Discovering Duality

First generation Canadians describe search for cultural identity

Tuesday, April 7th, 2009

Discovering duality

At the age of seven, current University Students’ Council communications officer Amy Bi took a trip with her parents to Tianjin, China, where she had emigrated from less than two years earlier.

Much to the surprise of her family in China, however, Bi’s brief time spent in Edmonton, Alberta already had a large effect on her.

“That trip I had a pen and paper with me at all times so I could draw things because I knew nothing in Chinese anymore,” she says.

“It is kind of alarming how quickly you can forget your history and where you came from.”

Like many kids, Bi’s parents immigrated to Canada in order to provide better opportunities for the family. Along with the physical transition to a new country came the corresponding cultural transition.

“My parents were very adamant about entrenching me into Canadian culture as quickly as possible,” Bi says. “They pushed English on me right from the beginning and I learned it very quickly in daycare.”

According to Statistics Canada, immigrants have had an increasingly important role in driving Canada’s growth " by 2005-06 they accounted for almost two thirds of the country’s population growth.

While parents often associate with the country they emigrated from, their children often have a more difficult time connecting to their roots.

“I feel that the language piece, that’s the key to it all,” fourth-year Ivey student Fab Dolan says. “As soon as you lose that language, it all starts going downhill.”

At the age of seven, Dolan moved from Sao Paulo, Brazil to Aurora, Ontario, and soon lost interest in maintaining his mother tongue of Portuguese.

“When I was very young and first starting out school, my mom tried to speak Portuguese at home but [my sisters and I] all refused,” he says. “We just said ‘no, we want to fit in’ or ‘our friends speak English’ ... now, that’s one of my biggest regrets.”

While Dolan says he has retained certain aspects of his culture, many of these things are already prevalent in North America.

“The things that are easier to fit into this culture are the ones that stick around,” he says. “I watch soccer every weekend and it’s the one element of my culture I keep as my own, but it’s the easiest to keep since it is accepted in North America.”

In 1971, Canada became the first country to acknowledge the role of its immigrants and adopt a policy of multiculturalism, which had some effect on allowing immigrants and their descendants to identify with their homeland.

“In comparison to the United States, Canada has fostered much more of a connection to one’s cultural heritage,” Cameron Anderson, assistant professor of political science, says.

“The notion of ‘hyphenated Canadians,’ where people split their identification and allegiances, is a common thing. They are politically Canadian and culturally something a little bit different.

“Obviously that imposes some interesting dynamics for children of immigrants, if not immigrants themselves, on what their new connection is to this new place and how to balance complementary identities.”

For some, balancing identities can involve altering certain aspects of life to accommodate their new environment.

For Bi, this alteration came at age 12 when she changed her name from Yue-Yue to Amy.

“The only thing growing up I noticed about me that was different from other kids was my name,”

she says. “I remember having my friends call me Yue-Yue and having people mispronounce it all the time and wishing I had a name like Lisa or Sara.”

Interestingly, upon integrating into a new country, returning to one’s birthplace or ancestral home may no longer feel the same. Having visited Brazil, Dolan said it would be difficult to re-integrate into the culture.

“If I went back to Brazil right now, I wouldn’t fit in,” he explains. “It is like going back to your hometown that you moved from before university multiplied by a thousand. You have a strange connection to the place, so you don’t feel like you are traveling or that it’s a new experience, but it doesn’t feel like home.”

With nearly two thirds of recent immigrants arriving from Asia and Africa over the past decade, the cultural makeup of Canada is quickly becoming more diverse.

Nonetheless, the inevitable expectations of integration make retaining one’s culture difficult, particularly for children of first generation immigrants.

“There is clearly a tension between welcoming ethnic difference and the expectation of being rooted and settled in the Canadian context,” Anderson says.

“There is a push and a pull there, though, between the willingness of the state to foster a sense of welcoming to different cultures. At the same time, there are certain expectations that Canada, as a receiving country of immigrants, has.”

Regardless of the government’s efforts, ultimately the decision to affiliate with one’s cultural heritage has to come from within.

Since her initial trip to China, Bi has since regained the ability to speak Mandarin and recently taken a renewed interest in Chinese culture as a whole " something she never did earlier in life.

“As a kid I didn’t seek out that connection, I never really asked myself how I can be more Chinese or how I can learn more about my culture,” she says.

Having fully embraced her background, Bi has now come full circle and associates with both of her cultural identities.

“I can realistically picture China being part of my future more so than I ever did before.”

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