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Canadian Nikkei Series

Canadian Nikkei: Oakville Sansei Dr. Erik Nabeta - Part 2

Read Part 1 >>

Have you ever been to Japan? What attracts you to it? Any contact with family there?

Yes, Tokyo. It was only four days, and I need to return. One of my favourite cities I’ve ever visited. Can’t wait to go back. I have a couple of Japanese friends that have said I need to visit Kyoto as well. I love Japanese culture for the respect they all carry. The city works so well because of this. My favourite example is the subway and watching people line up. When the train arrives, people wait in an orderly fashion as people exit. Everyone is quiet and respectful on the train as the train moves.

What is your relationship with your Cantonese roots?

In China/Hong Kong, it’s the exact opposite, and I hate it. The food is a huge draw. I do also feel like it’s filling a void I have in my life when I’m there. If I won the lottery, I would love to spend a part of the year there every year. I’ve asked my aunts/uncles if we do have family there. Akemi had said there is an aunt that was there that she tried to connect with but it never happened. I’ve thought about doing one of those ancestry traces, but I’ve wondered if they work in Asia. I have family in HK still and visited them when we were there in November. My grandmother is getting much older, and I wanted to see her before she starts to lose it. In a perfect world, I’d also like to go back more often to stay connected with them. I want Jaden to stay connected with all his family as he grows. Now that my family is spread out across Canada, this will require more work going forward.

Can you go into similar detail about your Mom’s history and how and when her family came to Canada?

Her name is Sylvia Ma. She was born in HK and moved here to study at U of T (University of Toronto). She got her Ph.D. in marketing/economics and was a professor at U of T Mississauga. She quit after her third kid. All of her family minus one aunt followed the same path. My parents met at U of T in undergrad. I want to say that was in the early seventies.

Can you talk a bit about what it was like to grow up in Oakville? How diverse was it? What schools did you attend?

Growing up here was great. We lived in the country for most of it, so there weren’t many issues. The people were always friendly but mostly ignorant of other cultural norms. I think now with the internet and social media more people are knowledgeable about different cultures. So as a kid, we were just the Asian kids and/or the Chinese kids. We wouldn’t bother with correcting them as it happened too often. I remember having one other kid at my elementary school who was Chinese, and one boy lived down the street from me when we lived in a townhome. So I wouldn’t say there was any racism just lack of exposure. I wouldn’t even call it ignorance because they would never know otherwise. I attended a private Christian school (Oakville Christian School) until grade 5 then went to Appleby College in Oakville after. They drew from all over the GTA and abroad so surprisingly I got more cultured there. I still stay connected to friends in Asia and around North America that were from Appleby.

Would you say that you were exposed to much Asian culture growing up? As you are an unabashed foodie, does this come from your family background?

As I met other Asian kids as I got older and changed schools, I was exposed to more Asian culture. On a relative scale, I wouldn’t say I was exposed to a lot as both my parents were more on the side of assimilating into the Canadian culture. It might have something to do with being in Oakville as my other cousins lived in Toronto and Markham, and they were more “Asian,” I’d say.

The foodie part didn’t start until I moved to Toronto and found out about all the options that were available. The most significant jump was beginning to date Christine as it was a big part of how we bonded. I still remember our first date, I went to her dorm room to eat and watch the original Japanese Iron Chef TV program. She made me a giant bowl of curry ramen, and I was hooked. I didn’t get exposed to sushi as a kid much because both parents were never sushi people and it was much more expensive. Mye was our only option in Oakville, and they said we’ll never go due to the price. Once I started university and was more on my own, that’s when it all started in Toronto. Even though there isn’t much, Oakville has exponentially more options for Japanese food now than before. However, after visiting Japan, I don’t have much interest in low-quality Japanese food anymore. We laugh that we’re more sushi snobs now. So we’ll drive distances for it now as opposed to going to the local all you can eat.

Do you have any food preferences? Does it shift from time to time?

Yes, it switches all the time. Christine is very weather based, so I usually have to follow her. My go-to comfort food would be HK street food. For high-quality special event dinners, I go with either Japanese or steak. Lately, we’ve been expanding our palates to involve everything that we come across. I always think I’d like to open a comfort food restaurant that would combine all the cultures that we’ve come across. I do believe we go through phases but another question I like to ask patients, “When you come back from a trip that’s been different from your norm, what’s your go-to food to bring you back home?” Ours is Hong Kong BBQ food (BBQ pork, BBQ duck, soy chicken on rice)

How would you describe your connection with Japan, Japanese culture and “Nikkeiness?”

I think from the lack of exposure; the connection was minimal until university and into the city. Then it hit a peak when we were able to go to Japan.

You play hockey and golf with some Nikkei guys, don’t you?

I played on a Nikkei hockey team after I moved back from Chicago, but they were all very Canadian as well. I only played golf with one Nikkei guy I grew up with, but he’s the same as me.

Can you talk a bit about your education and career path to becoming a chiropractor?

After high school, I always wanted to live in the big city. Not only wanting to live in a major city but get exposed to all the culture downtown. Especially the Asian culture that I wasn’t exposed to. I didn’t have a career goal at the time other than knowing I wanted something in health care. The Nikkei guy I grew up with, Brian Uchikata, his dad, is Paul Uchikata from Mississauga. His dad was a chiropractor, so I job shadowed him in my second and third years when I started to narrow my career choices. To me, it had the best combo of hands-on care and diagnostic ability compared to the other options.

My dad always wanted me to be a dentist, but I thought it was boring on what it treated. You’re staring at a mouth all day! I remember falling asleep when I job shadowed my dad’s associate.

Where and when did you and Christine meet? What is her relationship with your Japanese side?

Erik Nabeta with his wife Christine and son Jaden

We met at a chiropractic school in Chicago in 2001. She was in her second year when I was starting, and we were in the same dorm building. We always laughed that she was more Japanese than I was. She took a year of Japanese in undergrad and like many other Taiwanese, were obsessed with Japanese everything.

Can you talk a bit about her background and when her family arrived here in Canada?

She was born in Canada and then moved back immediately after she was born. So she grew up in Taiwan until she was 12. She moved back to Canada with her mom and has been here since. So we laugh that she is a half fob with an accent both ways.

Of course Jaden represents a new generation of Asian Canadians. What kind of hopes do you have for him to explore his “CanAsianess”?

I want to fill the gaps that I was missing. I want him to be speaking another language from the start and hopefully add some later. I want him to maintain a robust Asian side, which tends to disappear as the generations become deeper. That being said, he will know that he is a Canadian first. We are currently exploring if he will have the ability to get dual citizenship in either Hong Kong or Taiwan in case it may help him with a job later. Alternatively, at least it can help him travel easier.

Do you see signs of cultural changes here in Oakville and Canada that might signal that something different is in store for Jaden’s generation?

Yes, back to the foodie part, that’s probably the most natural sign to notice. We spoke a week or two ago about new ramen places coming to Oakville. Also, Tsujiri appearing at Square One. I think the foodie push that’s been happening the past few years is also helping to spread culture to the suburbs. That never happened when I was young. Also, some Canadian friends of mine joke that their kids are now the minority in the elementary schools. I know Maple Grove Public School in Oakville had a massive influx of Chinese students in the past couple of years. Their school sign also had messages in Chinese! I find more cultures now don’t have the assimilation pressure that our parents’ generation had. No changing of names or forcing English only. I joke with my teacher friends that bullying is on the way out. The kids don’t have the same pressure as we did.

How do you want your father’s generation to be remembered by future generations of Asian Canadians?

I do want the next generation always to know how different it was back then. The pressure to fit in quietly and be Canadian. They had to put up with a lot, probably more than we’ll ever know. Also, that doesn’t even take into account the internment camps. That’s probably why I want them to know they’re Canadian first because of what their grandparents went through to get them here. I believe when they travel outside of Canada someday, they’ll realize how lucky they are. Imagining myself picking up everything and leaving to another place doesn’t even sound possible to me. When I was young, one of my favourite quotes relating to hockey was “you’re going to have to work twice as hard to get noticed because you’re probably already starting behind in other people’s eyes.” I don’t know if that mindset will still be around when Jaden grows up, but that’s the mindset I’d like him to have.

What does being of Asian heritage mean to you? How does Christine define it for herself?

To me, it means coming from a distinctive culture with a distinct history. Moreover, I don’t want it to disappear from my family line. Language, food, mindset, history, art, everything. It’s impressive even when compared to other cultures. We’re on our own. The Canadian heritage is still vaguely defined when compared to many of the others, but it will solidify itself someday. Canada is such a baby compared to the rest of the world. This is a point in history that is so different from before because of the ease of travel. (Christine – “It is very important to me. I am so proud of it, and to me, it’s the best culture! I want to maintain it for my future lines, and hopefully, if I’ve done a good job, they will want to maintain it as well.”)


© 2018 Norm Ibuki

Canada chinese canadian food hapa identity Japanese Canadian Mixed

About this series

The inspiration for this new Canadian Nikkei interview series is the observance that the gulf between the pre-WW2 Japanese Canadian community and the Shin Ijusha one (post-WW2) has grown tremendously. 

Being “Nikkei” no longer means that one is only of Japanese descent anymore. It is far more likely that Nikkei today are of mixed cultural heritage with names like O’Mara or Hope, can’t speak Japanese and have varying degrees of knowledge about Japan.

It is therefore the aim of this series to pose ideas, challenge some and to engage with other like-minded Discover Nikkei followers in a meaningful discussion that will help us to better understand ourselves.

Canadian Nikkei will introduce you to many Nikkei who I have had the good fortune to come into contact with over the past 20 years here and in Japan. 

Having a common identity is what united the Issei, the first Japanese to arrive in Canada, more than 100 years ago. Even in 2014, it is the remnants of that noble community that is what still binds our community today.

Ultimately, it is the goal of this series to begin a larger online conversation that will help to inform the larger global community about who we are in 2014 and where we might be heading to in the future.