Mixed Emotions

August 27 2001

Mixed Emotions

August 27 2001

Mixed Emotions

Having parents of two races can be rich with traditions but also rife with challenges

Tamara Podemski

Toronto-based actress (The Rez, RentJ, singer and songwriter, 23, Israeli father, Saulteaux-Ojibwa mother

I grew up in Toronto, which made it a lot easier, since it was a very diverse environment. Still, every time I said what my background was, I always had to explain to people why I didn’t live on the reservation, and just how it came to be that my parents got together. It takes a tremendous amount of patience to be a person of mixed race. It’s almost like you are a new species. And having to fight people’s ridiculous stereotypical images of natives has been frustrating. I was always the only native in school, which made it difficult to share that part of myself with other kids. When it was easier to go through school with a Jewish identity, because a lot of the other students were Jewish, that is what I showed to the world. Only in high school did I feel the freedom to be myself. My breakthrough came at an assembly when I decided to perform a traditional Ojibwa fancy dance. I just finally said to myself, “This is who I am.”

It was a celebrated moment when I got the role on [Global’s high-school drama] Ready or Not, since it was my first non-racespecific role. The producers just didn’t give

a shit about my race. When I went to Broadway for Rent, I played Maureen, a white chick. I had heard rumours I wasn’t given the role in Toronto because of a concern over my ethnicity, but the people in New York thought it was so cool when they found out a native girl was playing a white role. It’s difficult when you wonder if your race is the only reason you’re getting jobs. I trust my talent and know I’m good, but it’s still hard.

The key to a balance is respect for tradi! tion. Whether I believe Moses parted the Red Sea isn’t the issue. I learn about my Jewish and my Ojibwa roots out of respect for my family’s tradition.

I got married last month to a Shuswap native from B.C. Our wedding was the perfect mix of Shuswap, Ojibwa and Jewish traditions. We got married under a huppah, a Jewish wedding canopy, Darrell’s father sang a traditional Shuswap wedding song and my mother put an Ojibwa star blanket around us as we pledged our vows. We didn’t do it because it looked cool. There was just no other way since we were bringing our lives together. He shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything and neither should I.

Jennifer Mather

Vancouver-based news anchor for Global Television, 34, Chinese father, British mother

The first time I realized I was any different from other kids was on the first day of Grade 1 (I didn’t go to kindergarten). The only girl who would talk to me was another little Asian girl named Mikki. She was Japanese, I think. I went to a private Catholic school in North Vancouver because my father believed we would get a better education. I was one of the few non-whites, and I looked much more Asian when I was younger. (Nowadays, most people think I’m Italian.) I was devastated when Mikki left the next year. In school pictures, I stick out like a sore thumb: dark hair, dark eyes, in a sea of

fair-haired lightness and Canadian mousey-brownness. Only a few times did the nasty older boys call me “chink,” but it still made my face burn with shame, and made me feel as ugly as the word sounds.

My dad made my older sister and I go to Chinese school on Saturdays. My father was in the restaurant business so we ate a lot of traditional Chinese meals. Not the stuff North Americans call Chinese food, like electric-yellow lemon chicken, but real food that was in and out of a wok in what seemed like seconds, filling the kitchen with fragrant smells of ginger, garlic and exotic spices. And rice. Lots and lots of rice.

Both my parents worked hard to maintain our Asian roots—in fact, we celebrated the Chinese holidays much more than the traditional North American ones. Christmas and birthdays came and went, but Chinese New Year was at least a week’s worth of celebration and ritual: must clean house from top to bottom on New Year’s Eve to get rid of all the bad luck; must not shower on New Year s Day for fear of washing away all the good spirits for the coming year; mustn’t use scissors or anything sharp on New Year’s Day in case you “cut away” all the luck.

I think the cultural differences were especially hard on my mom. My father is the oldest of 10, and it was his job to go west and bring the rest of the family over from China. At one point, my grandparents and all of my nine aunts and uncles lived in our basement. They initially weren’t that keen on my mom, in light of the fact that a) she wasn’t Chinese and b) she produced two daughters. But after my brother was born, he helped smooth the waters. It was like living with the Last Emperor.

I am proud of my heritage and culture, although I must say I am now more Western than Eastern. In some ways, I think being half-Chinese in Vancouver is more difficult than being 100-per-cent Asian— only because I’ve been privy to many a conversation where people complain about the so-called Asian invasion of our fair city, or how Orientals are such bad drivers. It floors them when I eventually tell them I’m half-Chinese, and sometimes I take a perverse pleasure in seeing their faces redden.

Neil Bissoondath

Quebec City-based author and Laval University professor, 46, bom and raised in Trinidad to parents of Indian descent, living with Quebec-born lawyer Anne Marcoux, 40, with whom he has 10-year-old Elyssa Marcoux-Bissoondath

I don’t consider Trinidadian culture to be Elyssa’s culture. It is the culture in which I was born, in which I lived for 18 years. After 24 to 25 years in Canada, I have returned to Trinidad a total of three times. Trinidad is very much a part of my past. What my daughter has received is the stories of my growing up. It is as complete a portrait as I could give her of her grandparents, my parents, who died before she was born so she has never known them. She has inherited two different

heritages, mine and Anne’s, which is francophone, and all the heritage that we bring to her is part of an individual family mythology, if you like, that her life is being made here with the knowledge of her background.

Elyssa physically has got darker skin than her mother. She is right in the middle between Anne and me. I asked her what influence that has had on her life and she thought about it. She is a very thoughtful child. She said: “Well, none really.” When we moved here from Montreal [when Elyssa was 5], her friends were curious and asked: “Where are you from? And are you going to stay in Canada?” She said: “The moment I said I was born in Montreal all of those questions disappeared.” She was simply accepted as being another Canadian kid who happened to have a father who had brown skin and came from elsewhere, but she said the only comment she has ever gotten is from teachers who say how lucky she is to have that skin colour. Her personal experience, like mine, has been very good. Her skin colour in fact plays no role in her life. That is something that I am really pleased about because I don’t believe that skin colour should define you in any way; she is not allowing it to define herself, and her friends don’t define her by her skin colour.

Tassey Kennedy

ESI tutor, 29, currently living in Halifax, black father, white mother

My mother was from a small town in Nova Scotia called Antigonish. When she finished high school, she joined CUSO, so she travelled around the Caribbean working in different countries. She met my father in Guyana and remained there maybe 11 years, so that’s where I was born. My father was a lightskinned black businessman and my mother was blond, blue-eyed. When I was in Guyana, I don’t remember anything really to do with race or color. I remember that my mother was one of the few pale people that I’d seen. When I came to Canada [as a preschooler], all of a sudden I saw a lot more pale faces than brown faces, because I was taken back to Antigonish. My father stayed in Guyana. I have brown eyes, brown hair, brown skin and I look nothing like any of my cousins. My mother had some problems in the community and with some family members because of having me—because I was a mix of black and white or because

she wasn’t married, or maybe both.

When I was 7 or 8,1 went to an all-white school in Sydney. They used to call me derogatory names for natives—squaw and stuff like that. I started wondering if maybe I was Indian, because I looked Indian. I knew that I was from Guyana, but I didn’t know exactly where Guyana was. I remember one day coming home from school and getting harassed by the kids. My mother was taking a nap and I crawled into bed with her. I said, “Mommy, what am I?” She said, “You’re you, you’re Tassey. You’re the product of your father’s and my love.” She went around the subject. I said, “No, that’s not enough. What am I?” She finally said, “Your father’s black, and I’m white, so you’re a mix of both.” It helped me to finally realize what I was.

A lot of the stories I hear from other biracial people are similar: the parents didn’t want to talk about it because they were fighting against all the racism in their lives. But that makes it almost worse for the kid, because you just want a straight answer. Not talking about it just causes more confusion.

When I was younger, I used to fantasize about looking like my Barbie doll. I thought that if I could just have blond hair and blue eyes, I’d be pretty, too. When I was about 12, I dyed my hair blond, hoping that I’d look more white. And then when I moved to Toronto, where the black community is predominantly West Indian, and so far there hadn’t been a lot of mixing, I was told all of a sudden that I was white and I was trying to fit in again. I went through a total change and became this black radical, Black Panther-power-to-the-people type of kid when I was 15, 16, 17.

It’s really easy for white people or visibly black people to tell me how easy it is to be me. How I have the best of both worlds. In my opinion, I have the shit end of both worlds. How dare they tell me it’s not that bad. Race may not be on everyone’s tongue in Nova Scotia, but it’s on everyone’s mind. Canada may want to pretend that it’s not, but it is.

‘Every time I said what my background was, I had to explain how my parents got together-it takes a tremendous amount of patience to be of mixed race’

Shar Levine

Vancouver-based author and company president, 47, Jewish biologicalfather, Japanese biological mother, Jewish adoptive parents, has children Shira (left) and Joshua (centre) Rosenberg

Being a Japanese Jew is not easy, particularly in the Jewish community. I was adopted at birth by two wonderful people who were actively involved in the Jewish community. My mother was the treasurer for the National Council of Jewish Women, and Hadassah, while my father was a leader in the B’nai Brith and the men’s club. My family belonged to the synagogue and we regularly attended shul on Fridays and holidays. I was a member of various youth groups and went to Israel with Young Judea. Since I had written away for my adoption papers, I had proof that I was at least halfJewish. I wasn’t a cultural Jew either—one who was Jewish because their parents were Jewish. I was a practising Jew.

Yet kids (and their parents) would tell me that I wasn’t really Jewish. People actually said it to my face—“You’re adopted; you’re not really Jewish.” The night before my 1977 wedding, someone phoned the rabbi and told him that he shouldn’t perform the marriage because I wasn’t Jewish. Instead of telling the caller she was mistaken, the rabbi called my mother and demanded she prove I was Jewish. That was 24 years ago, but things haven’t changed much today. The community has

never really accepted me as a Jew. When my mother passed away three years ago, I went to say kaddish, the mourner’s prayer. My synagogue does not do evening services every night, so I went to another local shul. The rabbi came direcdy up to me and asked, “Can I help you?” He then informed me that I would have to be Jewish and my mother would have had to be buried in a Jewish cemetery if I was to say a prayer for her.

I was determined that my children should feel more at home with our culture § than I did. So I sent them to Talmud Torah, 1 the Jewish day school in Vancouver. This f way they could grow up with Jewish kids 1 and be accepted. I was wrong. My children, I Josh and Shira, had the same problems I have had all my life. Kids came up to them and told them they weren’t Jewish because I wasn’t really Jewish. One of the rabbis at the school even said that to my daughter.

Last year, I contacted my birth mother, a lovely Japanese woman named Flo. It turns out I have a full sister named Gail, raised by Flo and actively involved in the Japanese community. We look so much alike that I can’t tell in old photos which one of us I am looking at. Like me, Gail has been asked, “What are you?” all her life. Despite being raised by a Japanese mother, she has never felt welcomed or part of the Japanese community as a whole.

I’ve been told that I look “exotic.” After 48 years of being looked upon as some sort of freak of nature, the description has gotten a little old. We have both Jewish and gentile friends and we are members of a wonderful synagogue, where you don't have to “look Jewish” to be accepted.

Ian Samuels

Calgary-based writer-arts administrator, 26, black father, white mother who is considered mixed-race in her native South Africa

My family is immigrant South African. One of the things you kind of struggle with is definitions of race coming into Canada, where basically you have two dominant poles that are kind of inherited from the States—black and white. In a setting like South Africa, where you have these gradations that were imposed by apartheid, we were a coloured

family. One of the immediate disparities you have is that you grow up in Canada really identifying with the cause and the position of black Africans. And identifying myself basically as black. There was a kind of jarring with the perspectives of my relatives. After Mandela came into power in South Africa, we would get letters from my relatives overseas complaining about affirmative action [for South African blacks], which in the Canadian context I was used to philosophically supporting.

In terms of being in Canadian terms biracial, I’ve learned that you can live your life on the defensive and constandy look for the racism behind the actions of the people around you—and reduce your quality of life that way. If you sit down on the bus and someone moves away from you, is it because you’re black or what? I kind of struggled with that, especially when I was a teenager. In terms of overt racism, though, it was something that I

didn’t encounter so much in the urban Canadian setting, because by the time I was growing up it was pretty much a wellestablished fact that being racist against black people was bad.

One of the interesting things about looking the way I do is that you are mistaken as Arabic walking down the street. Guys from Lebanon walk up to me and say where are you from and expect me to answer Iraq or something like that. I have had people assume I was Fijian. A large part of race and being biracial is really about self-identification. I choose to identify myself as black or as African-Canadian. There are any number of other categories I could fit into if I really wanted to. A lot of it is the way people map things mentally. ED