Being an Asian immigrant in Canada

The struggle to find myself in a crossroad of cultures and languages

Illustrated by Maple Sukontasukkul

by Nancy La, Staff Writer

One of the few memories l have from first immigrating to Canada was my sister teaching me the English alphabet. We had just landed in YVR less than 12 hours before and we were both jet-lagged, yet we still had to work on our English. I felt that being fluent in this language equaled approval and attention, so I continued to practice without complaining. 

Flash forward a couple of months and it seemed that my efforts to learn were not enough when I was still unable to speak more than a few words of English at school. As if that wasn’t disheartening enough, my inability to speak English somehow became an invitation for other kids to pick on me.

For the longest time, I hated recess and lunch. Those were the loneliest times since nobody wanted to hang out with me. 

So I commenced the mass effort of consuming all kinds of cultural productions to learn English. Whenever shows like Hannah Montana and iCarly were airing, I would whip out a notebook and studiously write down my observations on the actors’ accents and how they expressed themselves.

In hindsight, the picture of a younger me sitting in front of the TV taking notes on popular culture is hilarious. But it did make me more comfortable speaking English, so shout-out to Miley Cyrus for that. 

As I was devoting all my time toward learning English, I started to neglect my daily Chinese lessons with my dad. It got to the point where I started detesting the parts of me that made me Asian, because somehow being Asian — speaking the languages, eating the food, watching the shows — meant that I wasn’t trying hard enough to assimilate to Canadian culture.  

I had a hidden fear: I was worried that if I kept learning Chinese or Vietnamese, my English would have an accent. Of course, now that I am older (and a teensy bit wiser), I realize having an accent is not a bad thing, but back then I was 12 years old and still reeling from the immigration experience. 

Losing your language and identity starts slowly at first. Instances where I forgot a word or how to spell a character became more and more frequent until one day, I realized I could no longer communicate my feelings and thoughts coherently to my family. Ironically, though, all I could see was how my English was improving,  not the Vietnamese or Cantonese I was losing. I celebrated this loss, because it meant acceptance from my peers. 

I failed to see that it also meant isolation from my past, my culture, and my family. 

The ever-so-complicated relationship between me and the English language became even more inextricably intertwined as I declared my major in English a year ago. This meant more time spent buried in English texts and even less time keeping up with my Asian heritage, further cementing the idea that my Asian language and culture are separate from my academic life. I didn’t have negative feelings about English since I learned to separate the discrimination I went through from the language itself. The problems that I experienced, from social isolation to having to prove my fluency, stemmed from other people. English is just a language that’s supposed to help us connect with one another, yet to some, it is a tool to pick on others and discriminate against them. 

That still didn’t solve my issue with the other side of my identity problem: the inability to comprehend and understand Vietnamese and Chinese culture. This changed when I found out about SFU’s humanities department.

In the Fall 2020 semester, I took a humanities course on great texts in Asian thought and literature, where we had to read the classic Story of the Stone by Cao Xueqin and research various aspects of Chinese culture. This course made me understand that the Asian part of me is connected to the part of me that is fluent in English, and the two can actually coexist productively. For the first time in more than a decade, I got to use the little scraps of Chinese culture I have left in me! 

Another course, HUM 332, opened the door of possibilities for me to incorporate these different parts of me that I’ve previously separated. Being involved in the humanities meant I could do research on great Vietnamese figures like Bà Triệu or discuss China’s only female emperor, Wu Zetian. My limited knowledge of the culture that gave rise to these figures no longer felt like irrelevant little facts, but something that I could write about and get graded on. Being able to read Vietnamese or Chinese primary sources without translation gave me a little head start on research, something I never thought would come in handy at an English-based university.

I didn’t realize how trapped I’d felt until I realized there is a place for me and my Asian heritage at work and school. 

As I was relearning my languages, I became more and more aware of how knowing more languages placed me in sync with different cultural productions. Asian television, books, and music make for a more interesting version of me. I now have more shows to connect to instead of talking about The Office all the time. 

Recently, my niece and I were going over some Mandarin characters when I noticed she had a worried expression on her face. After some persuading, she finally admitted she was worried that learning Mandarin would mean she’d have a Chinese accent in her English, and that she wouldn’t have any friends if she spoke “bad” English. For a moment, I had a flashback to all the self-hatred and internal struggles that I went through when I was her age. 

I looked down at my niece and began telling her a story about a young girl who once had the same fears that she did. I told her about that little girl’s struggles and what she learned from those experiences.

For the first time in my life, I finally realized that there was value in the struggles that I went through.