I’m Chinese Romanian. It took moving to Toronto to meet someone like me

This First Person column is the experience of Angelina King who is Chinese Romanian. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

I’ve never got to discuss being Chinese Romanian with anyone outside my family — until this month when I met a Chinese-Romanian chef in Toronto.

I grew up navigating two cultures in Saskatoon, which was difficult all on its own, but I didn’t think too much about it.

It was routine to have a lamb roasting on a spit in the backyard every summer while my dad cooked a stew in a cauldron over an open fire. I didn’t question crushing grapes with my feet as a child for homemade wine. Or having yet another Romanian person stay at our family’s home while they settled in Canada.

Angelina King and her dad, Ilie Irinici, preparing for their family’s annual lamb roast in 2011. (Angelina King/CBC)

Similarly, I looked forward to getting red envelopes on Lunar New Year from my mom. Dim sum with chicken feet and tripe was a weekend ritual and I felt special when my mom brought home the Chinese lion dance costume for me to try on.

I grew up hearing both Romanian and Taishanese in my home. As I got older, I realized this was “different” from my friends’ upbringing, but I was still proud of my cultures.

There was that time though, on the playground when a boy pulled the skin across his eyes, chased me down the slide and called me a racial slur.

Growing up in a mixed-race family in Saskatoon could be complex at times, but Angelina King writes she’s always been proud of her cultures. (Angelina King/CBC)

Most encounters now are more complicated. I often grapple with an inner dialogue after someone insults Chinese people either knowing, or not knowing, I’m Chinese. I quickly decide if I have the energy to say something: do I speak up and educate them? 

Once, after I called out a good friend for making an offensive comment, she said, “Well, you’re not that Chinese.”

Then, how Chinese am I?

When you’re mixed race, rediscovering culture means rediscovering two cultures. It can be complex and confusing — why do I say I’m Chinese Romanian and not Romanian Chinese? It can be a fragile balance ⁠—  wanting to ensure respect is paid to both cultures equally. It can bring up feelings of guilt —  wishing I was more connected to both my cultures.⁠⁠

Meeting the other Chinese Romanian

For me, part of rediscovering my cultures is learning from others and hearing their stories.

When I read an article about Haan Palcu-Chang, a Chinese-Romanian chef in Toronto, I knew we had to connect. Aside from his sister, I’m now the only other Chinese Romanian he knows.

After cooking Asian food for most of his career, Palcu-Chang recently opened a Romanian pop-up restaurant called Mamaliga, which he says helps connect him to a culture he was afraid of losing. 

Haan Palcu-Chang is pictured with his Chinese grandparents at his first cooking job in high school. He says he connected to his Chinese culture mainly through food as he was growing up. (Supplied/Haan Palcu-Chang)

I asked Palcu-Chang what he tells people when he’s asked a question we both get often: what are you?

His answer: mixed.

For him, being mixed is an identity all its own.

“We forget that being mixed is the story in itself that is totally on its own and totally valid,” he said.

WATCH | Haan Palcu-Chang and I cook his Romanian grandmother’s apple cake and talk about being mixed:

Chinese-Romanian chef meets the only other Chinese-Romanian he’s heard of: a CBC Toronto reporter

Being mixed race, Toronto chef Haan Palcu-Chang says he has focused on Asian cooking for the majority of his career, which helped him connect with his Chinese side. After the recent death of one of his Romanian grandparents, he opened up a Romanian pop-up restaurant called Mamaliga, helping him connect to a culture he was afraid he was going to lose. CBC Toronto’s Angelina King is also Chinese-Romanian. She caught up with Palcu-Chang to talk about family, cooking and navigating two different cultures. 5:24

Like me, Palcu-Chang grew up with more Romanian influence. When our Chinese families immigrated to Canada — mine to Saskatchewan, his to Toronto — they felt a great need to assimilate.

“When you’re made fun of and ridiculed and beaten up because of your ethnic background, you want to integrate as fast as possible,” he said.

“But I think everybody on the Chinese side is trying to rediscover those roots now because they realize what a shame it was that they didn’t have that growing up.”

My Chinese grandfather and his brother legally changed the family’s last name from Mack to McHanson. The family owned a cafe in Leask, Sask., and his father’s name, Mack Hun Sun, would often get returned squished together on paperwork. A Scottish RCMP officer who frequented the cafe would joke and say, “You’re not Mack Hun Sun, you’re a “McHanson!” 

So, my Chinese mother grew up with a Scottish last name. It was easier to do business.

Angelina King’s maternal grandpa, Leo McHanson, top right, and his brother legally changed the family’s last name to McHanson so business could run more smoothly in Leask, Sask. (Angelina King/CBC)

Palcu-Chang’s main connection to his Chinese side was food, but he thought of himself as more Romanian — until he lived in Europe.

“That was the first time where I was forced to think of myself as Asian because everybody was like, ‘Oh, you’re clearly fresh off the boat Chinese,'” he said.

“And I was like, ‘Huh? I never thought of myself like that. Nobody in Canada ever thought of me like that,'” he said of his time in Denmark. “They were shocked that I could speak English fluently.”

We both acknowledge the privilege that comes along with being racially ambiguous, especially since Romanians have white skin.

Our full Chinese family members don’t have that privilege. 

When my mom and aunt were in university they tried to rent an apartment in Saskatoon but were turned down because of their race. My mom is a retired teacher and she’s had parents request children not be in her class because she’s Chinese. When the pandemic hit and there were stories of racist attacks on Chinese people, my dad didn’t want my mom to leave the house alone. 

Connecting to culture through Romanian cooking  

Palcu-Chang says he always wanted to cook and serve Romanian food, but wasn’t sure if there was a market for it. But after his Romanian grandfather died earlier this year, he realized he and his sister would soon be his family’s last link to the culture in Canada. So, he opened Mamaliga.

Haan Palcu-Chang says the death of his grandfather earlier this year pushed him to open Mamaliga. With his grandmother and mom getting older, he knew he and his sister would eventually be his family’s last connection to Romania in Canada and he didn’t want to lose the culture. (Supplied/Haan Palcu-Chang)

He says Romanians have been travelling from across Ontario for his pop-up lunches. Palcu-Chang has been cooking old family recipes, learning new ones and taking requests from guests.

The biggest takeaway is “definitely feeling a connection to a culture that I felt I was going to lose ties to,” he said.

He says that connection comes from conversations with his grandma about old recipes, asking his mom about ones he’s found online and connecting with family in Romania about dishes he ate during his visits. His cousins in Romania proofread the menu for correct translations. 

Then, there’s meeting fellow Romanians.

“The food is striking a certain chord with them, and they’re all very excited about it, and that inspires them to come to me with ideas. … I’m really appreciating it. I feel emotional just talking about it,” he said.

Mamaliga’s pop-up lunches run every third or fourth Sunday and typically sell out. Pictured here is saramura de peste, which is a fish stew made with fire roasted sweet peppers and served with polenta. (Supplied/Haan Palcu-Chang)

Meeting and speaking with Palcu-Chang validated experiences and feelings I’ve had that I wasn’t able to fully articulate. We laughed when we shared our cultural coincidences, but they’re more than that. They’re experiences unique to just us; growing up and navigating the world being Chinese Romanian. 

At the end of our conversation, Palcu-Chang said something I imagine will resonate with anyone who is mixed race:

“We don’t have to be Chinese or Romanian. We can be mixed. That’s a powerful thing to understand, that we are creating our own stories. That’s nothing to not feel proud about.”

This story is a part of a CBC Toronto series called Rediscovering Culture, which takes a look at how people in the GTA are reconnecting with, rediscovering and reclaiming their cultural roots. If you have a story to share about how you are rediscovering your culture, get in touch at this link or send us an email at rediscoveringculture@cbc.ca

Do you have a compelling personal story that can bring understanding or help others? We want to hear from you. Here’s more info on how to pitch to us.

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