Eva Jessenia Wong Chan
Born: Hermosillo, Mexico
Raised: Hermosillo, Mexico
Urban Chinese Canadians have the advantage that their parents can send their children to Saturday Chinese school. Rural Chinese Canadians, not so much. The latter is certainly a boon for the children, until they grow up and they regret not being able to speak Chinese.
My curiosity on this topic led me to Eva Wong, a Mexican-born Chinese person who I met through Subtle Asian Traits. Initially, we spoke Spanish when we first met, but we eventually just settled to speaking English, saving me from a lot of extra pain and frustration.
I visited Mexico in 2012, 2013 and 2019. Every time I went there, I had to forget any notions of political correctness I got used to in Canada. I also had to be aware that I was very obvious because I looked different.
Which really made my conversation with Eva a bit of a surprise. She revealed to me that she did not feel like a minority when she grew up, despite growing up in the small northern Mexican town of Hermosillo where Chinese people are few and far. It elates me to say that throughout our conversation, I never felt she experienced any serious racism.
But this made it a bit ironic that racial discrimination played a key role in her great-grandfather’s decision to “go back to China,” as the trite racist would say.
Four generations step foot in Mexico
Eva’s great-grandfather came to Mexico and eventually married her great grandmother who was Mexican.
Then came Eva’s grandfather, a half-Mexican, half-Chinese person, born in 1931 in Baviacora, near Hermosillo. When Eva’s grandfather was about three years old, his family suffered persecution and they decided to leave.
I didn’t ask about what kind of persecution her great-grandfather suffered, but it seemed very much in line with the story across all of North America in the mid-1930s.
It makes sense. When the economy takes a big hit, scapegoating happens. It’s the 1930s, so we’re talking about the Great Depression. People are out for blood worldwide. I mean, think about what happened in Europe in 1933.
Chinese people were no strangers to state-level discrimination either. One only needs to look north of Mexico, where both the United States and Canada had Chinese exclusion laws by this time. And it’s not just a pre-war phenomenon — just look at how the timing of Indonesia’s 1998 riots came alongside the Asian Financial Crisis.
Eva’s great-grandparents and her grandfather and his three sisters all moved to China, staying there for a few years. But Eva’s great-grandmother couldn’t adapt to China.
“She just couldn’t adapt. The language, everything. She didn’t really like living in China, she being Mexican and all.”
Eva’s great-grandmother eventually went back to Mexico with her three daughters, leaving her son in China with her husband, with a plan for the whole family to reunite in Mexico after a few years.
That plan never came to be. Eva hazards a guess that this could be the result of the Japanese occupation of China between 1937-1945.
Eva’s grandfather eventually started his own family. Eva’s father was born in Macau, and he met Eva’s mother in Hong Kong.
With the passage of time, Eva’s grandfather resurrected the plan to return to Mexico. Her grandfather wanted to meet his siblings and mother. He moved, he liked it and he brought his wife. Eva’s parents visited, liked it and moved there in 1989 while in their late 20s. And two years later, Eva was born.
Here you have it. Four generations of Chinese, each generation having stepped foot in Mexico, even if just briefly.
When I met Eva a few years ago, I felt particularly intrigued by her story because she was born and raised in Mexico.
That phrase, “born and raised”, seem to be a token of pride of many American and Canadian Chinese people, so it must mean something.
Eva also had the least physical contact with East Asia, unlike all previous three generations, who have all lived in China, Hong Kong or Macau. Hence my curiosity as to how she can develop and maintain an identity while having minimal contact with Chinese people.
A Chinese-Mexican identity split in time and culture
Eva’s identity as a Chinese and Mexican has two sides to it in time and culture.
Culture played a role in creating a duality. At home, her parents played a big role in reminding her about her Chinese roots and spoke Cantonese to her parents and practised Chinese customs like Chinese New Year.
Curiously, her first name, Eva, came from her Chinese name, pronounced in Cantonese (ji2 waa4, yi wa). Her parents wanted her Spanish name to resemble her Chinese name.
And just like a majority of Chinese people, regardless of where they lived, Eva’s parents put a focus on her studies. “I didn’t have any other responsibilities as a child, so my only responsibility was to get straight As,” she said.
But out of the home, she spoke Mexican Spanish with her friends and teachers. Eva only mentioned this point when I spoke to her about how she felt Mexican, and I can see why. Spanish is a particularly mercurial language in that it changes significantly from one country to another. Mexican Spanish posed one of the biggest challenges to me because the slang and references Mexicans use is not immediately understandable to outsiders.
In terms of time, Eva mentioned how her consciousness about others perceiving her as Chinese really only came to the fore around 2011 when she started going to university and when she started living alone.
When she grew up in Hermosillo, she did not have much contact with other Asian families. She recounted that they would come and be friends with her, but they would leave in a year or two.
Eva herself said that her parents had the initial plan to move to Mexico temporarily then head over to the United States. That didn’t happen.
After moving out to another city, stripped of her old friendships and family connections, Eva staid her consciousness about her being Chinese increased. In tandem with this change, Eva started noticing more Asian people in grocery stores and on the street, and so did other Mexicans.
She mentioned that her appearance played a double-edge role whereby some people would avoid her upon seeing her while others would approach her with curiosity.
Is this racism? Eva told me that she only experienced very mild racism causing annoyance to her, such as comments as “we’re being invaded” or “Chinese are everywhere” but her identity/appearance has never led her to a dangerous situation.
It helps that Eva approached some race-based reactions with humour. She said that when she went to a market to buy groceries, a lady immediately screamed “COVID! COVID!” and covered her mouth immediately.
“It was mostly funny to me,” she said, laughing.
Not going back to China
Chinese people who have grown up as a minority probably heard the good ol’ trite catchphrase of the unwashed racist, “Go back to China!”
For Chinese people born in the United States, it would seem a bit rude and out of place, since it assumes that someone who has lived all their life in one place has a greater stake in another.
It always blows my mind that Southeast Asian Chinese people born in the 1950s in Indonesia, Singapore or Malaya can carry these attitudes, even though they have never stepped foot in China. My mother often tells me about how a portion of people of that generation sees China as a “motherland” and would be the first apologists when they hear a slight towards China. So, I wanted to know how Eva felt.
As a person who grew up in Mexico, Eva said she has no connection to China or Hong Kong.
She has toyed with the idea of living in mainland China or Hong Kong, but she concluded that she would probably not fit in based on what she heard.
She also told me that her Cantonese isn’t really up to scratch. She said she might feel lost in Hong Kong and would not be able to give a lecture in Cantonese either. Eva has a masters in public health.
She said she would like to visit China as a tourist to fulfill a curiosity in the same way she would get that fulfilled by travelling to China.
Certainly, Eva also mentioned that she noticed a bit of a cultural difference between the more recent Chinese immigrants, mostly from mainland China, and herself. She mentioned that being raised in a culture from Hong Kong does create a bit of a gap in understanding these newer immigrants, even though everyone still fell under the umbrella of “Chinese.”
There we have it. That’s the first of the many stories I will collect. If you have any interesting people that I could follow up with, please email me.