“You should go back to China.”
An imperative I can’t seem to get out of my head, I’ve heard it so often. From family, friends, and strangers alike, in so many different contexts.
It’s a loaded sentence for any child of an immigrant family to hear, imparting a sense of unbelonging to everything I’ve ever known in my life. I was, after all, born and raised in Toronto, and I’ve never lived in another country for longer than two months. Immigrants to Canada do become complicit in the settler-colonial violences of this nation-state, something our communities should acknowledge and move in solidarity against, but the phrase that “we” ought to go “back” to somewhere else implies that “we” belong even less than the white settlers of this land. My presence here — I am reminded constantly — is very temporary because of my facial features and my skin tone.
I personally have nowhere in China to go “back” to — I was never from there in the first place. It’s commonplace enough to hear from bigots every now and then, but the suggestion sticks more in my mind when the people closest to my heart can’t seem to stop saying it either.
My mother brought it up again a few weeks ago as I hummed along to True Colours, wrapping up Cyndi Lauper’s last refrain: “your true colours are beautiful like a rainbow.” I didn’t think ironic situations like this happened in real life. As the song ended and radio jingles filled the car, she turned the stereo off and told me in Mandarin, “Your aunt was just saying yesterday that you should try out for some of these talent competitions.” They had been watching one of the many reality television competitions in China, this one featuring artistically talented mothers who sang and danced across the stage after telling loving backstories about their children.
“You know, people like you who learn music here all head back to China for these shows. There are some shows here in Canada, but of course there aren’t many opportunities for Asians anyway.”
I stared out the window and didn’t answer her immediately. The truth was that I’d heard this many times before, sometimes out of her own mouth, sometimes from family friends — all my Aunties and Uncles. They mean well.
“You’d be different, but not too different,” they tell me.
“You’ll bring something new, with your Western voice training and tastes. Since you already speak Mandarin, it’ll be easier for you to learn Chinese songs.”
I used to quash the little voice in my head that argued back: if I sang at all, I wanted to sing in English, the language I wrote, read, thought, and learned in — the language I now study the literature of.
“If you say you feel like you’re Chinese at heart, they’ll love you, that’s how Chinese nationalism is. No need to have grown up there. It’ll be like you’re coming home to them. You should go back to China.”
I should thank them for their faith that I would get anywhere at all if I even competed in such a competition. There’s amazing talent everywhere in the world. I don’t even seriously pursue this, I just keep meandering through voice lessons on the side and hoping for chances to sing to an audience every now and then. Even so, it stings to constantly hear that I should give up hope on getting those chances in Toronto (or more broadly, in the West) because of the way I look.
It reminds me of when I first started singing. Like many children from East Asian families, I’d already studied piano for a few years when I picked up voice lessons too. It’s disturbing now to realize how badly I had, at seven, wanted to be a pretty white girl with blonde hair, blue eyes, and a big diva voice like all the starlets I saw and heard in the 90s. Asians don’t sing, I “realized”, obliterating in my childish ignorance the rich musical traditions of many Eastern cultures.
As I had the enormous privilege to enter a performing arts high school, I found the guesses for my major formed a pattern. “Visual art?” They asked, and following, “music, then!” Excitement at the affirmative response. “Wait, wait, let me guess. Piano major. No? Really? Violin, then. Or cello. Not strings? Maybe flute? …You sing? What do your parents think?”
It didn’t escape my attention that some teachers seemed to overlook my singing in favour of my other instrumental skills when convenient. Nor can I discount the fact that as I continue to dabble in classical voice and to consume mainstream non-classical music, Asian voices singing in English still elude my attention. East Asian songs come prepackaged from the East in East Asian languages (with some choice English words thrown in) to be appreciated worldwide, but don’t expect many Asian faces in mainstream Western pop.
Going back to China has never been an option for me. But going to China? As I continue to unravel years of racial self-hatred and learn more about the culture of my family and friends, I’m finding myself less vehemently opposed to the idea now than when I was a little seven year old wanting to be a white girl with a big voice. Perhaps it’s not my place to comment on the state of the various music industries at all, considering I’m nothing more than an occasional hobbyist at this point. Nevertheless, I’d like the day to come when I can be lucky enough to share my love of music with an audience, however small, without feeling ashamed of my race.
Asians do sing: in English and in other languages, in all kinds of styles and traditions, and I’d like to do so all my life.
– victoria l.
Head to Victoria’s youtube channel at https://www.youtube.com/user/TorioriaL to listen to her stuff!