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Ties to my culture

When you're 17 and half-Chinese, you worry about losing that part of your identity.

By Lisa Ruohoniemi / March 16, 2009

CHINATOWN: A woman sells Chinese newspapers to a passerby in Toronto.

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I still feel awkward walking through the streets of Chinatown, flanked on one side by Popo and my mom on the other. We are three generations of Chinese, but I feel like the gawky giant among them, towering over the squat women elbowing their way through the market.

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We run into old friends, who gossip mercilessly and tug at my hair as they tell me how pretty I am for a "half-white" girl. The problems begin when they start talking to me, apparently oblivious to the bewilderment on my face.

I can only shake my head. My clumsy Cantonese can't keep up with them, but it doesn't matter.

They prattle nonetheless, and when they finish, they produce little red packets with gold etchings from their purses and shove them into my hand.

I blush and try to give the pouches back – I don't want to accept their money, but the women bat my hands and tell me to keep it.

Chinese women are funny that way – they rarely indulge themselves in anything, but they'll easily hand out $10 to the daughter of a family friend who barely knows what they are saying.

My mother has taught me that not accepting lai see packets is as insulting as asking for soy sauce at a meal, which implies to the cook that the food is not tasty enough. So I know better than to argue.

Even when we're miles away from Toronto and our Chinese family, my mother imparts pieces of Chinese wisdom to me almost daily: Washing your hair on New Year's Eve is supposed to rinse away all the good luck for the coming year. Secondly, four is an unlucky number because in Chinese it sounds the same as the word for "death."

Whether any of these sayings have truth or not is irrelevant to me. But I listen to these pieces of Chinese lore because they are the ties that bind me to a culture from which I often feel severed since I'm only half Chinese.

I worry about losing the Chinese part of my identity, so I embrace it.

I want to carry the Chinese practicality and stoicism as part of me wherever I go, not only because it is a link to my family, but because I think it is something to be admired.

When I think back on the old women in the marketplace, babbling about their sisters or their neighbors, I realize it's not all gossip.

The women have experienced more than their faces – lined with courage – will ever let them show. And I hope that one day, my face, too, will bear those wrinkles with pride.

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