Racial assumption and misidentification lingered with author Jia Faner. (LinkedIn photo)
Heritage and identity don’t always meet eye-to-eye
In conversation with Jia Faner, author of “57%”
By Carlo Javier
Jia Faner was running late. It was only a little past noon, but the overcast clouds suggested otherwise. The colourless sky offered a grim reminder of the haze that enveloped much of British Columbia for most of August. There was a little bit of rain, enough that the sound of tires driving past puddles of rainfall became somewhat of an element in the ambience of New Westminster’s Old Crow Coffee Co. It was chilly, too. September was still in its nascent days, but summer was very clearly already on its way out.
The café was not busy, but patrons were scattered throughout its several tables. I sat near the front counter, at one of the remaining unoccupied high tables. I realized that while the café is indeed a terrific location, it might not exactly be the best spot for an interview. It was loud, but not an irritating type of loud as the place was not so busy. It was just that the sound system seemed too clear, too well-performing, and too much of a powerhouse for a small, artisan coffeeshop.
Faner doing a reading of “57%”. At right is Miriam Matejova, editor of Wherever I Find Myself, Stories of Immigrant Women (Provided)
I did not know what Faner looked like and the only possible physical indicator I knew about her was that she is Filipino. Racial identity was one of the central themes of “57%” – Faner’s chapter in the third volume of Wherever I Find Myself: Stories by Canadian Immigrant Women – citing her experience and feelings after being misidentified as of Chinese descent. I sent an email: “I’m at Old Crow now, just by the front counter. I’m wearing a Raptors hat.”
When a group of customers started to build by the counter, I correctly guessed that she would be among the small crowd. “Sorry, I forgot I had to park,” she told me after our quick introduction.
Faner was born in Manila and moved to Vancouver when she was 10 years old. She recently graduated from the University of British Columbia with an Honours English Degree and a minor in Law and Society. As an intern at the Canadian Women in Literary Arts, she serendipitously came across a call for submission from Caitlin Press. In retrospect, she admitted to having little to no inclinations as to what type of story she might submit. “I was trying to think about times in my life where my status as a migrant kind of came out,” she recalled.
“57%” rests on the intersection of two personal stories.
In this third anthology in the Canadian women series by Caitlin Press, Canadian immigrant women from a variety of ethnicities and intersecting identities share their diverse and personal stories. (Caitlin Press)
One about Faner’s experience with racial misidentification, and the other centres on the results of her father’s National Geographic Genographic DNA Ancestry Kit. Together, the two proposes a scenario that borders on philosophy – though important, does heritage hold inseparable dominion on someone’s personal identity?
The first anecdote recalls a seemingly innocuous incident involving her boyfriend’s extended family. Faner’s boyfriend is white and during a family gathering, one of his uncles mistakenly assumed that Faner is Chinese. Although the potentially contentious situation was defused fairly quickly and easily, the thought of racial assumption and misidentification lingered with Faner.
The other story takes from the results of her father’s ancestry test. As it turns out, her dad is 57 per cent Chinese and is only 35 per cent Southeast Asian. In her chapter, Faner wrote that her dad reacted to the revelation eagerly, even recalling a conversation they had regarding his jovial reception.
“There’s so much more to being Chinese, you don’t know Chinese, you’ve never been to Mainland China, there’s so much more to being some type of race than whatever this test gives you,” she remembered telling him.
“My dad and I still joke about it,” she adds. “He’ll joke about how he’s half-Chinese.”
For Faner, though the results certainly provided an interesting factoid about her ancestry, it ultimately is just that – an interesting note. When I asked her if it matters now that she happens to be at least 20 per cent Chinese, her response was quick and assured. “I don’t think it does, but I think you can let it,” she said. “I think because I’m so removed from it in my lived-experience, its just kind of a fun anecdote.”
Doubt was apparent when Faner first wrote her story. She admitted to having been short on confidence regarding the quality of her piece, and even recalled the supportive, albeit unenthused reception she received from her alpha readers. Furthermore, the release of the printed copy of the book did not resonate with her in ways she thought it would. It was not until the public readings did the magnitude of her work truly started to hit her. “I wasn’t really feeling that great about the story when I sent it in,” she said. “I didn’t really know what I wanted people to take from it, so I was really surprised to find that people found it funny.”
Yet the most profound by-product of “57%” might be the opportunity for self-reflection. Faner openly described herself as “not a very good Filipino,” citing her lacking grasp of the language and a number of cultural nuances. She also opened up about the prevailing presence of ‘white-worshipping’ among Filipinos and her family. “Skin-whitening soap, not staying out in the sun, make sure you don’t get too dark – that’s what it mostly was for me,” she said. “I definitely get that growing, that wanting to be something else.
With her latest work, some of those reservations may have been dispelled. “I think I realized how Filipino I am,” she said. “I don’t feel remotely Chinese, I felt a little bit more assured, I think.”