My cultural autobiography
I wrote this for the McGill class Multicultural Education. It is a Cultural Autobiography, a reflection on all the influences that have shaped me throughout my life. I still quite enjoy it as a piece of writing, and like the somewhat intimate tone I employ.
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It is very easy to define your own identity by your differences. This is a lesson I learned very quickly upon moving to Seoul, when a part of my identity I had up to that point taken for granted consumed my self-perception: I was suddenly a white Anglophone.
Of course, as English is my mother tongue this has been true since I learned how to talk, but growing up in British Columbia surrounded by other English speakers it was easy to forget. In Korea, many previously unheeded slices of my identity popped into vivid relief: teaching my students, I was an Adult; among my mainly American co-workers, I was a Canadian; towering at 6’5” over Koreans in the subway, I was Tall.
I also had an automatically-constructed identity thrust upon me as soon as I stepped off the plane in Seoul. I was the 어학원 선생님: the English Academy teacher. I taught for forty or more hours a week, hung out in big packs of westerners, stayed out late drinking, went on arranged tours around Korea on weekends, and largely didn’t involve myself in the social life of my community. But fortunately, my pre-Korea identity hadn’t died, just had been temporarily suppressed by the culture shock. As I noted in my blog a month in, “I only just found a place nearby to buy veggies, I only last weekend started to decorate my apartment, and I still haven’t managed to find a volleyball league or buy a bike. Part of this is the language barrier, but I’d say most is the lack of time, and my current need to use most of my weekend just relaxing.”
I started finding ways to incorporate the activities I enjoyed back in Vancouver into my life in Korea: a month in, I found a Korean volleyball team, and though only one person spoke any English, I joined their practices and games, even competing in a tournament. About six months in, I dropped into a university debate event (in English) and joined the Korean debate community, and at about the same time, I found some friends with whom to explore the Seoul gay community. It was frustrating having to work to set up these parts of my life, but it also helped me realize what I thought was worth working for, what parts of me I would not sacrifice to linguistic and cultural barriers.
I spent a year in Korea, and as well as being a learning experience and influence on my current identity, the year was a result of the confluence of many things happening in my life before Korea. And, like many narratives, I suppose I should start from the beginning.
The basics: I was born on May 29, 1987 to Brad and Sue McCarthy in Kelowna, BC: their firstborn son. I have ancestors from Ireland (hence the family name), England, Poland, other parts of Europe, and if memory serves I am eighth generation Canadian down one genealogical line; so I am white. My parents are both Anglophones and I went to the local public elementary school, so learned English as my first language, a good move that would one day set me up for a teaching job in Korea. My parents moved to Vancouver and had my middle brother, then moved to Victoria and got a two-for-one deal on children which gave me a little brother and sister.
I learned early that I was smart. I was a very early reader; in fact, while I am colour-blind, my Mom tells me it was difficult to tell since I had learned to read the labels on my crayons before passing them to her. I was discovered one day due to new crayons without labels, I suppose. Later, my Grade 3 teacher would always call me to do math with the Grade 4s in our split class. “The Grade 4s and Stephen turn to page 130,” she would say. I was pulled out of class for some time each week to work with a teaching assistant and wrote a short fantasy book, which my family fêted with a book launch at my grandparents. At lunchtimes, I would chase girls around the playground threatening to kiss them. (I wouldn’t realize the irony there until much later.)
I didn’t realize until high school that my family was fairly special, since most (though not all) of the adult role models I had growing up—my parents, both sets of grandparents, most of my aunts and uncles—were in stable nuclear families. One of my closest high school friends, who came from a blended family, would jokingly refer to me having “the perfect family.” The stability, constant support and unconditional love that my family provided was the base for my self-confidence, love of learning and desire to explore the many facets of the world. And, as I realized in Korea, that support still enables me to pursue my interests and take risks with the knowledge that there is always a strong safety net should I fall.
Looking back, I had a lot of opportunity in high school. I had taken piano lessons from a young age and started to play in our school’s jazz band. My school, a public school in the rich end of town, had good support for extracurriculars, and I joined the debate club and volleyball team in Grade 8. Debate I took to right away, but I was no good at volleyball until I grew into my body around Grade 11. Though school was easy, my teachers were for the most part engaging. Our school was not very culturally diverse, though one of my best friends had emigrated from China as a young boy.
Near the end of high school, I went to a Christian youth group to spend time with a girl I thought I liked. This was awkward for me, and I felt uncomfortable singing along with the praise songs: it felt dishonest as I was non-religious. My Dad calls himself “small-c christian,” having grown up within his parents’ Church and holding to the moral tenets while not believing in the divinity of Jesus. My Mom and her parents are non-religious, so I received an upbringing fairly removed from the practice of religion, though steeped in the culture of commercialized and secularized Christianity.
In Grade 12, a funny thing happened which changed the course of my life: I realized that I was gay.
I couldn’t write honestly about my influences as a young adult without writing about my aunt Colleen. In high school I would visit her and her girlfriend Sabrina each summer for a few days in the big city of Vancouver, but it wasn’t until I stayed there with a high school friend that I realized that she was gay. (For a smart guy I could also be quite dense.) My friend asked me upon returning, “Are your aunts gay?” I thought about that a minute and said “Yes.” I don’t remember my parents telling me—though it’s quite possible I have forgotten—but at that moment I knew.
My aunt was also the first family member I came out to. I had realized I liked guys in late high school, had a brief fling with a classmate and was ready to start letting people know in my first year at the University of British Columbia. Colleen asked one day if I had had any hot dates recently, to which I sheepishly replied yes. “What’s her name?” she inquired. “That’s kind of the wrong pronoun,” I said. We had a celebratory dinner.
I knew right away that my family would be supportive, but perhaps the perfectness of my family worked against me for once, because as I struggled with my own sexual identity, for a time I was convinced that a nuclear family—with a wife—was what I wanted even as I had sexual feelings towards guys. By university I had fortunately resolved this tension and by the end of first year came out to my parents.
Being gay has been fantastic. Since I came out after high school, at a liberal university in a liberal city, I didn’t experience the discrimination that too many queer youth suffer. I explored my new orientation and community academically, writing papers with a queer angle in film studies and family studies, and personally, going to Pride, making many queer friends on campus and joining the Vancouver Gay Volleyball Association.
However, I never just defined myself by my sexuality. I spent two excellent years as a Residence Advisor, I sang and danced my way through two residence musicals, and with Colleen I explored the cultural side of Vancouver. I had also landed a full-ride scholarship at UBC which allowed me to join the UBC Debate society and attend numerous tournaments while living the lifestyle I wanted and not worrying too much about money.
It was also in university that I started thinking about technology. I didn’t have a cellphone until second year, but as I was studying computer science, new technology became hard to avoid, and at UBC I developed into a consumer, competent user, and even creator of technology. However, I never got drawn into the professional tech world, and chose not to pursue a career in technology after graduating.
After graduation I spent several months unemployed and trying to beat the blues in the city—not a high point in my life. Then, as I was almost swallowed by the bad routines that come with being unproductive for too long, I got a simple email from a debate colleague: “Hey Steve, thought you might be interested in this,” followed by a Korean debate job posting. I stepped off a cliff and applied, and when I told my parents I would be moving there for a year I think it shocked them more than when I came out.
Many factors had brought me to Korea: my drive to explore nurtured by my family, my privilege at being born a North American Anglophone, my University degree, my love of debate, a desire to teach, and a network of friends helping me find a job, just to name some big ones. Of course, Korea also changed me. I left with a renewed appreciation of who I was and how I fit in culturally with the world. I grew confident that I could adjust and thrive in very different environments, and developed a matching desire to live in other cultures.
Living in Korea also directly influenced my current situation by convincing me that I love teaching and ironically rekindling my interest in French. I suspect that I was jealous that my students spoke more languages than I did, and since I know a lot more French than Korean decided I would improve that language. I took a chance and didn’t apply to teachers’ college out west, instead applying only to McGill in order to come to Montreal.
I left Korea in March and spent six months travelling for work and pleasure before starting class at McGill. My experiences in China and Thailand in those months stood out as I had to reflect on an identity issue I had up to now taken for granted: wealth and class. In Thailand especially, my whiteness marked me as automatically being able to afford about everything. While my family was not rich—while I was in high school my Dad was starting up a business and my Mom was working through the ranks in the federal government—I had grown up without want; this was continued due to my generous scholarship in university. I knew I was lucky, but money wasn’t something discussed much; suddenly in Asia my relatively abundant wealth was cast in sharp contrast with the surrounding environment.
In Montreal, I am at last in a less advantageous financial situation, paying for my second degree by working at summer camps and for the debate organization that took me to Korea. I do realize, though, that these in themselves are great opportunities that reflect the privileges I have been gifted with; I have never had to work in retail or food service, for example, and with luck will never have to. My high level of access to education, influenced by my ability, family support, and good elementary and secondary education, is certainly one of the highest privileges of which I have the honour.
So who am I today? As is natural, my identities as a western Canadian and an Anglophone are making themselves evident in relation to the people I interact with daily. I am a French learner, occasionally delighted and often frustrated by the language. I am a student of teaching. I still engage in debate, both on a volunteer and paid basis. I am exploring the gay community, the volleyball community, and the gay volleyball community of this city. I am a roommate, often honoured and occasionally frustrated to share space with two new friends.
But I am also constantly changing. My identity, initially formed in a context of little cultural diversity and refined by my experiences abroad, will certainly be refined and challenged by this multicultural, multilingual city. All my life experiences say it will be a great adventure.