Asian Monsters : Eliza Chan

The monster who breaks the ice with, “Where are you from?”

By Eliza Chan

“I’m from Glasgow.”

“No, where are you from originally?”

It’s the conversation opener that every person of colour has been on receiving end of. The persistent refusal to accept that I’m, as I say I am, Scottish. I bat it off, tell the asker that I’m from my mother’s womb, glare at them, pretend not to hear. But they don’t give up. They ask again, perhaps, I didn’t hear them the first time.

“Where were you born? Your home land? Your ethnic origin?”

I was born in a hospital just south of Loch Lomond. I have a West coast accent and I worked in a kilt shop when I was a student.

“Ah, you are from China,” comes the sage reply when I finally capitulate. As if, now that a neat label has been put on my ethnic origin, it makes everything better. That the unknown quality was worrying them too much to just talk to me. And the thing is, if they bothered getting to know me, it would come up. I talk about my mum with her Chinese traditions, my husband cooking Asian food, my terrible Cantonese and my trips to Hong Kong.

I always knew we were different. We lived in a commuter town near Glasgow, one of only three Chinese families in the local area. I convinced the kids at primary school that Jackie Chan was my uncle and that I could kung-fu paralyse them with two fingers. I was jealous of their Sunday roasts, going to church and having special spoons just for soup.

But guess what? The belligerent questions don’t just come from White-British people.

When I first went to university in Edinburgh, other Asian students kept asking me if I was a BBC. I shook my head, having no affiliation with the TV channel, until it was finally explained to me.

“You are. A BBC- British Born Chinese. A banana.”

The Asian international students saw me, and other British-Chinese people, as yellow on the outside, white on the inside. Bananas. I speak Cantonese like a 5 year old and I didn’t know the origins of the Dragon Boat or Harvest Moon festivals. I don’t believe in the healing properties of herbal soup, I have showers in the morning and sometimes, I even wear my shoes indoors!

There’s a spectrum within the British-Chinese community. Some are immersed in Chinese culture. Their friends are Chinese, they grew up watching wuxia dramas and singing Canto pop on home karaoke machines. On the opposite end are those who want to fit in with Western friends, who refuse to speak Chinese and reject Asian friendships. But most of us vacillate between the two. I found it difficult to make Chinese friends growing up. Within the already small community, finding people who love fantasy and geekdom was even more difficult. There didn’t seem to be space for reading, writing, crafting, philosophical debates with friends. The likelihood is, if I had stayed in Glasgow, I would have rejected most of my Chinese culture.

But I moved.

I moved to Japan because I loved anime and J-pop. But I also moved because I never tired of asking my mother how she had survived in the UK, 17 and illiterate, speaking not a word of English, and only learning how to use a knife and fork on the plane. She just got on with it. And I wanted to do the same thing. To challenge myself to live in a country where I didn’t speak the language.

Japan was a culture shock to me in a way it might not be to other gaijin. I had no problem with the daily rice meals, the unidentifiable meats, the chopsticks and noodle slurping. I had a problem with being invisible. Suddenly I went from being the one person of colour at most events, to another anonymous Asian face. My colleagues with their white skin got special treatment, strangers complimenting them, making allowances, whereas all I got was a confused look as I stumbled over Japanese words.

There are so many local events in Japan. From the onidaiko devil drumming festival in Sado to the belly button festival in Furano, traditions are still well and truly alive. Hello Kitty is seen in every souvenir shop with a different food or clothing to denote the local area and tourists flock to buy the regional foods as gifts.

“What festivals do you have in Glasgow? What are your local foods? Your local costume?”


For this first time, I was not questioning if I was Chinese enough, I was questioning if I was Scottish enough. I didn’t have all the answers. I had to Google some, shrug off the others. And perhaps no-one knows all the answers. Because my experience is Glasgow, and around Glasgow. I couldn’t speak for the islands, the Borders, the east coast. Heck, I couldn’t even speak for the south-side of Glasgow.

When I was in Japan, an American colleague said something that stays with me. Her husband was Japanese and they had several children together. She told me that in Japan, they call mixed race children “hafu”, much like we might say they were half-Japanese.  No-one was calling her children half of anything. “No,” she said. “My children are doubles.” Both Japanese and American, they have double the language, double the culture, double the joy.

And it’s only when I came to accept this dual identity that I stopped asking if I was enough of anything. The culture of the British-Chinese community is divergent from both Chinese and British. It’s not less, or half, it’s simply different. We have different words from Hong Kong Cantonese, different dishes in our restaurants. The big night out is Monday and weddings are often on Tuesdays, because the Chinese takeaways usually closed on Tuesdays. We all remember the worn VHS tape of a badly dubbed anime or drama, making its rounds through various families as the static lines grew with each rewind. We remember clingfilm on the TV remote and plastic on the dining room chairs. Christmas is widely celebrated by my generation but dependent on family, it has been lovingly hewn together like a delicious Frankenstein’s monster with fried rice instead of potatoes or roast pork instead of pigs in blankets. And even all of that is changing as more people get graduate jobs, find work outside of the takeaways, with people who have come from mainland China, Singapore, Malaysia and other countries.

Asian Monsters is a double, a Western-Eastern hybrid that has spawned something that new. And as much as I love folklore and mythology, I’m glad there is this creation, this monster still evolving as we evolve with it.


Winter Tales : ‘Yukizuki’

by Eliza Chan

‘Yukizuki’ means snow lover.

Before I moved to Japan, I thought I knew what seasons were. In the UK we get a smattering of snow in winter and a glimpse of sun in summer. I never realised the true extremities that seasons can bring until I lived in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is the northern-most island of Japan and here winters last from about November to April. Snow falls so thick that the snow ploughs only scrape off the surface layer and pile it up in metre high walls at the sides of the roads. And then when the snow finally melts, Hokkaido becomes the breadbasket of Japan: renowned for its dairy products, seafood, beer and fresh flowers.

These opposing forces are what I love about Hokkaido and about the yuki onna folktale. A yokai who is as cold as winter and yet in the most famous version of the tale by Lafcadio Hearn’s Kwaiden, she also loves. She brings beauty and life but also death. Her tale has captured the imaginations of many for this same reason. I loved that she is reminiscent other Asian female spirits: Lady White Snake or the nine-tailed fox. But yuki onna is also the a version of the universal snow queen who exists in nearly every culture across the world that has a snowy season.

When I first moved to Sapporo, I loved the snow. Rather than the chance day or two we have in the UK, we were given guaranteed months and months of powder white. It was the snow you saw in children’s films and on Christmas cards. It made houses look like they should be made of gingerbread. But snow can also lower spirits. Nights were long and walking home after work on the slipping pavements lost its novelty. It became a chore, a hindrance to socialising, to getting places. I nearly started to dislike winter until I took up snowboarding. There were snow and ice festivals across Hokkaido but snowboarding was something I could look forward to at all those other times. The times it would have been very easy to stay at home and mope. I’ve never liked competitive sports or felt the need for speed therefore my friends going off-piste and trying tricks, soon grew bored of my leisurely curves as I would stop and admire the view.

Somewhere, on a gondola perhaps, or admiring the view on a solo ride, the yuki onna came back to me. I wrote a traditional retelling of the tale at first, set in feudal Japan. But it felt wrong. Like most folktales the motivation for what the characters did was sparse. I wanted to fill in those gaps, give them a life before and after the story ended. And for me, yuki onna became more than a woman. The restrictions that had been placed on her were a human conceit. If she was a spirit, it did not matter what form, what body she possessed. She is simply the winter.