Writing by Ashley Dawn Louise Bach
Art by Tina Lê and Helen Yu
I was raised as a sheltered kid in a small, conservative Christian town in BC called Langley. Moving to Montreal for university was a huge change, and the day I moved into my dorm, my adoptive mom gave me a tearful goodbye and reminded me to stay safe. My dorm housed nearly as many students as my entire high school and we all shared co-ed bathrooms. I also suddenly had to deal with unfamiliar social expectations like drinking and dating, and I attempted to blend into the social environment, characterized by a higher socioeconomic status than my own.
I paid for frosh, a notoriously drinking-heavy week of activities for first-year students, but ended up not attending. I was worried about drinking and partying, which my small town looked down upon and believed was spiritually and physically dangerous. I even made sure to tell my floor fellow that I didn’t drink. I became socially isolated as everyone else enjoyed Montreal's drinking age (lower than the rest of Canada's), and eventually one night the floor fellows staged an intervention, pulling me and another guy out of our rooms to hang out together. It felt forced and uncomfortable.
I became lonely during these weeks of isolation and so, being a band geek, enthusiastically joined Fight Band, my university’s pep band. I brought along my secondhand clarinet, which I had owned since grade 7 band class but hadn't played for a few years. I didn't know much about pep bands, besides their tendency to play peppy music at sporting events.
Unknown to me, Fight Band was more than a pep band. It was a social group and its rowdy nature that riled up the opposing team and crowd during games transferred to the after parties, full of slap cup and root beer magic. Thus, after my first band practice, I found myself at a popular bar near campus trying to finish a cup of beer as the rest of the band downed pitchers.
I managed to drink half of my beer, and followed the rest of the band to another bar, where I was barred from entering because I didn’t have an official ID. Patrick, another band member, offered to walk me back to campus. The walk seemed to drag on forever, though I now know it was only two metro stops. Patrick left me at the metro station closest to my dorm, and after walking a few more blocks alone, I realized something was really wrong with my body. I was stumbling and felt sick. My face was hot and red and I could barely text. I made it into a 24-hour Tim Hortons, bought an ice cap and a chocolate chip muffin, and collapsed onto the nearest table. I realized I was drunk, and was surprised because everyone else had drunk more than I had and was fine.
It's important to mention now that I'm a multiracial, former foster child adopted into a white family. From my bio mom's side, I am Indigenous and have First Nations status. On my bio dad's side, I am Chinese. Somewhere, likely from both, I am white. People often ask “how Native” or “how Chinese” I am, and I have accepted I will never know what percentage I am of each race. But my body is a reminder of my heritage.
I didn’t learn about “Asian glow” until my second year, when I took molecular biology and mammalian physiology. Suddenly, my drinking difficulties made sense. I could scientifically explain my red face and embarrassingly low alcohol tolerance. My adoptive parents had never heard of this genetic condition and consequently never warned me about it. Regardless, this was a tangible, physical phenomenon connecting me to my Chinese ancestry, whether I liked it or not.
I've only recently come to welcome this connection. I had managed to avoid coming to terms with this part of my identity for most of my life due to being white passing. This avoidance was bolstered by the blatant racism I observed at school and in the local media directed at the Chinese community. Another source of my apprehension about exploring my ancestry is I don’t know where to start – there are thousands of Gary Wongs in North America. I am still unsure how to go about discovering my Chinese heritage, especially since I know very little about my biological father, and it's unlikely I'll ever meet him. China is a massive, diverse country and I am afraid of mistakenly claiming a culture or history that might not be my biological father's.
This intentional distance from my cultural heritage has sometimes put me in an awkward position. A mixed race Chinese Canadian Tinder date recently asked me what my Chinese name is, but I don't have one and never expect to. I've been asked where my father is from and what language I speak at home. I haven't found answers to these kinds of questions that satisfy the asker without explaining my life story.
I do long to discover where I'm from, what my cultures are, and how I can learn more. But I don't know where to start. For now, I’ll keep waiting and hoping that there's a simple solution, that I will meet someone who has experienced this before and can give me guidance. If you have any ideas or advice, please let me know.
ASHLEY DAWN LOUISE BACH is a mixed Chinese, First Nations, and white student living in Toronto. She is a first generation student and former foster child, from the Mishkeegogamang First Nation. After being adopted into a white family, Ashley is on the path to connecting with her Indigenous and Chinese heritage. Her passions include plants, environmental issues, child welfare, and social justice. Twitter: @ashleydawnbach
TINA LÊ is a first generation Vietnamese born in Tio’tia:ke, otherwise known as Montréal, on unceeded Kanien’kehá:ka territory. Pursuing a BFA, they engage in multidisciplinary and conceptual frameworks, favouring mark-making, abstraction and text. Instagram: @tinalemongrab
HELEN YU is a 19 year-old Chinese Canadian currently studying at the Rhode Island School of Design in Providence, R.I., U.S.A.. Helen was born in Shanghai, China and moved to Vancouver, Canada at nine years old. When Helen is not painting, you can find her doodling in class, singing in the shower, playing flute in the Brown University Orchestra, and finding art-related hashtags for her art Instagram account @helenyuart. You can also find her at helenyuart.com or on behance.com/helenhaoyiyu.