Mom, Dad, I'm Living with a White Girl: My personal experiences of the Mary Chan theatrical play

Way back in 1996, just before I graduated from Simon Fraser University with a BA in Psychology, I wrote a few reviews for the SFU Peak student newspaper.  I just came across the link for an old review I wrote, and thought I would share it with you.

I really liked the Firehall Arts Centre's production of Marty Chan's “Mom, Dad, I'm Living With a White Girl” and I interviewed several of the cast members after the show.  I was even able to interview playwright Marty Chan.

Marty was very excited about the play at the time.  I think it was the 2nd time it had been produced, the opening premiere was in Edmonton, where Chan still resides.

Four years later I saw the Richmond Gateway Theatre production in February 2000.  A number of elements had changed but the essence of the play remained the same.  It flowed more smoothly now, and it while I missed some of the hilarious gags that had disappeared, the play felt more complete.

What was most interesting was the audience I was now attending the play with.  I went with a social group from the Vancouver Chapter of NAAAP – the North American Association of Asian Professionals.  After watching the play, most of us all went to a local hotel restaurant for appetizers and drinks.  When I asked the question to my theatre companions, “How many people have had a white boyfriend or girlfriend – only one other person put up their hand besides me.  This was out of a group of 16 people.  It seemed almost incredulous to me, that in such a culturally diverse city as Vancouver, that I was sitting with a very homogeneous group of young Asian men and women to whom inter-racial dating was almost a forbidden fruit.  Needless to say… most people were very interested in what I had to say about intercultural dating with white people.

When I first saw “Mom, Dad…” I could relate to all the cultural differences and issues that Marty Chan wrote about.  Things like trying to find acceptance amongst your peers, and being ashamed of your ethnicity and cultural baggage.  Afterall, I had grown up in the very white suburbia of North Vancouver in the late 70's and 80's.  Almost all my friends were white.  It was so white that whenever I was seen talking to another student of Chinese descent – people automatically thought we were dating… or should be dating.

I now view my late teenage and early 20's as an anthropological field expedition: living amongst the white people of suburban Vancouver.  My forays involved visiting their homes, playing with White children, and even dating White girls.  It made me very conscious of my own ethnic identity, because the awkwardness of inter-racial dating was overshadowed by parental acceptance or non-acceptance.  Racism may not have been overt, but it was present in the ways of cultural ignorance. 

“Where are you from?”, I might be asked by the parents of my friends.  A legitimate question of curiosity.  When I replied that I was born in Vancouver, the next question invariably became, “I mean, where are your parents from?”  Again, the answer was Vancouver. 

“Well… where did your grandparents come from?” 

“My grandmother was actually born in Victoria BC.” 

Why did my family have to come from somewhere?  My family had been in Vancouver for five generations.

At various times, I would go through phases of telling myself, “I'm going to date only Asian women.”  Maybe to get to know my culture better, or to avoid culturally ignorant incidents on dates, or simply to be able to share with somebody the shared values and experiences that we had both grew up with.  But on occasion, I found myself experience cultural misunderstandings, as the women I dated had been born or raised by parents from Hong Kong, the Phillipines, or China.   

I have long grown used to the fact that being a multigenerational Chinese Canadian, my values tend to be a mix of Chinese and Canadian… but mostly Canadian, as I inherit the Canadian values of my parents and my grandparents. 

When I was 24, I met the woman I was to marry.  She was multi-generational Chinese-Canadian like myself.  Our families had known each other on a number of generational levels; grandparents, parents, uncles, aunties, cousins, even our cousins' children.  We did indeed share many of the same Chinese-Canadian values and perceptions.  We fitted easily into each other's families.  But we divorced later over other un-related issues.

A few years ago, I dated a Vancouver born white woman who didn't use chop sticks…  “What! You don't use chop sticks?”  How could someone grow up in Vancouver and not use chopsticks?  While we shared a common interest in dragonboat paddling – that was about as far as the cultural exchange program went.

White, Yellow, Chinese, Caucasian…  they are all labels dependent upon the social construction and political acceptance of labels of the era.  What is really important in inter-racial dating, is simply finding somebody that shares your interests, and is willing to learn and/or accept your interests that are new to them. 

My present girlfriend is multi-generational Canadian like myself.  She is completely accepted in my family as herself, as I feel accepted in her family.  Nobody asks about ethnic holidays in cultural ignorance.  She accepts that I am involved in so many Asian Canadian or Chinese Canadian activities and communities.  She stir-fries vegetables and even makes me sweet and sour pork, while I cook pasta for her, or bacon and eggs, with hash brown potatoes.  She fits right in at extended family dinners, as all my cousins on my mother's side, and half of my cousins on my father's side all married partners who were White Canadians.

Nobody comments on what type of person we should be going out with (eg. You Chinese… You should date a Chinese girl.) At my age, my parents are long since past trying to influence my dating partners.  I think I confounded them, by bringing home women who have had connections from every continent on Earth, and every colour and combination as well.

I actually learn more about Chinese culture from my many friends.  Some were born in this country and are ardent Asian-Canadian activists. Others were immigrants who came to Canada many years ago, and have White partners, and yet still others are newer immigrants who still speak with slight but distinguishable accents.

below is the Marty Chan interview that I wrote for The Peak, at Simon Fraser University.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Marty Chan is the author of the comedy play, “Mom, Dad, I'm Living With a White Girl,” now playing at the Firehall Theatre in Vancouver. Chan says the play is partly autobiographical and draws from his own experience of having to confront his immigrant Chinese parents concerning his living arrangements with his Caucasian, Canadian-born girlfriend.

Chan explains that the play's themes are universal and revolve around the conflict of personal happiness and familial sacrifice. Himself a victim of wanting to please his parents, Chan initially entered University of Alberta to study engineering, because engineers were supposed to make good money. Engineers also drove trains, and that was cool to Chan. But he soon realized he didn't have much interest in the field, so with the assistance of his professors, Chan soon found himself in the faculty of arts where he ended up studying english and drama.

It was at university that Chan also learned more about his Chinese-Canadian identity, or lack of one. The young Chan had grown up in the French-Canadian town of Morinville, just north of Edmonton, where there had been few Chinese in the community. Here he had assimilated gradually into Canadian society under the influence of his parents' immigrant experience, but it was also an experience that he found he couldn't bond with as he struggled to develop his own independence and sense of identity. But at university he was surprised to find that other students of Chinese heritage knew less about Chinese culture and could hardly speak Chinese at all.

Without the presence of strong Asian-Canadian role models he found that he did experience some sense of negative identity, struggling against the ideas of being Chinese and wanting to define himself as Canadian. This sense of identifying oneself as more Canadian is addressed in a key scene in the play, as the lead character denies his biological mother and declares his allegiance to his adopted homeland, Canada. Chan feels that a Chinese-Canadian identity is still being defined. “People don't define themselves as Asian-Canadian but largely react towards public sentiment, to be defined as an individual, versus stereotypes. At the same time they're trying to be aware of political correctness.”

When asked about how so many Asian-Canadian books or movies seem to be about indivuals struggling to find themselves, contrary to the expectations of their immigrant parents, Chan says, “My opinion is that minority culture is going through a phase to purge themselves. But what is lost by embracing Canadian society without acknowledging who brought you into the world, or sense of heritage? In a sense, I feel a sadness as independence grows… then how much Chinese culture will be retained? In my personal experience, I feel like the torch bearer for my parents. How much will my children know? The search for more and more identity will hopefully catch on.”

Chan points out that many Asian-Canadians get their sense of identity not from Asian culture but from North American pop culture. “There were always martial artists, restaurant cooks, high achievers, incompetent nerds, bad vision, etc, etc, etc. These images are not created by Asians but of what society thinks of what Asians should be.”

Chan takes the most outrageous stereotypes of the pulp fiction era when most of North America was afraid of being invaded by what was called “the Yellow Peril.”

He conjures up the images of the Dragon Lady, Ming the Merciless, and the Yellow Claw, and rolls them all up with bad pidgin english so that we can laugh at the absurdities. And in the play, the only White character, the noble RCMP officer hell-bent on destroying the “Yellow Claw's” planned invasion of Canada, is transformed into her own worst nightmare-she becomes one of the very stereotypes she has sworn to eradicate.

“The use of the stereotypes evolved from an actor's workshop in Toronto,” Chan explains. “The original draft consisted only of naturalistic scenes. As things came together, the actors kept asking me to push it, and what evolved was [the central character] Mark's worst nightmares coming to life. The alternate reality presents how Mark views his mother and father as the Yellow Claw and her minion.

“It works really well as a built-in device from which to poke fun at Asian stereotypes and serves as a link between the two worlds, also able to comment and reflect on the natural scenes. The transitions also bring a frenetic energy, like a roller coaster quality. I think it's fun for the actors; they get to walk that line.

“Comedy goes to the brain and drama goes to the heart. Humour is trying to get inside the head without turning the mind off. Humour helps to get the point across of how Asians are viewed in pop culture. Hopefully, the comedy helps to enlighten the Caucasian population without the didactic monologues, that make it hard to listen to, then you end up preaching to the converted.

Although Marty Chan sees himself principally as a writer (his commentary, The Dim Sum Diary is heard regularly on CBC radio in Alberta), he has an opportunity to present a more realistic image of Chinese people on the CBC television show, Jake and the Kid, as Henry Wong, owner of the Sanitary CafŽ.

“I was fortunate enough that the producers wanted to update the W.O. Mitchell characters who are pretty hokey prairie stereotypes,” he says. “Thankfully, the producers didn't stress a Chinese accent. They wanted Henry to be defined as a real character, not as a Chinese guy.”

more later….

One thought on “Mom, Dad, I'm Living with a White Girl: My personal experiences of the Mary Chan theatrical play

  1. Anonymous

    Hey Todd,
    Was surfing the Internet and came across your blog. Great site. Thanks for remembering the play. Life is busy over here in Edmonton. Still writing. In fact, I've added kids fiction to my resume. I wrote a book about growing up Chinese in a small town. It's called Mystery of the Frozen Brains.
    Hope you're doing well.

    Reply

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