After half a century, I still haven’t been to Asia yet. Being Canadian-born and resident in Canada all my life ( Huron-Iroquois native Indian for “Kanata“, meaning village), I have only impressions and tenuous connections to ancestral land of China.
As Asia hurtles along in the 21st century to remake itself, I have had to rejiggle my perceptions about this diverse area and simultaneously, my hopes of ever visiting there. By now, I’m wondering if I will ever be motivated to visit at all. Let me explain.
Dreams Start in German-Mennonite Ontario County Area
While growing up in a small southern Ontario city, I had visions of a land with ancient pagodas dwarfed by sheer rocky mountain spires, blue Mao-suited residents shuffling in black cloth Chinese slippers who were eating food that was more deeply layered and diverse in taste, compared to the fare served up in diner woks across North America.
These images were reinforced by my parents’ collection of older Chinese pictorial magazines that I later plundered photos to illustrate my school projects and ace some high marks. (I think the marks were for the amount of information I enthusiastically shared in the project.)
Also my half-baked impressions, were fed by letters with Mao and Communist peasant inspired stamps on letters from relatives in mainland China, during the 1970’s.
Dispatches from Other Canadian-born Chinese
Later, in the 1980’s when other Canadian-born Chinese friends went overseas to live and travel, there were stories of being tracked occasionally by Chinese authorities, some travel restrictions, difficulties of learning Mandarin as adults while savouring both, delicious and lousy cheap food, sights of rural poverty, crowded cities, some magnificent scenery and architecture.
It was mostly foreign to me. But still, wonderful to hear tales both great and not so great.
Finally a sister and I had vaguely entertained the idea of a trip to China. But that same year later, the 1989 Tianamen Square massacre of several hundred student protestors in Beijing and terror, forced us early to switch our sights to Europe. We spent three weeks bopping around in 10 European countries.
She however did embark a few years later, on a memorable trip with her husband for several weeks in China and Thailand.
Expanding Asian Dreams- Moving to Toronto
Meanwhile my childhood romantic thoughts were crystallizing with greater clarity when I moved to Toronto to find work after university. Here was one of Canada’ highest proportion of Asian-Canadians where suddenly, I wasn’t noticed as much by racial ethnicity.
For the first time in my mid-20’s, I started to taste the fiery kimchee soaked condiments and egg smothered bim bap in Korean restaurants, as well as barbecued eel, sushi and sashimi from Japanese restaurants and curries from Malayasian eateries. Yup, that was how “narrow” my experience of just Asian cuisine. What do you expect from a kid who grew up in a German-Mennonite city and then, spent a few years buried in her studies in the conservative, Caucasian dominant city of London, Ontario?
My Asian dreams got wider geographically –through food as a touchstone. Thai food stoked the golden visions of the Royal Palace in Bangkok and skinny market boats floating down canals, loaded with fresh produce.
Too Lazy to Learn, Globalization of Asia: Other Excuses Not to Visit
Yet, increasingly I was focusing more on the history of the Chinese and Japanese in North America. Not only was it more relevant, but it was simply easier and less to read.
As a hobby, it was too much effort for me to figure out over 3,000 years of Chinese dynastic history prior to the Opium Wars in the 1800’s.
Over time, the lure of a different place untouched by Western consumerism and individualism, was losing its exotic veneer : family members told stories of occasional breathing problems in polluted, humid Bangkok or Beijing, nearly blind consumer worship of McDonald’s, Louis Vitton and cars sweeping across at least, urban Asia, or news reports on gross occupational hazards where locals died or were injured while labouring under dangerous conditions.
Need Asia Anymore?
Now the latest, is that some streets in Shanghai core areas are just like any North American yuppified area. Do I need to experience that when I can get a similar experience just by wandering down Robson St. in Vancouver, BC with over 30% Asian-Canadians in the city? Or in the suburb of Richmond where the population is now 60% Asian-Canadian.
I probably have it all wrong –again.
Canadian Living a Fragmented Mosaic of Asian Influences
Yet, I know my romanticizing of the East, is not the same as those who don’t have any family members from Asia. The photos of my mother, still young and pretty in her cheong-sam and striking a pose with her babies in Canada, is the beginning of why my dreams aren’t out to lunch.
The fact is that I can see English script and often, can guess the original writer, began life by learning Chinese ideograms. A tell-tale sign: there is a certain consistent neatness in English handwriting. Or the fact, like a lot of Asians raised on home-Chinese cooking, we enjoy steamed fish in a bit of soy sauce, ginger root slices, green onions and oil. To us, that’s highlighting quality fresh whole fish. However a lot of non-Asians just see this steamed fish dish, as a boring, less dynamic dish.
Or that I enjoy savoury, steamed egg custard as comfort food for supper. It has bits of sliced meat marinated with soy sauce cooked in a tasty, slightly watery custard. Lovely with rice on the side and simple stir fried veggies. But this custard dish rarely makes it to restaurant menus in North America. Probably because it’s puzzling and not as colourful as a heap of artfully stir-fried seafood with veggies. Eating a wide range of Asian cuisines means appreciating a diverse range of food textures, contrasting flavours and colours in one meal. My father’s favourite dish was steamed, lean pork slices with abit of salted fish to flavor the pork. We enjoyed it also –several times per month for dinner.
Like ordinary life, not dreams, I learned to cook rice in the pot over stove as a teenager. Electric rice pots only entered my life in my early 30’s.
No wonder why my Asian dreams confuse me. These life memories are like colourful glass fragments in my shattered mosaic of understanding that I have had to piece together thoughtfully, over a long time. These experiences fused with dreams, probably only makes sense to me and others who bumble along in life.
But as time marches on and our world shrinks with personal blogs popping up from all over the globe, Asia looks less and less romantically exotic. Globalization is making gelatos, sorbets and coffees popular in the big Asian cities. Even the Chinese and East Indians who have money are jumping on the European wine kick –their romanticization of the West.
Or am I wrong? Maybe it’s just me. I should just hop onto a plane and get to the truth of my arms-length, or ocean-length view of Asia. My parents have never wanted to return to China. For them, they probably rather keep the dreams of how it was before the Chinese-Japanese war and Communist takeover.
For now, I’m just content to explore Canada where I can still get lost in its vastness.
Chong, Jean. Romanticizing the West: Asian Craze for European Gourmet Desserts. In Cycle Write Blog, Feb. 2, 2012.