My name is Ry Lee, I was born in Malaysia on the 16th of July in 2002 and I’m mixed race.
So, what are you? The question that can terrorize me beyond terror, instantly put me on the spot – the sudden panic pulsing through my mixed blood containing a jumbled medley of genes. I get this question frequently thanks to my Caucasian-looking features, yet dark hair & eyes, and the slight tinge of an Asian accent mixed with my original American one, which somehow resulted in a Filipino-like accent unfortunately, minus the ability to hold a note or produce any remotely human-sounding musical talent. I hate being asked that question, and to be honest it’s because I really don’t know what to answer. My mum calls me a human machine of mass destruction but somehow I don’t think that’s the answer they’re looking for. My mother was born to a Romanian-Jewish father and British-Catholic mother, my father to both Buddhist Malaysian-Chinese parents of Hakka descent. So, where does that put me?
As a child I explored both cultures – Chinese New Year spent with my father’s family, Christmas and Hanukah spent with my mother’s. Chinese New Year is always fun, no school, never a shortage food or leftovers from huge feasts my grandmother prepared, Angpaos, the red envelopes of money all kids would get after passing the test of being bombarded with questions about grades and endless cheek pinching from the relatives I hardly knew, gambling, fireworks, burning joss sticks every morning and of course visits to the temple to pray for good luck that year, which my grandmother would quite possibly have a heart attack if we merely brought up the idea of going anywhere but the temple. Not go to the temple, and inhale enough smoke from burning ‘luck paper as a sacrifice for the gods’ to puncture a lung? Who could possibly imagine such an abominable thing to do ? But after a few days of all that, somewhere in the middle of developing Asthma and heart attack, it all got overwhelming and I would start to miss my other side. Christmas was always spent as a month long trip to Canada to spend with my mother’s family – non-stop excitement there as well. Snow instead of the sweltering heat, the non-stop flow of Yorkshire pudding, gravy, pot roast, the freedom to go for a walk alone without the fear of getting kidnapped and looking out the window to see a snowy, picture-perfect, stereotype storybook city, was always enjoyable. But just like Chinese New Year, a few days was enjoyable but after a while I would start to miss my friends, Roti Prata, – my all-time favourite, coronary artery-blocking Asian delicacy, which was essentially, a piece of fried dough – and just having non-frozen functioning toes, or body parts, in general.
When I got sick, my parents would either take me to a western-style doctor or my grandma would take me to a Chinese doctor. Western-style doctors would look down my throat, in my eyes, give me the basics - vaccinations and antibiotics, etc. Chinese doctors, however, was a totally different story. They would usually start by prescribe me with some root, herb, leaf or some type of powdered deer genitals – which my grandmother speaks very highly of - to be made into a soup that tasted like the devil’s tears, which I would later pour down the sink as soon as my grandmother or father turned their back. Then, the doctor would write a prayer for me in Chinese calligraphy on a piece of paper and pray with it, and later to be burnt and its ashes mixed with water to create a healing drink. The doctor would then proceed to convince my family that my flu was a result of me offending a god and that if they didn’t pray every day and burn more incense paper we would eventually go bankrupt and a family member would die.
When I was 5, my art teacher at school always gave homework. Usually she would give an outline of an animal or object for us to color in. I could never color inside the lines, and my teacher would often tell my mum on parent-teacher day, that I couldn’t follow instructions or something like that. I had to bring my homework which my teachers would give me in advance, to Canada when we went for summer every year because I missed so much of the school year. Once my grandfather saw me doing my art homework and suggested that I drew my own bird on a new blank paper instead of colouring in the outline. That’s when I started to realise and understand the cultural differences I would later face throughout my life.
Both cultures have shaped my entire life. My maternal grandparents told me stories of the wars, Hitler, Benjamin rabbit and Enid Blyton. My paternal great-grandmother who is miraculously still around, had 13 children, each one of them delivered at home, alone, with no help. She hung plastic bags below her chair and just pushed the baby out, then washed the baby in a tub of hot water and went back to work in the farm, just as she was doing that same morning. My Caucasian family taught me politics, world history, how to appreciate good books & stories, how to make Yorkshire pudding and to use the spoon closest to you and then work your way outwards in fancy restaurants. My Asian family taught me how to ignore setbacks (much like the birth of a child), to never sleep facing a mirror because you’ll have nightmares, to never sweep the floor the day before Chinese New Year because you’d be sweeping away your luck, how to tap rubber from a rubber tree and catch fish with a plastic bag from a stream, and how to persevere on my way to getting somewhere in life and to never forget where I’m from. To be frank, I love and hate my biracial, multi-identity life. It is a blessing and a curse because the two main identities I am made up of are such polar opposites, it’s hard to go from one extreme to the other, even harder to find an in-between to live with, which I have yet to find, nonetheless, it makes me interesting and unique. While you think about where you should go for dinner and what meetings you have on today, what’s running through my mind will be ‘Do I get powdered fish eyeball or Aspirin for my migraine?’ And I think that’s pretty cool.
So let me introduce myself again.
My name is Ry Lee, I’m 154cm and I’m 15 years old. I have short hair, almond eyes and it doesn’t matter what colour they are. I like poutine and roti bomb cheese, I hate mushrooms and chili and sometimes I wonder what happens to the birds that are scared of heights. I’m scared of the dark and people in costumes.
My name is Ry Lee. I still can’t colour inside the lines and I’m just trying to make my way in this big, scary world.