The Quarter-Life Crisis of a First Generation Immigrant Part I: Between Forks and Chopsticks

When I was in my senior year of high school, I remember applying to one of the more prestigious admission scholarships offered by U of T. Amongst the many, many written responses I had to submit, I remember one that was the most obscure - I was asked to pick out one word from a list of words, and write a short essay based on it. I chose "grit" (trust me the other words weren't much better) and ended up writing this crazy analysis on the state of multiculturalism in Canada, mostly focusing on its negative side and unleashing my disappointment in what I called an "empty idealism". Needless to say, I didn't get the scholarship. After the epic failure that was my application, I sort of dropped my viewpoint on multiculturalism entirely. I had arrived at U of T, an innocent med school hopeful, and suddenly most of my thoughts were devoted to making sure that I was keeping up with school, and not accidentally forgetting to write a midterm or something. During this time, I realized that people kept on asking me if I was CBC (Canadian-Born Chinese). I am not, though I used to often experience a sense of pride in my unique "white-washed" identity. Ironically, in first year while other Asian kids might have been trying to adapt to the Canadian culture, I was having a tough time re-assimilating into this heavily Asian-populated environment, which mostly involved seeing the benefit of sporting the "fobby" look, and understanding why people hold up their fingers in a "peace" sign when being photographed, despite the fact that the hippie movement is long gone. Over the years, however, it became increasingly clear to me that "going back" to my Chinese ways was all too easy. I realized that, much to my own surprise: 1. My body does not fare well if I go for a week or more without Chinese food. 2. I like Chinese songs and the poetic nature of the lyrics. Also, if I try hard enough, I can still read in Chinese! 3. Despite my efforts to meet people from all types of backgrounds, over 60% of my friends on Facebook are Chinese. I feel that often it's easy to hang out with them because we come from similar backgrounds and have a lot in common. It was in this way that I found myself again starting to wonder about what "multiculturalism" truly means: does it give Canadians a unique sense of identity, and thus bring us together? Or does it actually take away the strength of individual cultures that unites its people? It's like putting oil and water and pepper in one cup: it might look pretty and well-mixed when you temporarily shake it up, but what if that essential driving force is missing? What if one force - the need for oil particles to be with oil particles - dominates over another? The mixture would never be truly homogeneous. Similarly, is there actually such a thing as a "mixed-culture" culture? Or are we, as a nation and more specifically, as the largest university in Canada, simply under an illusion of "multiculturalism" when in reality we still see our identity as being, for example, specifically Chinese, or Korean, or French, or Iranian? More importantly, what do I see myself being? Am I Canadian? Chinese? Or somewhere in between the fork and chopstick culture? This past summer, I sat in front the TV watching the summer Olympics in Beijing, and I didn't know which country to cheer for. My best friend, who's half British and half Canadian, used to always complain to me about how it seems that "minorities" in this school - although I can hardly call the Chinese population here a "minority" - seem to "have it easy" simply because the cultural similarity creates a special bond that eludes most Caucasian students who were born here. Apparently, people of a similar ethnic background have their own "niche" to belong to, with all the hype around student organizations such as the Chinese Undergraduate Association at University of Toronto (CUAUT). Apparently, it's unfair because unfortunately the white kids can't establish a "WUAUT" because then they'd be called racist. Apparently, in this sense and in so many other ways, life for first generation immigrants is perceived as being easy. For the next few posts, I'll be delving into some of the deeper issues underlying this whole "first generation immigrant" status that I will forever hold, despite that I've come to see Canada as my second home, and myself as a Canadian and nothing else. By addressing the various life challenges that my generation faces, I'd like to rebuke the belief amongst those who don't know the whole story, that for whatever reason students like me "have it easy". Whether you are a first generation immigrant like myself, or an international student, moving to a new country is tough, and the process of trying to "get" the new culture and fit in, is even tougher. Since we've all come this far, I'd like to share with you my experiences, and let you know that for whatever difficulty you are experiencing in your life as a result of this drastic transition, you are not alone. --Lucy p.s. This is just in: CALSS Workshop: First Generation, Second Families Are you torn between university and the culture(s) you grew up in? Are you among the first in your family to go to university? To be in this country or this atmosphere? To be "here"? Join us in talking about these experiences, and about ways to find and strengthen relationships, both old and new Tuesdays, February 24, March 3 and March 10, 2-4pm with Olivera Bojic (Ph.D., C. Psych.) and Michel'e Bertrand (Graduate intern) at Counselling and Learning Skills Service, University of Toronto Register or inquire at Counselling and Learning Skills Service University of Toronto 214 College Street (corner St. George) 416.978.7970; mail to: