FOCUS ON YOU, PODCAST INTERVIEW

Czech-Iraqi-Canadian Author Elen Ghulam

Canadian author Elen Ghulam was born to a Czech mother and an Iraqi father. She spent her youth going back and forth between the two cultures and languages. Mother to three grown children, she is a writer, flamenco dancer, an artist, and a hostess-chef extraordinaire.

I’m a firm believer that everyone is unique, that everyone has their superpower and their own personality, but when I look up the word “unique” in my dictionary, I find Elen’s name, photo and website (“Novels to elevate your mind, move your heart, delight your senses and free your soul”)!! 

During my first year at university, away from home for the first time, I was drawn to Elen by the way she laughed with abandon. Her whole body would shake from her hearty roar of delight, and you could sense that her whole spirit laughed with you too (but never at you). That made her incredibly special to me. She was the older sister I never had. She was my first Muslim friend and thanks to her, I had my first experience with Ramadan. Watching her fast all day for her faith and then breaking fast at sunset was so amazing to me.

Join us in as we reunite virtually after decades apart.

We talked about how:

  • Due to her Czech/Iraqi background, from a young age Elen had a lot of experience with different perspectives in the world. Who knows who is right? You have to think for yourself! She grew up in an environment where she could question anything. Thinking critically was actively encouraged.
  • Prior to having kids, she had the fantasy of being the best mother in the world—you know, Mother Theresa + Mary Poppins + Mr. Rogers all mushed together! Lovable and strict. The kids would be the most awesome kids in the world, excelling in everything. But then she became a mother and realized that it was much harder than she thought.
  • She learned to be forgiving toward her parents because no matter what, you will mess up. You have to find ways to forgive yourself.
  • She brought up her children with no TV in the house because she wanted them to grow up in a ‘wholesome’ environment. The kids loved Sundays, when they would visit their grandparents… and watch TV! Now in their 20s, their noses are stuck behind smartphones, just like everyone else. On the other hand, they never ate fast food and to this day, they remain foodies who like to eat well (i.e., not at MacDonald’s.)
  • After 18 years as a computer programmer, Elen ended up taking a leave for a year and a half to take care of her son when he fell ill. She then discovered that she did not want to return to work. The situation made her realize that life was short and she wanted to do what she really wanted to do: write. She picked something she was passionate about over what society deemed “appropriate”.
  • She believes that creativity is an extension of the Creator. A way to connect with your spiritual side and your truth. It’s a hopeful and joyful exercise.

As an experienced mother of three grown children, her message is this: 1) Forgive yourself. You are going to mess up. You are human! Who knows what the right way to parent is anyway! 2) Let it go. You have no control. Parenting is a constant source of eating humble pie.

Elen currently lives in Vancouver with her husband after raising their three grown children. I highly recommend visiting her at her websitewww.ihath.com to read her incredibly joyous writing.

STORYTELLING

Chinese, Not Chinese

After living at home with my parents up to the age of 18, I moved from Taipei, Taiwan, where I was born, to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada to attend university. I was (am) Chinese ethnically, and (sort of) culturally, and (not perfectly) linguistically. But I’m not from China, was not born in China, do not have a Chinese passport, and do not align myself with the government of the People’s Republic of China. I don’t read simplified Chinese from China, I barely read traditional/complex Chinese from Taiwan. I sound native Chinese with a light Taiwan accent until I start trying to use words for business or history or art… or… really anything more than eating and living daily life… or idioms.

I didn’t realize how complicated I felt about my origin and background until I went to university in Canada, the country of my citizenship… partially because I lived in Canada nowhere near as long as I had lived in the US and Taiwan up to that point in my life. A typical conversation went like this:

New friend (NF): So, where are YOU from?

Me: I’m from Taiwan.

NF: So, you are Taiwanese.

Me: No… I’m Chinese.

NF: So, you are from China?

Me: No, I was born in Taiwan.

NF: So you are…Taiwanese?

Me: NO!  I’m definitely not Taiwanese!

NF: I’m confused.

Me: [Background about Republic of China and Communist China as I understood it in my limited way. As I never really studied it in school… only learned about it through my parents.]

NF: Uh, okay.  But why is your English so good?  It sounds native.

Me: Oh, my English is better than my Chinese.

NF: It is?  Why?

Me: [Background about leaving Taiwan when I was 3 and moving around in California and then returning to Taiwan at age 12.]

NF: So you’re American?

Me: No, I’m Canadian.

NF: But you lived in the US?

Me: Yes, but we immigrated to Canada in between.

NF: ?!?!?

Yeah. So, I was sort of treated like an international student, until I opened my mouth. Then people just assumed I was Canadian. But my Canadian knowledge was very limited. I actually knew a lot more about American history than anything else due to going to an American school where we studied American history in grades 10 and 11.

NF: Let’s watch hockey this weekend!

Me:  Uh, okay! Sounds… fun…

NF: blah blah blah, the Kings, blah blah, the Great One, blah blah…?

Me: The… Great… One?

NF: You don’t know who the Great One is?!?!?!?!?

Me: No…?

NF: Wayne Gretzky!

Me: Sure!  Wayne Gretzky!  (Eek?!?!?!?)

NF: [Looks quizzically at me, like, what kind of Canadian are you anyway?!?!?!?]

To be honest, I felt neither here nor there. I never felt like I was ‘in’ an ‘in group’ because I am always an outsider. I’m not really ‘local’ anywhere. No one truly ever understood my background. I moved around approximately every one or two years by the time I was 25. I was really good at surviving and adapting to a new environment right away… but I wasn’t very comfortable getting too close to people.

I’ve both felt very protective of people from Taiwan, but at the same time, did not want to insult people from China. The whole issue around the economy and independence is political and I didn’t like politics. And while I have experienced some anti-Chinese racism and challenges, for the most part, I have felt fortunate. I don’t fit with the Taiwanese group, I don’t fit with the Chinese group… and I don’t quite fit in with the expats.

As I contemplated this, I realized that we all feel this way, we just use different categories. We can feel ‘out’ due to our height, weight, gender, socio-economic status, schools we went to, clubs we didn’t join, athletic prowess (or lack of!), and… and… and…!

The answer is to find people we connect with, not feel rejected or left out by groups we don’t join. We can find people who care about the same things, people who also have racially mixed kids, working moms, Untigering parents, third culture kids, people who love Hamilton, neighbours whose kids go to the same schools… I’m Chinese, Not Chinese. I’m Canadian, Not Canadian. But actually, I’m Chinese-Canadian and lots of other things… and yet not any label. I’m just me.

You be you. I’ll be me. And when we come together, let’s have a good time.