Hyphentity: Exploring Canadian Biculturalism in Second-Generation Diasporics

By Rochelle Mather

Whether it comes from parents, community members, or assumptions conjured up by the self, expectations surrounding personal identity are, perhaps at times unconsciously, bestowed upon children as they develop. These expectations are particularly more weighted in the context of the diasporic family, particularly surrounding expectations of cultural identity and preservation. As different generations in the diaspora grow to value their culture in different ways, disconnections between first and second generation diasporics begin to develop. Second generation diasporics actively and unconsciously create cleavages between themselves and their first generation kin. This is done in rebellion against the perceived authority that first-generationals have over their identity, both in terms of maturation and diasporic personhood. Through an exploration of Dionne Brand’s “What We All Long For,” as well as Wayson Choy’s “The Jade Peony,” an analysis of the self governance of the characters featured in both novels will reveal the complicated implications of gender roles, language and biculturalism on second-generation diasporic identity. This paper will use the fractured portrayal of characters’ employment and use of native language, culturally weighted gender roles, and interpretations of culture to demonstrate how the second generation experiences fractured spaces between, and connections to both first generation diasporics, and consequently the diasporic self.

Generational disparity as a contribution to the cultivation of identity is crucial in understanding the relationships of belonging that second-generation diasporics have toward their diasporic origins, as well as their places of birth. The novels presented follow “second-generation [urbanites] as they negotiate their own individual spaces within the city while contending with their uneasy positions as children raised by immigrants (Littlewood Mickibben, 502).” While not denying their “parents[‘] sense of origin,” in negotiating these spaces, the […] characters must acknowledge the detachment they feel toward their familial diasporic spaces (Littlewood McKibben, 505), in order to renegotiate their sense of belonging. The second-generational experience is wrought with contradictions and ambiguity in expectations to both thrive in the “regular Canadian life” (Brand, 47), but to also retain and preserve culture. While straddling cultural binary and hybrid identities, these characters, such as many second-generation diasporics in metropolitan Canada, experience “little cultural alienation” (Littlewood McKibeen, 505), but also a very miniscule sense of belonging. As previously mentioned, this is exemplified by the second generation characters navigating Toronto and Vancouver, in regards to their use of language, the renegotiation of gender norms, and thus the adoption of biculturalism. These negotiations allow for cultural mobility, but also contribute to the generational disparities in the diaspora.

Expectations of fluency in cultures and languages which straddle both the diasporic and host nation spheres allow for the second generation characters (hereafter “second-gens”) to possess a mobility in the host nation that the first generation characters (hereafter “first-gens) do not have. This mobility is propelled by their ignorance toward the experiences of their immigrant families and the consequent distancing they perform to further alienate themselves from their parents diasporic experience. Perhaps the first indication of second-gen rebellion, occurring in early childhood, is their hostility toward their native language. The refusal to speak or be spoken to in any language besides English is an early indication of generational disparity in the diaspora as second-gens attempt to navigate the host nation and to negotiate (and bury,) their ‘Othernness’. Empowered by mastering English, second-gens develop an aversion to the use of their native language which undermines this empowerment by placing emphasis on their foreignness.

Dionne Brand’s Vietnamese character, Tuyen, is representative of this. “When she was little, Tuyen rebelled against the language, refusing to speak it. At five she went through a phase of calling herself Tracy because she didn’t like anything Vietnamese,” (Brand, 21). Tuyen’s distaste for her parents’ language holds everyone she interacts with accountable. Just as Tuyen’s parents have expectations of her to preserve their language, Tuyen also has expectations of her Vietnamese kin to follow her Western example. When she was younger, these expectations created a highly critical and self-preservationist second-gen child unconcerned with “reprimanding people older than she to speak english (Brand, 21).” Carla, Brand’s Afro-Italian character, shares Tuyen’s resentment. For Carla, her father’s language causes her immense pain. “She hated this language that she made herself unhear, unthink and undream. She never actually learned it except to understand her father,” (Brand, 131).

Despite the second-gens’ aggression toward speaking their diasporic language, they are often forced to act as translators for their parents. Carla learns just enough of her father’s language to be able “to translate to her teachers and anyone official,” and feeling no attachment to it like “a translator whose first tongue is another language (Brand, 131).” Carla’s behaviour toward the language borders on repulsion and disgust. Tuyen and her brother Binh also acted as translators for their parents; Tuyen recalls doing so in stores and with repair men in the house. In being able to gain proficiency in , far greater than their parents, and being bestowed upon the responsibility of translation, Tuyen and her brother develop a certain power over their parents. This “power in children makes them become smarter than their parents much sooner than expected,” allowing them to manipulate both their parents, and also their “surrogate city- whose requests and rules they translated for [their parents] (Brand, 68).”

Throughout the novel, the second-gen’s power of knowing English is contrasted against the vulnerability of the , as they struggle to learn it in their adult lives. Their reliance on their children to translate and navigate them through the host-nation, forces them to become moderately dependent on their children for success as an immigrant. Whereas Brand indicates that although Tuyen “and Binh might have been translators, her father ran things,” within the family (Brand 126), it is clear that their parents’ struggle to “run things” beyond the domestic sphere. Binh describes that he is helping his parents look for Quy because he is fluent in English; “Mum’s not good at English, you know that. That’s why the whole thing was fucked up and she got taken so many times,” (Brand 294). Tuyen goes as far to “consider them somewhat childlike since her power over them in the form of language had given her the privilege of viewing them in this way (Brand, 125).” The very end of the novel epitomizes this vulnerability when Quy tells Jamal “Take the fucking car” in Vietnamese, but no one understands him. So they “beat him and kick him beyond recognition (Brand, 317).” The first-gen language vulnerability creates a disproportionate power dynamic in relationships with second-gens which alienates them from each other.

“The Jade Peony” explores similar themes in regards to language. The first-gen characters appear to be threatened throughout the novel by second-gen knowledge of the English language. Toward second-gens and the English language itself, resentment is clearly portrayed in these characters. During serious conversations, Jook-Liang is looked upon by the adults with suspicion. Her presence is clearly perceived as untrustworthy as she is characterized as a child with “Big Eyes. Big Ears. Big Careless Mouth. A Mouth that went to English school and spoke English words. Too many English words,” (Choy, 50). While “the Jade Peony” emphasizes children as translators, disparities in English proficiencies between first and second-gens appears to generate hostility toward the more familiar second-gens. When praised by his peers for his English, Sek-Lung’s mother responds by undermining the praise. “Smart English not smart Chinese,” she says (Choy, 141).

Conversely, the children feel the same resentment and distaste for Chinese. Jook-Liang forces herself to speak English at home in her efforts to be more like Shirley Temple. She speaks to herself in English while practicing her dance routine (Choy, 36) and uses it as a tool to feel less Chinese. The children have jarring associations to learning and speaking Chinese. Sek-Lung refers to his practicing of Chinese sayings for homework as “torture” (Choy, 203). The children attend both English and Chinese schools, but have an obvious preference for the former. Sek-Lung expresses his disinclination for the latter, and for having to participate in communications throughout Chinatown by expressing his hatred for “the complex of village dialects that would trip up my tongue,” and goes as far as wishing he were “somebody else, someone like Freddy Bartholomew, who […] did not have to know a single Chinese word (Choy, 140).” This desire to forget Chinese, both the language and the implications it had on his life is reminiscent of Tuyen’s desire to become “Tracy” as a child. This desire to erase their culture by means of anglicizing it, and their different perspectives on the value of preserving language causes rifts in the relationship between first and second-gens.

This rejection of expectations moves past preservation of language and bleeds into expectations of gender roles and norms. For second-gens, there is a perceived birthright in being born in the host nation, that does not apply to their first-gens kin, that allows them to adopt Western philosophies and abandon the traditions of their culture. Gender roles are particularly prevalent in which traditions seem to get dropped by second-gens, and replaced by what they perceive as more progressive, more Western. Both male and female characters tend to inhabit greater independence and more agency in their lives, which involved questioning gender hierarchies, gender representation, and gender roles. This renegotiation of gender roles is in some regard perceived as blasphemy toward first-gen tradition, and a disregard to duty and honour. Gender roles are the most significant tradition to be abandoned or renegotiating causing both an inability to understand each other between first and second-gens, nor their respective old/new traditions.

In “What We All Long For”, Tuyen is heavily criticized by her family for moving out of her Richmond Hill home of “uneasy luxury (Brand, 65)” at the age of eighteen to live in downtown Toronto, in what her father refers to as a “shit hole” (Brand, 56). Her father, Tuan, disproves of her choice, calling her a “stupid girl (Brand, 58),” a slight that does not phase Tuyen remotely. Tuyen’s sister Lam, a first-gens that immigrated to Canada with their parents, is “chafed like the rest under [her father’s] rule but didn’t dare disobey him,” or to “answer him the way Tuyen did (Brand, 58-9).” Even Tuyen’s mother, Cam, is afraid to counter Tuan, as she “would have liked to visit to her daughter, but Tuyen’s father had forbidden it (Brand, 14).” Tuyen is unaffected by her father’s patriarchal ruling over the family. “Tuyen never gave in to him when he said that she should do this or that. He found himself having to reason with her, rather than order her,” (Brand, 57). Binh, her brother equally disapproves of her lifestyle, lecturing her to “go find a […] husband (Brand, 21).” This is doubly misguided as Tuyen has both rejected her cultural gender norms, and what she refers to as the “heterosexual dystopia” altogether (Brand, 48).

Oku is also unable to conform to cultural gender norms and his first-gens’ expectations. His father holds Oku to gendered standards which he rejects in pursuit of a different cultural identity than the one he perceives his father to provide. It is after all “his fathers tenacity that took him the other way. His father was so voracious, yet so bitter- and that was the part that Oku hated -that in the middle of loving, eating, everything seemed bitter (Brand, 165).” Oku fears the potentiality of conforming to his fathers expectations. He dislikes physical labor, filth, and refuses to put himself in positions of violence or rough masculinity, “Oku couldn’t bear going home dusted in plaster and covered in paint and wounded by falling hammer (Brand, 46).” Oku’s father made him “feel like a child (Brand, 167).” He shares no common aspirations or personality traits as his father. Oku instead “cultivated the persona of the cool poet- so that he wouldn’t have to get involved in the ordinary and brutal shit waiting for men like him in the city (Brand, 166).”

In these regards, Jook-Liang of “The Jade Peony” is a lot like Tuyen. Liang is described as “tiger-willed” (Choy, 18), a less than desirable trait in a Chinese daughter. She is reminded constantly of her uselessness by her grandmother PohPoh who tells her that if she wants place in this world to “not be born a girl-child,” as “a girl-child is mo-yung – useless,” (Choy, 31-2). Liang recounts her childhood as the only daughter in the house as dutiful, and difficult, “When I was six, Grandmother already had me folding diapers for Sekky, and when I cried, I cried on my own (Choy, 62).” Yet still, PohPoh calls her “a princess,” “useless” and “spoiled (Choy, 36-9).” Even her adopted brother, Jung-Sum recounts that his new “sister did not count for much (Choy, 86).” Regardless of her Pohpoh’s bullying in an attempt to get Liang to adhere to cultured gender expectations, Liang asserts that she “knew [her] worth (Choy, 43).” She reminds herself that she’s “not ugly,” and that she’s “not useless,” and continues to practice her tap dancing in pursuit of her dream of being the next Shirley Temple. These harsh gender expectations from her PohPoh who could “barley tolerate” her, pushes Liang further into Western culture, where she takes solace in the comfort of Western films and music, and moves further away from her Chinese culture and family members.

Like Oku, Liang’s brothers are forced to deal with similar gendered expectations in regards to masculinity, duty and honour. Jung-Sum arrives at the home of his adoptive family only to be told that if he “was going to be a real Second Brother, [he] had to put on some more weight,” (Choy, 86). Kiam, First Brother, lived in the same world of cultural expectations around masculinity; “he was to step into Father’s shoes and learn sensible, grown-up things from Father and Third Uncle (Choy, 99).” Even Sek-Lung struggles with the patriarchal, heteronormative expectations. Although Sekky is babied, he is still held to the same expectations as his brothers, and is expected to mature into the head of a family like his father, like his brothers aim to be. Except unlike his brothers, who wish to join the Canadian army, Sekky fails to maintain the ‘hard-as-nails’ masculinity of his brothers. Like his brothers though, he gets into fights, and tries to exemplify his masculinity through violence, but ends up falling in love with one of his opponents, Frank Yuen. When Frank Yuen leaves Sekky is in despair. “Max had whispered to me to have courage, but it was not courage I desired most at that moment. It was Frank Yuen (Choy, 122).” While it is unclear how Sek-Lung’s sexuality affects his relationship with his first-gen kin, there is a clear foreboding on how it will affect his relationship to his culture, and prescribed gendered cultural expectations. The rejection of cultured gender norms and reinterpretation of gender performance by these characters further distances them from first-gen expectations, as it is a rejection of cultural values and customs by second-gens navigating gender and sexuality in a culture foreign to their first-gen parents.

The cleavage between generations culminates with the reinterpretations and renegotiations of culture performed by second generation diasporics. These renegotiations, which are conveyed as biculturalism, aggravate the fears of first-gens surrounding the loss of culture in the diaspora. This reinterpretation allows for second-gens who “feel little belonging to either the Canadian nation or to their ancestral homes (Dobson, 88)” to navigate through the host-nation in a way that is suitable for integration, while also allowing them to hold onto the parts of their culture they deem valuable to their identity. This causes resentment from their parents who “try to belong to a nation-state that refuses to recognize them because of their ancestry, and are paralyzed, striving for an impossible acceptance alongside a nostalgia for a lost past (Dobson, 88).”

In “What We All Long For”, Tuyen uses her art as an outlet and a vehicle to process the “ancient Chinese-Vietnamese shit” that she feels obliged to process and express. This, particularly the lubaio, is a reclamation for parts of her culture she disowned as a child. As she talks about it “the words sound dangerous in [her] throat,” as though she treads on unfamiliar, and unpredictable grounds. Tuyen’s conflicting relationship with her parents’ culture parallels her relationship with Western culture. In school, responding to her parents’ (“who didn’t understand anything,”) requests to “try harder” to fit in, she retorts, “Yes, Ma. I’ll get a blonde wig and fit in all right! (Brand, 17).” As a child, Tuyen “made every effort not to learn cooking and developed a dislike for what was called Vietnamese food. ‘Why can’t we eat like normal people?’ (Brand, 128).” Yet as an adult, after meeting Ashley, Tuyen demands: “‘Where’d you get a name like that? What’s your real name?’”, not accepting Hue’s adoption of a Western name (Brand, 128).

Jackie too resents her parents’ culture, and relies on television to provide her with the cultural education she seeks, sitting there “night after night, absorbing the televisions language and culture and getting familiar with its speakers and citizens (Brand, 45).” Even Oku can see this, when he recognizes that to Jackie he represents the same “burned out […] wreckage (Brand, 266)” that she associates with the other Black men in her community, which is why she chooses to be with Reiner. Although Carla can pass as white, she refuses to allow herself to do so. She perceives her rejection of her father’s ethnicity as a “betrayal of her mother’s choices as she saw them (Brand, 106).” That being said, she resents every realm of her father’s culture. “She hated Nadines exotica (Brand, 131),” that came in the form of spicy ethnic food stores frequented for her father’s favourite foods. She considered everything about her father’s customs to be “foreign, embarrassing oddities that she would try to distance herself from in public.” In a way, the second-gen biculturalism comes in the form of cultural crisis.

“Each left home in the morning as if making a long journey, untangling themselves from the seaweed of other shores wrapped around their parents. Breaking their doorways, they left the sleepwalk of their mothers and fathers and ran across the unobserved borders of the city, sliding across ice to arrive at their own birthplace-the city. They were born in the city from people born elsewhere (Brand, 18).”

Similarly, Liang longs to rid herself of her Chineseness. She clings to the idea of Canada as a saving grace for the mistreatment she gets at home from PohPoh, but PohPoh will not so easily let her forget her struggle in ‘Otherness.’ “‘You are not Canada, Liang,’ she said, majestically, ‘you China. Always war in China’ (Choy, 36).” While PohPoh may not have realized it, this statement is a strong reference to the binary struggle in that “these young people share a sense of detachment from their parents’ homelands and are exasperated by their parents’ meditations on what are to them unfamiliar spaces (Littelwood, 504).” Even then, Liang relents against these assertions, and continues to practice her dancing the way that “Shirley Temple does (Choy, 36).” The struggle that Liang faces with her Chineseness exemplifies “that [diasporic] identities are based on self-perceptions, which are partially based on others’ perceptions of oneself, and they are constantly affected by historical, cultural, social and political conditions (Ali, 93).” While Liang amuses herself with Wong-Suk by speaking ‘Chinglish’, Liang struggles to disregard her Chineseness, and struggles to ignore her grandmother’s projections onto her identity. And yet she unknowingly does so with relative success in pursing her relentless dream of being like Shirley Temple, against both PohPoh and “Canada’s history of Chinese exclusion, inequality, and discrimination (Medsen 100-10).”

Liang, the youngest, is perhaps the most naive in her rebellion against her Chinese culture. Kiam, her eldest brother, disregards “much of what he considered the Old One’s superstitions about fate and jealous gods: ‘Just Old China nonsense,’ (Choy, 109).” Jung-Sum is convinced by his best friend Bobby Steinberg to change the name of his pet turtle from Lao Kwei to a “British or Canadian name,” because “its not a Chinese turtlem (Choy, 77).” He eagerly does so, negating the cowboy-name suggestion, and opting to name the turtle after King George. Sek-Lung is particularly conflicted by his cultural identity, asking his mother if he is “Chinese or Canadian,” and being told that his family would “teach him the right way to be Chinese (Choy, 133).” Sek-Lung is the most explicit about his yearning to be Canadian. He admits that he “sometimes wished that my skin would turn white, my hair go brown, my eyes widen and turn blue,” and that white people would adopt him, (Choy, 134). He mourns this impossibility saying, “even if I should salute the Union Jack a hundred million times, even if I had the cleanest hands in the Dominion of Canada and prayed forever, I would still be Chinese (Choy, 135).” Sek-Lung recognizes this cultural binary, “a hyphenated reality that [their] parents could never accept,” (Choy, 143), in being “born without understanding the boundaries (Choy, 135).” Much like Sek-Lung, these experiences causes all of the characters to “feel as if they inhabited two countries—their parents’ and their own (Littlewood, 504).” These negotiations demonstrate where the children “struggle between following the desires of her contemporary life and navigating the effects of her parents’ haunted past (Leow, 202).”

Through their employment and use of native language, culturally weighted gender roles, and interpretations of culture, the second generation experience creates a fractured space between, and fragmented connection to both first generation diasporics, and consequently the diasporic self. In attempting to negotiate their attachment between cultures, they both inadvertently and intentionally sever many ties with first-gen diasporic culture. In doing so, second generation diasporics create cleavages between themselves and their first generation kin. This is done in opposition to the perceived authority that first-generationals have over their identity, both in terms of maturation and diasporic personhood. Generational disparity as a contribution to the cultivation of identity is crucial in understanding the relationships of belonging that second-generation diasporics experience to their diasporic origins, as well as their places of birth.


Ali, Mehrunnisa Ahmad. “Second-Generation Youth’s Belief in the Myth of Canada and Multiculturalism.” Canadian Ethnic Studies 40.2 (2008); 89-107.

Brande, D. What We All Long For. Toronto: Random House, 2005.

Dobson, K. “‘Struggle Work’: Global and Urban Citizenship in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.” SLC/ECL 31.2, (2006): 88-104

Leow, J. “Beyond the Multiculture: Transnational Toronto in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.” SCL/ELC 37.2, (2012): 192-212.

Littlewood McKibben, M. “The Possibilities of Home: Negotiating City Spaces in Dionne Brand’s What We All Long For.” Journal of Black Studies 38.3, (2008): 502-518.

Wayson, Choy. The Jade Peony. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre Ltd, 1987.

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dtsRochelle is a fourth year DTS student focusing predominantly on the implications that political structures and social welfare policies have on diasporic groups. She is particularly interested in border theories and transnational cultural politics, as well as lingual retention and gender role adaption within the diaspora. She prefers to use an interdisciplinary approach primarily drawing on fiction and poetry to compliment pragmatic research devices. She has a great affection for diasporic Canadian literature and uses it as a vehicle for her research often.

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