Children of the Immigrant Experience: On Losing My Culture

Part II of the Children of the Immigrant Experience series.

As a kid you read stories about children learning about their traditional cultures. These are usually the children of immigrants, whose parents want them educated about the traditions of the “old country,” to keep the old traditions alive in their generation, and to be proud of who they are.

Chinatown

Vancouver Chinatown. Gates on Pender St.

In politics and society you often hear about groups rallying for the preservation of traditional cultures. In Canada, this is probably the biggest political debate (next to the legalization of marijuana, heh). These debates mainly centre around the First Nations people and the French Canadians. The former want their traditions and land preserved, the latter want their language. I’m of neither descent, so I cannot speak for them, but I do represent perhaps the third biggest visible minority: Asian-Canadians.

What I wanted to address today is losing cultures. It seems to me that many of those who advocate for young people to retain their cultures are either the young people’s parents or outside forces. I mean, it’s very PC for a white person to encourage a non-white immigrant or child of an immigrant to keep practising their culture. However, I notice that the immigrant or immigrant-child may have different views.

red lanternTruth is, many of my friends and myself with a similar background (born in Canada, or raised in Canada since a very young age) have very little interest in our traditional cultures. We’re not “ashamed” of ourselves or anything, we just don’t like that lifestyle as much as our North American one. We grew up North American, eat North American food, do North American recreational activities. We prefer hiking in the Canadian wilderness over singing karaoke. We’d rather expand our skills in English and French than study Chinese or Korean. I can already hear people lamenting the effects of assimilation. We’re not “assimilated.” We grew up in this culture, and we love it, and we’re proud of it, and frankly we can’t relate much to a country across the sea. It’s our choice.

I went to a high school where there were basically 2 “cliques”: “white-washed” Asian-Canadians and the FOBs (Fresh-off-the-boat). I always had the feeling that FOBs looked at us with disdain. FOBs, immigrants who arrive later on in life, adamantly hold onto their roots: they only speak their traditional languages in the halls with other FOBs, they karaoke on the weekends, and they complain about young people not being able to have “fun” in a “boring” place like Canada. And they probably look down on us as sell-outs to white culture. But us “white-washed” kids aren’t too fond of them either: we think they dress strangely, should speak more English, and go outdoors for a change.

The definition of "whitewashed"on Urban Dictionary. I am kind of interested in "whitewashed Tshirts and mugs"...

The definition of “whitewashed”on Urban Dictionary. I am kind of interested in “whitewashed mugs and Tshirts”…

I’m not sure what kind of “thesis” I’m advocating for in this post. Perhaps I just want to paint a picture of something below the surface that exists: that immigration isn’t that simple. That urging people to hold on to their roots is actually a complex idea. I’ll say again: I by no means am “ashamed” of being ethnically Chinese (although I’m sure some children of immigrants do, especially with China’s bad reputation in western media nowadays), but I do see my nationality as Canadian. I identify as a Canadian. Abroad, I say I am from Canada. This is backed up by my passport and birth certificate. And I bristle with pissed-off-ness whenever some hicktown ignoramus doesn’t believe I am “Canadian” and go “wait aren’t you Chinese or something”. (I was in an Austrian restaurant once with a waiter like this. My Chinese-Canadian compatriot aptly scoffed, “No, we’re ‘fake Canadians.'”).

In most parts of the world, many people still believe that nationality and ethnicity are the same thing. It’s not. Not for us children of immigrants.

Are you a child of immigration? Are you an advocate for preserving your traditional culture, or are you comfortable living the one shared by your compatriots? Please share your thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “Children of the Immigrant Experience: On Losing My Culture

  1. The things young Asian Canadians go through are the same for young Asian Americans. You know, identity crisis, Fobs and “white-washed” Asians, etc.

    I have heard that in Canada Asians play a prominent role as being the biggest minority population.

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  2. I think losing culture is a good thing! Yay.

    When people who’ve never experienced it talk about “losing culture,” they’re usually thinking of ethnic festivities, ethnic food, the language, ethnic dress, and all those highlights of a culture. For example, a “whitewashed Chinese” doesn’t celebrate Chinese New Year, prefers pasta over rice, speaks Chinglish more than Chinese, and dresses like every other North American kid.

    When I think about “losing culture,” I’m thinking about losing cultural attitudes and behaviors. It’s tough growing up in North American idealism and its “if you’re happy then you’re successful” when your parents are hardcore pushing the Asian mantra of “if you’re successful then you’re happy.” It’s tough when you’re growing up and trying to keep up with Canadian culture when your parents have taught you that tipping is unnecessary, that you should have more Chinese friends than any other ethnicity because “they’re easier to relate to,” and that wearing flip-flops outdoors is ridiculous (ok I’m serious, this one actually happened – in Hong Kong people wear flip-flops as slippers indoors). These attitudes/behaviors are not wrong, really – it’s just the culture that my parents are used to. But for me to properly go about as the Canadian that I am, I need to lose the old culture, and, for example, properly tip my servers as is expected by North American society.

    As a child of immigrants (ok technically I immigrated too but I was way too young when I did for my pre-immigration life to have much effect on how I think/act now), the toughest part of the “experience” was definitely growing up between cultures. For that reason, I do advocate the loss of cultural attitudes and behaviors. It just makes sense. As for the “cultural elements” that people usually think of when you say “losing culture,” I think its inconsequential whether a kid of immigrant parents decides to vigorously keep these or not.

    It’s funny how for immigrants, the struggle is to deal with the new culture, but for their children, it’s the opposite – dealing with the old culture.

    PS. Oh, and, I would be so annoyed too if someone tried to discredit my Canadian identity on account of my ethnicity.

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  3. LOL so these are the 2 ‘cliques’ you were talking about today X)
    I like the point about having different activities and ethnicity vs nationality.
    You get a different treatment by looking a certain minority ethnicity. I understand that white kids then have to fight to live up to THEIR stereotype ie all around amazing kids destined to become a great athlete or lawyer. Being ANY ethnicity sucks-maybe ethnicities are the biggest jokes humans ever believed in. But yeah-here’s a point to illustrate what I think you feel: I don’t point to a caucasian and say “YO, that boy/girl over there is white, too-go have a date!” So why do people more readily hook up two asians in their mind? When the public sees that your facial features obscure your identity, then you have to fight harder to prove that identity, which leads to overcompensation in some cases.
    It’s pretty hard to see the word red written in blue and not think “blue”.

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