Ethnic Roots: Refusal to add fractions

I’m a Hong Kong puppy, a little of this, a little of that from the Eurasian land mass. People often ask, are you half Chinese? How much English? And then there’s commenting on how I look racially, and all that. Do I have an English nose and Goan knees. I really can’t say.

Grandparents Osman Ismail and Chen Mun Fong in 1940. I dig her shoes.

I’m under doctor’s orders not to spell out my ethnic fractions. Because it doesn’t mean enough. Take my parents. They were born in Hong Kong and lived there until they were 29. They speak the main language, Cantonese, fluently, natively. They never considered themselves Cantonese Chinese because ethnically they aren’t. But when we emigrated to Canada we all got a sharp reflection in the mirror. We were Hong Kong people, even without an ounce of Cantonese blood. My kids, on the other hand, are growing up Americans.

My grandparents’ names are a fun catalog though. Ernest Sayer and Annie Chan on my father’s side; Osman Ismail and Chen Mun Fong on my mother’s. I don’t have a good photo of my paternal grandparents. I never knew my grandfather Osman because he passed away when my mother was only eleven, leaving my grandmother with eight children. I never saw much of my grandfather Ernest, since he had separated from my grandmother, but I do remember him a little. Rose at seven to eat porridge and scrambled eggs (two foods of maximum revulsion to me as a child); tea with milk at four.

My grandparents came together because of cataclysmic change. Chen Mun Fong fled Fujian province with her daughter from a previous marriage. Annie Chan fled Shanghai with her daughter from a previous marriage. Ernest Sayer was in the English navy. Osman Ismail, I don’t know, but his mother was uprooted from Goa. His father’s family from Central Asia somewhere. From their generation on, no generation has lived the same kind of life, not even close. We are without longstanding traditions. If you had asked me at ten, what I thought of all this, I’d have said it’s cool. It’s less boring than all coming from the same place, isn’t it? And at twenty, I’d have said not cool. We are rootless and have to re-invent everything.

Now, I say we’re dealt what we’re dealt. I have nothing to complain about–I have the advantages of a post graduate education, and that trumps all minor historic complaints. But the ethnic fraction thing is sillier than ever. I own my ethnic history, yes, but I can’t be broken down like a cheap jigsaw puzzle, and neither can my children.

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