My life as a Twinkie

Over to You

Susan Oh June 19 2000

My life as a Twinkie

Over to You

Susan Oh June 19 2000

My life as a Twinkie

Over to You

Susan Oh

If you often come into contact with Asian-Canadians, you likely know a banana or two—the slang expression referring to people who are yellow on the outside, but seem white on the inside because they don’t make much of their ethnicity. Or how about a tofu salad—a person whose background includes a bit of everything tossed up with large slabs of white? Then there are lemons—Korean-Canadian playwright Jean Yoon’s term for cultural purists who are yellow both inside and out. I prefer my own term, a Twinkie—fluffy and golden—but with my Korean roots and Canadian upbringing, I also see myself as a proud banana.

Not everyone sees humour in stereotyping. Some time ago, Globe and Mad columnist Jan Wong, who is of Chinese origin but raised in Canada, took after Gov. Gen. Adrienne Clarkson because, she said, Clarkson only began emphasizing her Chinese roots after the appointment. (Author Wayson Choy, a selfidentified banana, calls Wong, in turn, a banana split.) Every ethnic group has its own idioms, and they often suggest race betrayal. In Chinese, juk sing means a bamboo shoot—hollow at both ends. The Korean expression gyo po literally refers to an emigrant, but is more often used to call someone a fake Korean.

Love or hate them, racial labels stick. I appropriate my own meanings for those words, and embrace them. That reaction is a defiant joke shared among those of us who straddle the racial divide. Jin, a Korean-Canadian artist, loves being called a banana, because “to me it reflects all the complex cultural assumptions at work. But I don’t think of myself as yellow— more beige.” But Louise, a Canadian -Chinese poet whose family arrived at the turn of the century, says such language “never loses its impact and there’s no

denying that negative history exists.”

The story is different today for Asian transplants like myself. I was born in Korea and moved to Calgary at age 5 in the late 1970s, when immigration policy first opened up. That puts me among the first wave of immigrant Asian kids to bear the brunt of assimilating. We are the transitional generation, the ones who had to create a new cultural identity. That was apparent when I returned to Korea in my teens, presuming to reconnect with my roots. Instead, I found what I wasn’t—a Korean. People there were suspicious of transplants like me who claimed to know what their culture was all about.

My generation grew up as globalism and branding became facts of life. If marketers can—and do—adopt rock songs and other onetime symbols of rebellion to peddle blue jeans and minivans, it’s no stretch for some of us to regard intended insults as a badge of individualism.

Asian-Canadians have made huge strides in redefining what it means to be a Canadian: the most visible symbol, of course, was Clarkson’s appointment. We also pop up in the arts, media, professional sports, and all types of trades and professions. So should we not allow ourselves to redefine what it means to be Asian-Canadian?

The ways I express my culture are part of my rights as a Canadian. The extent to which I express ethnicity is my birthright. Sure, Canada is a tolerant society, but who wants to be just tolerated? Lor my parents’ generation, saving face socially was the cardinal rule. But my generation questions what face is worth saving—if each of us can’t wear the one we please.

Susan Oh is made of many different elements.

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