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Mixed Feelings

by David Lau

Through university I felt an invisible tug to talk to other people who were raised within two cultures. I was not so surprised to find commonality in our mutual stories of rejection and dismissal.

The pernicious thing about the human psyche is it's vulnerability to stray comments.

As I stood in line today to sign a religious membership association form, an invigilator leaned aside to the man at his right. He said in Punjabi "Is this guy a Punjabi, he looks like a white guy?" The man to his right, an old family friend who knew my contributions to the community, looked at my disappointed face and realised that I had understood the slur, and snapped back a response, too quick for me to translate in my head.

Last week, a trusted co-worker stood beside me and told my client to ignore my advice, inferring that I could not understand his problem of discrimination because I "identified myself as white," that "I didn't care." My client looked at me with new eyes.

When I was growing up in a small Vancouver Island town, my father, over a span of years, broached the subject of my culture, or rather, my shared cultures. He told me that he had worried that I would receive poor treatment from both sides of my two cultures due to discrimination. He told me that one uncle of his had told him a very cautionary tale of a German man who married a `dark' woman. "Their child," this uncle said, "was born with spots, like a Hereford cow!" Fortunately for me, I was only born with a birthmark that my wife sees now and then.

My father also told me of a schoolmate of his who had a father who was Chinese and a mother who was English. This child was not spotted, but rather, was treated like an outsider and with derision by the local Chinese community and with the typical cruelty that school children dole out to minority children. This boy grew into a young man who could not rectify his life and who could not find solace. He killed himself.

My father reasoned that he and my mother would have to show us our cultures and instill pride, but not too much. The 1960's were still a time of sanctioned cruelty to minorities on both sides of `the line', and also to those who were somewhere in between `the line'.

There still were, after all, anti-miscegenation laws in the world. My father read and thought and reasoned that if I were happy with myself as an individual, if I had a loving family and felt support at home - I could survive the viscitudes of Canadian society. I suppose that he was right. As I got older I explored both my German and Punjabi cultures and felt more identity with both. I enjoyed Indian cooking and German beer as a teenager. As years went by I explored Punjabi folklore and language and Silesian history. There were different things that I kept finding more about. And indeed, I am rather pleased with who I am.

But I must say, there were always people who whispered. It is those whisperers to whom I am writing this. "Please, stop whispering!"

Through university I felt an invisible tug to talk to other people who were raised within two cultures. I was not so surprised to find commonality in our mutual stories of rejection and dismissal. It seems that nearly all languages have `special' words for people like us. There are tidy phrases that sound inert but are pregnant with meaning. These meanings usually auger issues of trustworthiness, stability, and being a walking percentage sign (%) rather than a whole person.

Sometimes people stare with an amused smile, as if they are thinking, "ahhh, that is what you get when you cross a ... with a ...," as if you are the `human punchline' to a racial joke.

But, the pernicious thing about the human psyche is it's vulnerability to stray comments. Indeed, life is tiring sometimes.

As a kid I grew up watching television. I watched Archie Bunker. I watched civil rights freedom fighters. I knew who I wanted to be. No confusion there. At university, I knew the courses I wanted to take, I studied ethnic conflict, I studied politics and I just studied! On one of my papers a professor alluded to my ideas as being rather unusual. This did not surprise me, because, well... I was unusual, so to speak. He didn't understand my take on ethnic conflict, I rejected the Marxist interpretations, I rejected the positivists, I rejected the far-right and post-modernists too. I rejected everyone's ideas of ethnic conflict.

It is a pity that humanitarians never wrote on ethnic conflict.

I thought that if I could work at a human rights agency I would more or less be accepted as the clever, handsome and bright person that I am. But still today I find that I am daily referred to as `%'. As, `identifying with....' As, `not really understanding.' At first it was a shock to find that the `freedom fighters' were biased discriminators too, but after thinking about it, I thought, "no, they are like everyone else - it is all talk and they are just on the other side of the polarised mirror - I still am alone."

It is a rather peculiar situation when you face a person who looks at you and blinks and sees a person who does not face discrimination, and then, who discriminates against you for the way you look - all the time not knowing that you do, in fact receive daily doses of discrimination outside of his. It is a strange thing. And, it is a difficult thing to explain to people who are wrapped up in their own struggles.

So don't forget: the pernicious thing about the human psyche is its vulnerability to stray comments. And, when you do run across one of us magnificent creatures who have experience bridging two cultures, do not lean over and whisper; because we most likely understand you, and think the less of you for it.

David Lau is soon to become a first time father and is an accomplished tight rope walker

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