Register Sunday | December 9 | 2018

Minority Rapport

Sept. 29, 2006

Anne Marie Nakagawa's film Between: Living in the Hyphen (2005) examines the life experiences and "half-ness" of seven Canadians, each with one parent of European descent and one from a visible minority. Nakagawa's mother is an Albertan of German and Irish descent; her father is Japanese.

Bryan Lee O'Malley is also a hyphen-dweller. He is the author of the Scott Pilgrim comic books, which infuse tales of Toronto indie-rock slackerdom with videogame logic and the aesthetic of Japanese manga comics. O'Malley's mother is Korean; his father is French-Canadian.

The following conversation-conducted at the invitation of Maisonneuve in an attempt to get at the evolving definition of Canadianness-took place by telephone this past August and appears in excerpted form in Issue 21, on newsstands now. The following is the complete dialogue.

I. "WHAT'S WRONG WITH YOUR EYES?"

BRYAN LEE O'MALLEY I watched Between for a second time this morning, taking notes as it made me think of stuff. So I've got, like, a day's worth of talking.

ANNE MARIE NAKAGAWA Well, you should just start right in, then!

BLO The first thing that hit me was the idea of racial identity being imposed on you by the people around you. As a kid, I was the same as a lot of people in the movie, where my parents were kinda idealistic about it and didn't think race would be an issue.

AMN You almost would have to study race relations to really think about the social and political implications. I don't think that people who hook up with people from other races and have kids necessarily think about that.

BLO My parents got married because they liked each other. That was the extent of it.

AMN Yeah. As opposed to, say, African-American people who have children. They already have a common experience of what it's like to be oppressed, and they teach that history to their kids. This is a totally new situation. My dad's a professor, but the way he dealt with it was to kinda say, "Life is hard. [laughs] We're not going to sit down to talk about what this means, about which heritage you should try to identify with, or how we can be more cross-cultural in the family."

BLO My parents were like, "Oh, you're just Canadian." Which is not the case, really. Especially as a kid growing up in Northern Ontario, where there were only white kids or Native kids. So I was the anomaly. Was it similar where you grew up in Alberta?

AMN I would say so. My family is from what's called the Peace Country. Grand Prairie and Peace River are the big towns. I grew up in a smaller town, Fairview. Everyone knew my grandparents, because my grandparents' parents were homesteaders in the area.

BLO Really? The Japanese side?

AMN The German. My father never emigrated to Canada; he still lives in Japan. I lived in Japan until I was nine, off and on. Then my dad stayed there and we moved back to Canada. So there's this linkage where the one side of my heritage was really rooted to the northern Alberta community, but the difference was such a big part of it. The difference was the identifier: in that area, there are no Japanese people, or half-Japanese people. So the assumption was always that I was part Chinese or something. In their mind, that was the same thing, Chinese and Japanese.

BLO Even I, as a kid, thought I was Chinese for a while. Because that was the only thing people knew: "What's wrong with your eyes? You must be Chinese."

II. "OH. I THOUGHT YOU'D BE MORE KOREAN."

BLO Mom's never been back to Korea. She moved here when she was nineteen and really wanted to assimilate. She speaks perfect English-she's actually a French teacher-and she lives five minutes from the mall; that's her whole deal. So I never really had that much exposure to Korean culture other than, like, the food.

AMN I did have quite a bit of exposure initially. I went back to Japan for university for a couple of years-I thought I was "gettin' back to my roots." I thought, "This is where I should be, because I'm not really being accepted in Canada." I was eighteen. Then I realized I totally could not deal with living in Japan. I couldn't fit in, my language was way behind, I was almost illiterate, I was completely not the ideal idea of what a Japanese women should be, in terms of my behaviour and my attitudes [laughs] and my body language, and my posture... Even though I thought a lot of my identity was in my Japanese roots, it had evolved to the point where I couldn't comfortably assimilate back into Japanese society. I would have had to compromise a lot of who I was to do that.

When I was twenty, I rejected all of that part of my identity and moved back to Canada and finished my degree at McGill. I almost had to separate the two sides of myself: "This side is too complicated and causing me too much confusion, so I'm going to push it back."

There are specific rules and social conditioning about what it means to be Japanese. If you have any kind of marker that's different, they try to beat it out of you. Not physically, but... That time of my life really informed the film, even though I made it ten or twelve years later.

BLO Yeah, it submerged for a while then came back out. I remember when I was in college, at Western in London, Ontario, I was friends with these white guys who were total rice-chasers and-

AMN I don't know that term. What is that?

BLO Guys who are into Asian girls, and they don't differentiate between kinds of Asian girls. They just want anyone who looks Asian-which is just creepy. But anyway, I ended up going to Asian parties because I was being dragged around by my white guy friends. I was at these Korean parties, and that was the first time I felt like I didn't fit in there, either.

I joined this website for a while: Asian Avenue. I'm not sure if it's still around. I guess I was trying to be more Asian or something. It was like Myspace, only for Asian people. I went on, like, one blind Internet date with an Asian girl. When she met me, she was like, "Oh. I thought you'd be more Korean."

AMN Really?! Did she say that to you?

BLO Literally the first thing she said to me.

AMN So she was just going by your appearance.

BLO I guess she saw a picture of me on the Internet or whatever. I was probably registered as half-Korean on the site. I think she was Chinese, and she wanted me to be more Asian.

AMN When I was at university in Japan, there were a lot of exchange students from Europe and the States, so there was a little guidebook to the neighbourhood I was living in. I went to the international student affairs department and asked the woman, in English, "Can I get a copy of the Mitaka handbook?" and she replied, "Oh, that's just for foreign students." And walked away. There was a level of hostility if you were not adept in Japanese culture, but they perceived you as Japanese

BLO It seems like they're going to perceive you as Japanese when it's convenient for them. And vice versa. As long as they can be down on you either way.

AMN [laughs] They definitely wanted me to assimilate, to get the language down and be like everybody else. And it just wasn't going to happen for me. By the time I left, I realized I'd have to spend another seven years to be adept enough at the language to read a newspaper or work in Japanese at the level I'd like to. I didn't think I could devote my life to being good enough to fit in.

 

III. "YOU'RE EITHER OF THE HOUSE, OR YOU'RE OUTSIDE."

BLO To me, growing up as a nerd was the big thing. It was only as a kid that I was ostracized for being Asian. In high school, I was ostracized 'cuz I was a loser. Being of an unusual race just augmented my ostracism.

AMN [laughs] They just thought you were a loser. You were really a winner!

BLO [laughs] When I was a kid, I read these fantasy novels - this is kinda how I fell on the road to nerdism - these Dragonlance books. The main character is this guy named Tanis Half-Elven, and he's half elf. He's this guy who wanders the Earth because he doesn't fit in with the elves or the humans. Then he becomes the leader of this ragtag group. That was a big deal when I was a kid, because I identified with him and...I can't really explain. You're probably just rolling your eyes.

AMN For the record, I'm not rolling my eyes.

BLO Was there anything that you ingested as a youth that resonated in this area?

AMN One thing that always stuck in my mind was The Jeffersons. You know the mixed-race couple upstairs? There was a black woman and a white man, and they had two kids, but the children were completely of one race or the other. The daughter completely looked black, and the son completely looked white. I was always so frustratedwhen I watched that. But, at the same time, I thought, "Maybe this is what happens sometimes." Although the examples around me indicated otherwise. There was something happening in the media consciousness of the time that they couldn't cast mixed-race actors. A social taboo.

BLO Sounds like they were playing it for laughs, too.

AMN Yeah, probably. But, in my mind, it was perpetuating this inaccuracy. I remember thinking, "I wish I could see a real mixed family on television." Even to this day, there aren't many examples that I know of.

BLO I should pitch it to the CBC. They would love it. I don't know if you read this, but there was a news story a few months ago about this mixed race couple in London who had twins. One was white; one was black. It was really bizarre. They came out of the same womb, and they were two different colours.

AMN Well, I guess it...it can happen.

BLO I'm married to a white girl, and I'm always curious: if I had a baby, what would it look like? I worry it'd be really freaky. I don't know if you ever play the game The Sims?

AMN No.

BLO You can make an avatar of yourself. Then you can make your avatar and a female one have a baby. My wife and I did this for, like, an hour. Just making Sims babies to see what they'd look like. And they'd always look really scary. My character was half-Korean looking, and my wife's was white-and the babies always came out looking really weird. It was just the algorithm of the program, but it was disturbing. I want it to be clear that I only played The Sims for a week in my entire life.

AMN I grew up in the seventies, when it was so unnatural, and just not ingestible, for Japanese people to understand the concept of mixing. They're really into purity. I remember wondering how my mother felt before she had me. Was she thinking, like you, "Oh my God, I'm going to have a freak"? I don't know where I got that from, but there's a part of me getting social messages. It was like a biologically abhorrent phenomenon. It's almost like interspecies breeding.

BLO Like a dog and a cat laying down together!

AMN Yeah! Those messages were very strong around me: "Too bad we're diluting the Japanese race."

BLO When you were in Japan, did you meet any other half-Japanese people?

AMN I did, because my mom belonged to a club called the "Foreign Women Married to Japanese Men Club" or something. It was a social group. There'd be a Christmas party, and all the half-kids would sit on Santa Claus' knee-and he'd be a Japanese Santa! That was confusing. The women were all white, as opposed to a generation earlier when there were a lot of American servicemen who came over during the occupation and married Japanese women. At that time, there was an oppressive phenomenon associated with the mixing - that American men were taking Japanese women.

BLO Certain people that I told my background to, in my teenage years, thought the same thing-that my dad had gone to Korea and swept away a woman. Which is not the case. My mom just came to Windsor for college.

AMN The women could really relate to each other because they had a lot of the same issues. My mother lived there for fourteen years, and she could never become a citizen. Even though she was married to a Japanese man, every year she'd have to go to the local police station to be fingerprinted. And she had to have a sponsor, other than my father, to vouch for her. So it was very hard. In Japanese, they call it ouchi and soto. Ouchi is "house," and soto is "outside." So you're either of the house, or you're outside. And if you're outside, you get fingerprinted. You're not Japanese.

IV. "VOLUPTUOUS BODIES AREN'T AN ASIAN FORM."

AMN When I was reading your books, I was entertaining the idea that Scott Pilgrim is half-Asian. When he'd be having supper with his family, I'd be like "In this picture, the mom looks like she could be...the way the eyes are drawn..."

BLO I haven't really done anything that addresses the "half" quality. But, well, [laughs] they're definitely based on my own family. And the sister, Stacey, is explicitly based on my own sister, whose name is Stacey. And she looks like her. And Scott Pilgrim is kinda based on me, too. But I don't think I want to really concretize that sort of thing in the book.

AMN Right. But there's room for that because of the form you're working in, with the whole manga-esque aesthetic. For me, it always comes back to the way the eyes are drawn. I lived in Japan until I was nine, so I did read manga. The characters always had these huge, giganticeyes. I wonder if there is some kind of idolization of Western features.

BLO I think there's some malleability with their cultural self-image. If you've ever seen any manwha, Korean comics, their stuff is even more extreme and hyper-idealized. The characters look like they're nine feet tall. They're all blonde and they have these beautiful big eyes. Even pronounced noses and big lips. I know plastic surgery is just this huge thing in Korea. Everyone gets their eyes "fixed" and stuff.

AMN Yeah. The "double lid" is big.

BLO I don't know to what degree the comics reflect their self-image, but I think it's a big deal.

AMN I think it's a big factor in Japan. Even as a really young child, I realized that the way they drew people in the manga wasn't correlating to what Japanese people looked like. The pointy noses, the huge eyes-and, with the women, the big breasts. Voluptuous bodies aren't an Asian form. There's also a lot of cartoon pornography, I guess. When you ride the subway, every third guy is reading it. That's what they like to look at. There's some kind of subconscious correlation between the Western figure, the Western woman, and sexual arousal. Even in Japanese anime, there's always-

BLO A lot of up-the-skirt shots.

AMN Yeah! Up-the-skirt shots! You've seen that stuff, right?

BLO Oh, yeah. Yeah. I used to be really into it-anime, I mean, not specifically up-the-skirt stuff.

AMN I didn't think anything of it when I was watching it as a little girl, but as a more mature adolescent, I'd go, "Wow, that was so sexualized." But because it's so much part of the culture, people don't even see it in Japan. They just think it's normal. What's weird is that it can only happen in that realm-

BLO Real life is so much more reserved.

AMN Right. That's the outlet. Then there's manga that's not all that racy. I used to read Doraemon. Have you heard of that?

BLO I've only read a little bit of it.

AMN He was this asexual, round, blue creature, but, at the same time, he pulled things out of his pouch that were, you know, magical-and the kids he was helping always used the magical device to go look at the girl he had a crush on while she was bathing!

BLO Oh, right! [laughs]

AMN He'd be, like, "I want to be able to go through walls." Then there'd be a shot of him passing through a wall and into that girl's bathroom while she's taking a shower.

BLO I don't know if that's what kids want, or if it's what the adult creator wanted the kids to look at.

AMN Maybe it's for boys. It's definitely not what female kids are crazy about.

V. "I'M A BIG, DARK GUY."

BLO I stopped using the "Lee" in my signature when I was in high school. Then this cartoonist named Derek Kirk started calling himself Derek Kirk Kim-he's actually fully Korean, but I think his mom remarried. I thought, "Hey, I'm Asian..." This was in my early twenties. I told everyone I was going to be Bryan Lee O'Malley, instead of just Bryan O'Malley. It was definitely a conscious, political move; I wanted people to recognize that I'm part Asian.

 

AMN My name, on my birth certificate, is Mari Anne Marie Nakagawa. But I almost never use the Mari any more, because I think it's inaccurate. If someone is expecting a Mari Nakagawa, that's a fully Japanese name, and I'm not fully Japanese. I didn't think it fully reflects me.

BLO Right. I get weird looks when people meet me after just knowing my name. I'm tall, and I'm Asian. I'm a big, dark guy. I've been told many times that when people are looking for Bryan O'Malley, they're expecting this short, redheaded Irish guy.

AMN My father likes to call me Mari. It's weird, that whole negotiation. He's very comfortable in Japanese culture, and there's kind of a power struggle between us depending on which language we're speaking. We almost always speak English now, but when we would speak in Japanese, he'd always have the upper hand because my language ability isn't as good as his. But when we'd switch to English, I'dhave the upper hand. Now we always speak English. It's sad, because I know he wants to communicate in the language that is native to him, where he has more personality and sense of humour. He can be more himself. But I'm so removed from it now that I almost can't. In these mixed cultural relationships, the children have to do this back and forth to build that relationship. Oftentimes, I think someone ends up losing. I truly believe that one culture inevitably dominates the other. I don't think both can be incorporated into your lives to the same degree.

VI. "IT'S MY FAULT HE'S SO DARK."

BLO My mom was set on assimilating, and picking up this flawless English. She did it so well that I didn't realize there was an ethnic difference between my parents until I was older. In grade school, at some point, I figured it out. My parents looked the same to me. I guess that's kinda silly.

AMN No, I think it's telling that they looked the same until you were told what differences you should be looking for.

BLO My parents told me that when I was born, I was dark-skinned. My Korean grandmother's side of the family was dark, and light skin is a big deal in Korea because it indicates class. So she was all like, "I'm sorry. It's my fault he's so dark."

AMN Awwww...

BLO But then it turns out that my dad's side of the family, the Irish side, was really dark too. I don't know why, but it seems like I got it from that side, which is weird.

AMN It's funny that neither side wanted you to be dark.

BLO The white side didn't see it as a problem, but the Korean side was a little worried.

VII. "WE'LL CELEBRATE THIS FOOD; WE'LL HAVE THIS DANCE."

BLO I was talking to my dad about how we were doing this interview. He said that, as a kid, his whole deal was the French-English thing, because he lived in Cornwall, Ontario, which is right on the Quebec-Ontario border.

AMN When I screened the film in Montreal, the people were really receptive.

BLO I was going to suggest "angry."

AMN No, they weren't angry, but we had a panel discussion afterward, and that question kept coming up, about why I didn't address the Quebecois identity. I said, "I think that's a whole other film..." Because then you're adding linguistic difference to cultural and racial differences, and that complicates things even more. And the Quebecois actually want to be different. Some Quebecois don't want to be Canadian. It's something that wasn't in my consciousness when I made the film because of the context I was in. If I'd made the film in Montreal, I would've been thinking about that. I don't know why I feel like I have to bring up Trudeau, but-

BLO Well, Trudeau was half-Asian.

AMN [laughs] He was definitely half! Not bi-racial, but he was coming from very different backgrounds. Maybe that's part of the reason he could envision a multicultural society. Some of his ideas may have been a little naïve, but still hopeful. Maybe naïve is not the right word, but idealistic. When he was talking about celebrating all cultures, he was thinking about them in the sense of "We'll celebrate this food; we'll have this dance" -but I don't think he was thinking about the hybrid that all these cultures would become. They're all overlapping in a way. So the naïve part is believing we can all stay in our own little slots. It's a neat, tidy way to celebrate the cultures, without it becoming problematic. But it is problematic in terms of how we envision what it means to be multicultural-in terms of the purities.

BLO I worked at this restaurant on College Street about two years ago, right before I left Toronto. Sort of pan-Asian, but also with Italian stuff. Fancy, but not really specific. It turned out there were three other half-Asians working there, which was shocking to me. I'd never seen that many in the same place! One was half-Irish, half-Filipino. Then there was a half-Chinese girl. And a guy who was half-Italian, half-Chinese.

AMN Was there a commonality between them?

BLO The one I talked to most was Ryan the bartender, the half-Filipino guy. We felt a bond being the same sorta ostracized half race. Even if I'm Korean and he's Filipino, we don't identify with that side as much as we identify with being in the middle.

AMN That's what came out of my film. It doesn't matter what the mix is. I don't know that being half Asian is specific to anything. I don't think talking about this should necessarily make us feel like we should bond and join another group and box ourselves into a half-Asian group. For me, that's not the point. Having this kind of dialogue is just to open up the complexities of identity. It's being in the middle that people can relate to and empathize with.

BLO Yeah, what people on one side or the other can't really see at all.

AMN That kind of push and pull that's always happening. You can't just say, "I'm definitely this" or "This is my homeland."

BLO The guys in the kitchen were mostly Sri Lankan, and they would ask me, "Where are you from?" A lot of actual, full-blooded immigrants ask that question.

AMN Because they don't think it's rude! Everyone asks them, so they think it's fine.

BLO I'd be confused by the question. "I'm from here." That answer is always disappointing to them.