Written by Dawn Lising
Edited by Aman Sidhu & Sandy Nadugala
Rami Malek once said, “Am I too ethnic or not ethnic enough?” and throughout my life, I found myself repeating this very question to myself over and over again. Growing up for any kid is an absolute nightmare - the growing pains, the neverending homework, and the confusing ups and downs… childhood is not something that most people look back on fondly. But as a first-generation Canadian, childhood was even more challenging than I imagined it to be.
I was the first-born in my family. My dad was a Vietnam War refugee and came to Canada when he was a child to pursue a better life. My mom immigrated to Canada from the Philippines while pregnant with me so that she could give me better opportunities and a brighter future. For those of you who may not know, the expectations of being successful for a first-born child in many immigrant households are held to a higher standard. The pressure of doing well in school and excelling in extracurriculars was already laid out for me before I was even able to walk. However, that was a very normal concept for most first-generations.
As a kid, all you want to do is fit in and feel like you belong. My family was culturally diverse; I was raised Buddhist and they had little to no knowledge of how kids were raised in Canada. When I got to elementary school, the kids were primarily Caucasian. They listened to bands foreign to my parents and ate foods I had never seen in my entire life like “Fruit Gushers”. I remember feeling so small and out of place from a young age, without really knowing at the time that it had to do with my race. Unfortunately, this caused me to want nothing to do with my culture. I did not want to learn my parents’ languages. I did not want to dress differently than my classmates. I did not want to be the girl in class eating rice while everyone else was eating sandwiches. Anything that made me seem “out of place” or “weird” was something that I did not want to be a part of. For a while, I think I had convinced myself that I was happier this way, but I could see it quietly break my parents’ hearts that I was not embracing my true self.
For my entire life, I was constantly being told things like “you are so whitewashed” or “you are so Asian” and I did not know how to simultaneously please my friends and my family. There were things that my Caucasian friends would never understand, like not being able to attend sleepovers, or when I was not allowed to wear certain clothing. On the other hand, my parents were confused as to why I could not just obey them and get good grades without questioning them, much like the children did back in their home countries. I felt immense guilt from wanting to do well and prove myself to my parents after they had sacrificed so much to get me to where I was. But on the other hand, I also felt the pressure of just wanting to be like every other kid.
I did not know how to balance being a “successful” daughter in my parents’ eyes and “fitting in” with my friends at school. As I got older, I found myself struggling even more with my identity when things like sushi, bubble tea, Buddhist tattoos, and trips to “find yourself” in Thailand became “trendy”. I had spent so much of my childhood hiding those aspects of my life and then suddenly, it felt as if they were being appropriated and ripped out of my hands. It felt like someone was always telling me that these things were strange and abnormal, but then all of a sudden, it became okay to enjoy these things because they were popularized and everyone else was enjoying them. I was confused, hurt, and most of all, I was angry. For my entire life, I was teased for being different and all of a sudden, everyone wanted a piece of it. I found myself asking again, “am I too ethnic or not ethnic enough?” and where was the fine line between cultural appropriation and appreciation?
One day, I had the realization that balancing culture is not a balancing act at all. There is no fine line between being proud of where you came from and being proud of where you live. There is only satisfying yourself and learning from the person that you have become in spite of all your challenges and differences. You do not simply say to yourself, “I am now Canadian” and feel as if you belong. Being a Canadian has a different definition for every single individual and these stories are so important to share. Looking back, it’s crazy to think that I used to believe that I was the only one who felt like they were being crushed by the need to want to prove themselves and do well for their parents. I am so thankful that I have met so many diverse individuals that have lived through the exact same things that I did. Any first-generation Canadian has a story they can relate to. Although it may have been a struggle, it is something we hold so close to our hearts and has shaped us to be the people we are today. I am thankful for my loving and supportive family who fought so hard for me so I could continue the fight for my nine-year-old sister. I have been raising my sister to be nothing but proud to be who she is and being comfortable enough to have any open conversation with me about diversity. I tell her every day about how she should be proud that she is not like everyone else - I so desperately wish I had felt that way when I was her age.