So this is when I admit something potentially embarrassing—and maybe even controversial.
I had never considered writing a Chinese woman as my main character.
Partly, that’s because Lola Starke literally came to me in the middle of the night, a fully–formed character in desperate need of a world to live in. She was my vision of the femme fatale from all those gorgeous noir films I love. But I knew immediately that she needed to be more than a plot device. She needed to run the show. So I made her the private eye.
I grew up a Chinese girl in the Canadian West in the 1970s and ’80s. There were never a lot of other Asian kids when I was growing up. I was born in Hong Kong and emigrated to Vancouver when I was three. From that time until I moved to Japan for a year in the ’90s, I’d never stepped foot in Asia. Yes, we had a Chinatown and there were other Chinese families we socialized with. But honestly, I could count on one hand the number of Asian kids in my combined elementary/junior high school—and that included me and my cousin!
So here’s what I’m sayin’: I grew up looking at a lot of white people. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It just became easier to try and fit in with them, rather than be the flag–bearer for visible minority girls. I learned to dress like them; listen to the music they listened to; eat the foods they ate. (Here’s a telling fact: after years of watching TV commercials for it, I finally had KD when I was thirteen and had sneaked over to a friend’s house for lunch on a school day. I almost burned the whole batch, not knowing enough to take it off the heat before adding that neon cheese powder!)
At the same time, I’ve never wanted to hide my cultural and ethnic heritage. Impossible, right, considering my difference is built–in genetically? Well, maybe, but it didn’t stop many other Asian–Canadian girls I’ve known to sign up for eyelid surgery and to bleach their beautiful, glossy black hair into a horrid, straw–like mess.
Nope, not for me. I’ve always tried my best to fit in both worlds. I spoke Chinese at home and got an unbroken line of gold stars on the spelling test chart at school. I played point guard and setter on school teams and did all the housework at home on weekends. I put up the Christmas tree every year and prayed with my mother on ancestor days.
And to be clear, I’m not complaining. It made for an upbringing full of unexpected blessings—it just also had its fair share of curses.
Which brings me back to Lola. Or, to be more accurate, to why I created a Chinese cultural background in the form of Crescent City. It was just too tempting to pass up: the chance to have this ongoing background tension for her. But have it as something completely natural, rather than a big plot point.
Much like my upbringing. Or my life now, as a Chinese–Canadian woman living in Western Canada. That tension doesn’t define me, any more than the colour of my skin does or how I like my rice (for the record: long–grain jasmine and NEVER EVER with soy sauce).
That tension is an indisputable part of my life. So I accept it.
Sometimes, I even celebrate it.
So, what about you? Did you have that same culture clash growing up? What was the one food you always wanted to try when you were a kid but that your mother considered absolutely off–limits? How old were you when you finally got to eat it?
And frankly, I don’t think it matters what colour your skin is. There’s always tension when you’re growing up between what you think others want of you and what you want to try for yourself. I’ve had, and still have, plenty of friends that were raised culturally Italian, Chilean, Romanian, Ukranian, French, English—you name it. They didn’t have KD on a regular basis, either.
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SG Wong was born in Hong Kong and raised in Canada. She holds a B.A. (Honours) in English Literature from the University of Alberta. She lived in Japan for a year, studying the language and researching pubs. During said (intensive) research, she met a very intriguing man, with whom she now raises two exceptionally engaging children.