Last summer, I went on a camping trip with a group of friends. Four of us went up early before meeting up with the larger group, spending some time together in Tobermory before heading to Six Mile Provincial Park.
It was lovely. We pitched tents as we discussed families, challenges, dreams. We walked along trails and revelled in the trees, easing in and out of conversation. We collected damp kindling to dry by the fire before burning to make our morning coffee - about 45 minutes worth of work for 1 steaming cup.
One afternoon we walked a little too far. Disoriented by the indistinguishable trees and parking lots, we asked a nearby Park Ranger to help us find our way back to our trail. As we walked, my 3 friends fell back as I chatted with the Park Ranger about sustainable tourism, UNESCO Heritage sites, and his dog. A few minutes later, we parted, thanking him and wishing him a nice day. Moments later, his voice rang clearly through the 20 or 30 yards now separating us.
We turned. The Park Ranger jogged over to our bemused faces. Did he drop us off at the wrong trail?
Being on a camping trip, our awareness of time already sat on the backburner. It informed almost no part of our day. But whatever notion of time I clung to as an urban human being slowed almost to a stop as this man, this 50-something year old Caucasian Provincial Park Ranger, began to speak to me - just me - about 'The East'.
'The East' is so admirable for the reverence that is demonstrated towards the environment, he explained to me. It's well known, he went on, that people of the Orient have a profound respect for nature and the world.
I was baffled. I could only stare at him, inviting more of his words to fill the silence I created.
The only challenge, he informed me, was the inability for my people - "You are Asian, right?" he made sure to clarify before continuing - to bring this respect for the environment to Canada when visiting. It's very important to Parks Canada, he concluded, to develop a strategy to combat this unfortunate side-effect of tourism. They've had meetings about it, he said.
I blinked as I struggled to grasp what he was saying, even though it was crystal clear. He ran back to tell me that Asian tourists litter too much. No. He felt the need to run back to tell me that Asian tourists litter too much.
Like every time I've been smacked in the face by another person's interpretation of my identity, the bravery and strength I've painstakingly cultivated through my life withered and fell away.
Was I supposed to offer to bring this message back to My People on behalf of Parks Canada? Explain to him that actually, I was born and raised in Canada? Go in to an explanation of how everything he just said was incredibly flawed, and bring him under the fold of my wing as I lead him down the path of racial enlightenment that I have not yet even conquered?
Instead, I froze. Startled, I looked to my friends, who stood off to the side slightly behind the Park Ranger with their mouths frozen into similarly baffled 'O's. They looked at me, eyes wide, but it was clear this was my battle to fight. None of them had any Asian-ness to bring to the war.
I felt grossly unprepared. This is my war. I grew up in a very small town. My sister and cousins were conspicuously Asian in an overwhelmingly Caucasian school. When I was young, a man working at a fast food chain in the food court of the mall in Saint Catherine's shouted at us to go back to our country as we walked by. I have been training for this war since the moment my parents chose to conceive me in this country.
But at that moment, standing on my two-man battlefield, I was nothing. Nothing but a lone footsoldier facing a wall of horsemen. Nothing but my country as it withstood occupation by Japanese, Chinese, Soviet, American forces as it was ripped into two separate entities, accepting its fate. It is my duty to challenge this fate and yet, I was failing.
As I looked squarely into his eyes and inside I slowly shrank, my only defence was what I hope was a scathing glare and dripping sarcasm. I asked him how exactly they were planning on doing this work, and listened unimpressed to his stumbling reply that they were 'talking to people about it'. Snidely I wished him luck and walked away, ashamed at my timid response. The useless-ness of it punctuated my steps. He could very well go say the exact same thing to another unsuspecting Korean-Canadian who might put up a worthy fight. Or not.
That wasn't the first time I've felt ashamed for failing to react to a racial annexation of my Self, my entire existence, by another person. I've felt it while laughing along at a customer's joke about Orientals making good housewives at the bar I used to work at. I've felt it when peers used to joke I only got my grades because I'm Asian and I would agree. I've felt it through some peoples' conclusive remarks that my past boyfriends must have had Yellow Fever.
I still feel it when I remember the gloating pride with which I used to hold my so-called Whiteness even just a few years ago.
What I'm learning is I will never be finished. I will never have learned all that I can about the world, race, or myself. Race and identity will never be stagnant entities that we can claim with a flagpole of wisdom. It is a constant Becoming. We are a constant Becoming. What winding paths will we get lost in?
Last night, my sister learned that my mom's 'English' name Michelle has never had any legal bearing whatsoever. Her name is Hee-Jung. My estranged father chose Michelle for her before she came to this country. It clung to her for decades before she peeled it off and reclaimed herself. I am still discovering what still clings to me and what it means. I will never be finished.