement is still a racist statement; ignorance fighting ignorance is still feeble. I also don’t find it fair to attribute homophobia to an entire race. Fred Phelps, of the infamously homophobic Westboro Baptist Church, is white, but we don’t consider all old, white people to be hateful.

Another reader noted, “I don’t understand why I have to put up with people coming into Canada and trying to change our progressive country/city because they’re ignorant.” Is it bad that I can understand this point of view and support it? I don’t want our hard-earned rights eroded away because people come to live here and don’t like what’s established. Yet, I can’t help but feel guilty for thinking this, as if I’m letting down current as well as prospective immigrants, who may share the experience with me of being minorities from similar cultures. And the Canadian part of me says we should accept them and their beliefs because freedom of opinion is one of the fundamental freedoms enshrined in our charter and guaranteed to all Canadians, even if I disagree with their views. That’s part of what makes our country great.

Who do I listen to? Who is right? And if I choose one and not the others, does that mean I can no longer identify as such?

What do I call myself?

Sometimes I feel like I have three identities and each one expects me to pledge allegiance to its side: are you Chinese or Canadian? Are you gay or Chinese? Which one will it be? Choose carefully or you won’t be invited back.

For years, it eluded me what to call myself. It took me a while to realize that despite these identities being disparate slices of a pie, they all had one thing in common: me.

I have a choice in how I present myself. Who says that if I’m going to label myself as Chinese, I have to speak fluent Cantonese and adopt traditional Chinese customs? Who made it mandatory to denounce minorities for being intolerant in order to be gay? The answer to both seems to be the vague “they” of society — or another way of looking at it: no one in particular.

This whole quandary is like the concept of masculinity. There isn’t a checklist of traits or a test a man has to pass in order to call himself “masculine.” A giant, ’roided-up guy can say he’s masculine, but so can a swishy, bleach-blonde. I believe they’d both be right. After all, who would anyone be to say otherwise? There is no masculinity judge who gives you a stamp if you’re masculine enough. It’s a subjective term.

Identity functions the same way. I know enough Cantonese, know enough about Chinese culture and customs to be able to comfortably and confidently call myself Chinese. I was born and raised in Canada, one of the best countries in the world, and I’m proud that I can think critically about political issues and enjoy the freedoms that I’m entitled to.  And I’m not ashamed to admit that being queer is a significant part of my life.

Aaron Chan today. Credit: belle ancell/Daily Xtra

In fact, I genuinely feel like these three parts share equal space in me. Despite the fact that they shouldn’t necessarily get along, they do, at least for me.

Nonetheless, it hasn’t always been easy. This journey of exploration, as complicated as it’s been, has actually made things easier now; even writing this essay has made me more comfortable using Chinese-Canadian to describe myself (though I’d still say I prefer saying Canadian).

With all this in mind, I returned to the original interview question:

“When you add your sexuality to the mix, what unique obstacles do you as a gay man of colour have to deal with?”

I paused for a minute to gather my thoughts, to listen to the three parts of myself and channel their answers:

“Hmm, if you mean unique obstacles I face as a gay Chinese man in life (and not film-related), well, where do I begin? Seriously though, there are always issues with the two, or at least with me. Despite having raised their children in Canada, my parents are traditional Chinese people, which, as I’m sure you can imagine, already brings up problems. It was difficult to come out to them because I never felt like they understood what it was like to be gay or even the concept of it. The whole subject of being gay is a taboo in Chinese culture, so if no one talks about it, how could they understand it, let alone me? And I guess more unique to me, I feel like I am a different breed of gay Chinese man — and not necessarily in a good way. I think some people look at me and dismiss me as a typical gay Asian man but for one, I’m completely out, which a lot of Asian men aren’t. I’ve lived here all my life, and though English is my first language, I don’t consider myself white-washed; and I’m not particularly into the ‘gay scene’ (ie. clubbing, going to bars and big parties, etc).

“I’m a strange mashup of Chinese, Canadian, and gay, where I feel like there’s a balance of all three.”

Aaron Chan is a writer from Vancouver, BC. His writing has been published in numerous literary magazines and anthologies, and his debut poetry chapbook, Romantic Hopeless, was published in 2017.

This story is filed under Identity, Canada, Opinion
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