Feeling Proud and Feeling Marginalized as an Ethnic Canadian

|| Jenny Kim | Jamyang Tenzin | Praveeni Rasiah

With the shocking developments of children being forced away from their immigrant parents in the US, being an ethnic Canadian, in contrast, seems like a dream. As a Korean-born Canadian, I’ve always been grateful for my Canadian citizenship. Hearing my parents talk about the hypercompetitive and extremely stressful culture in Korea, I’m deeply thankful to have grown up in a wonderful community with supportive friends and teachers, and to have been able to explore my interests through extra-curriculars and liberal educational opportunities. It seems that I have to attribute these fortunes, to some degree, to my immigrating to Canada. But all these privileges seem to have come at a cost: there have been many times where I’ve sacrificed my Korean identity for my Canadian one.

Growing up, I used to be ashamed about speaking in Korean to my parents in public or in front of my friends. My friends’ attempts to imitate my Korean, which to them may have been out of sheer curiosity, seemed like an act of mockery to me. At the prime age of wanting to fit in so badly with all my other anglophone friends, I wanted to be as “whitewashed” as possible and subsequently rejected my native tongue. I would feel embarrassed when my parents would speak, to what I perceived as, very loudly in this foreign language that I was sure would turn heads and incite strange looks from passerbys. In retrospect, it wasn’t the language that bugged me but rather the fact that our beautiful home language did not make sense and could not be understood by others. At parent teacher interviews, grocery stores, on the phone with customer service reps, and virtually any social situation, I was there translating for my parents. The look of confusion and deer-in-the-headlights panic formed by my parents as they tried to interpret what their counterpart was telling them, will forever be etched in my mind.

People have told me that Korean sounds very gentle, fluid, and beautifully spoken. I wholeheartedly agree- it’s incredibly descriptive and encompasses more adjectives and onomatopoeias than the English language. Having grown up a little bit, having become more worldly through friends and travels, and now having more appreciation for cultural diversity, I’m so happy that I’ve retained my mother tongue. When people ask me to speak Korean or inquire about it, I’m proud to teach them and show off (albeit my vocabulary is a bit limited). Being bilingual is a wonderful gift, especially in a multicultural country like Canada. When I meet other Korean-Canadians and we converse in Korean, there’s a particular feeling of connectedness that I’ve never felt with another Canadian or even a native Korean. Even with a simple exchange of a couple of words, there’s a mutual understanding of the hardships we’ve faced and the nostalgias we indulge in and that, to me, is such a comforting feeling.

It’s a bit bittersweet- I wish I had honoured my ethnicity throughout all these times, but I’ve realized that I’m truly able to appreciate this part of my identity because I’ve struggled to come to terms with it. I know my sentiments aren’t unique, rather they’ve been echoed time and time again by my other ethnic Canadian friends. There have been times when we’ve felt proud to be ethnic Canadians and there have been times when we’ve felt ashamed or belittled for being solely viewed as a minority. My friends, Jamyang and Praveeni, were incredibly kind to share their perspectives and shed their own light on the vulnerabilities of being an ethnic Canadian.

Jamyang Tenzin

Jamyang Tenzin, Tibetan-Canadian

When have you felt proud to be Tibetan-Canadian?

Most recently, I visited the York Recreation Centre, a new addition to my neighbourhood. During my visit, I felt the vibrancy of a strong, diverse community. The Eglinton-Keele area features a Caribbean community, a Muslim community, and a mainly Portugese suburb. In the recently built centre, there was an awesome co-existence of these different ethnic groups. The centre enables strangers to become friends, adapt a sharing mindset around the gym equipment, start conversations and ultimately build an immense feeling of wholeness. I personally loved small instances like jokes among gym regulars and strangers providing exercise tips. Below the busy gym was a full-sized indoor court, thrumming with laughter and dodgeball activity. I felt really proud as an ethnic Canadian, a Tibetan-Canadian, then because I really appreciated this experiential display of a prospering Canadian community and my own part in it. This feeling of wholeness isn’t possible without the buy-in of each person, to respect one another, and it isn’t possible without people being different and introducing unique dynamics into the makeup of this environment. The centre thrives due to the combination of personalities existing within it, never muted or subdued but rather collaboratively flourishing.

When have you especially felt marginalized?

Growing up in a mainly white neighbourhood, I felt marginalized at certain times. For many ethnic Canadians, it can be external factors, others’ gross misbehaviours which led to their marginalization. In my personal experience, micro-transactions taught me of my existence as an “Other”.

A lot of the blatant, passive remarks such as “oh, you’re supposed to get good grades, you’re Asian” slid right off my back. I couldn’t care less about what someone said in regards to my intelligence, I grew up expecting these remarks. It was the more subversive assumptions, which I grasped by experiencing how certain friends’ parents would treat me. I recognize they were generally well-intentioned with their behaviour but their smaller remarks about my home life, about how they thought my parents were like, really impacted me. Unbeknownst to them, my parents are not these militaristic, uneducated, hovering presences with no love and ridiculous expectations. I didn’t frequently play video games because I was not wholly interested in them. I worked hard because I recognized the privilege my parents gave me through their sacrifices. My home was not a prison to my free spirit. I was surrounded by two incredibly loving and intelligent people. When I was younger, I felt those assumptions and cowered behind an assimilated bravado that hid my own shame of being Other, of being raised by Other.

Praveeni Rasiah

Praveeni (right) and her sister, Naveeni

Praveeni Rasiah, Tamil-Canadian

To give you a brief overview, most Tamil immigrants left Sri Lanka not too long ago. At the most basic level, conflicts arose between Tamil and Sinhalese citizens, the two predominant ethnicities in Sri Lanka. These issues plagued the island since its independence, chasing civilians away from war-zones that they once called their homes. Although the official start to the civil war, also known as First Eelam War, isn’t dated until 1983, anti-Tamil riots started as early as 1958. Canadian immigration and refugee policies largely facilitated the arrival of most asylum-seekers after the 1983 outbreak by allowing them to bypass one or more stages of the refugee hearing process. Therefore, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Tamil immigrants were able to settle into large metropolitan cities such as Toronto and Montreal. Today, there are over 157,000 Tamil people living in Canada.

When have you felt proud to be Tamil-Canadian?

As a first-generation Canadian, I grew up with parents who ensured that traditional Tamil values would have a significant impact on my upbringing. As such, even though I was born in Toronto, Ontario, the first half of my life was predominantly impacted by Tamil traditions. I was the girl that wore a bindi to school every day until the fifth grade. I was also the girl that didn’t understand Disney movie references because the only thing I would watch at home were Tamil movies. Let’s just say that I didn’t exactly blend in with my classmates.

Overtime, I grew out of that bubble and assimilated into the Canadian culture, however, I’m proud that I still get to practice and share my culture with those around me. I am also extremely proud to be a part of a family that has been incredibly influential in the Tamil-Canadian community. My mother, or popularly known as Amma, is a Tamil teacher for children and also involved in the empowerment of Tamil women in our society. Unfortunately, certain traditional gender roles followed immigrants from Sri Lanka. For example, many Tamil women still believe they are incapable of ever moving past the stay-at-home-mother role. I have had the honour of watching Amma change the lives of a multitude of women who have stumbled into the common immigrant lifestyle of abandoning self-aspirations. Additionally, my uncle has created several low-budget films which tackle important societal issues within the Tamil-Canadian society, including caste, egoism, and arranged marriages. My aunt, on the other hand, is a Bharathanatyam (South-Indian classical dance form) teacher who, even in her old age, remains passionate about educating younger generations on this beautiful art form and instilling confidence in young Tamil girls. She has provided me with the fundamentals that shaped me into a dancer, and is definitely one of the strongest influences for my involvement in this art form. Bharathanatyam is one of the biggest factors that contributed to my confidence while growing up, and I am proud to be able to teach and perform today outside of my Tamil network. Finally, my cousins’ music group, known as All Mixed Up (AMU), has recently blown up, reaching tens of thousands of fans around the globe with their ground-breaking introduction of Tamil Trap music. Growing up around these change-makers in our Tamil-Canadian community has always inspired me to carry on the legacy in my own way.

When have you felt ashamed or marginalized?

In hindsight, I’m ever so grateful to have grown up in such a cultured environment. However, that wasn’t always the case. I remember times where I wanted nothing more than to not be Tamil. Since my sister and I were so influenced by Tamil culture as children, growing up in a predominantly Caucasian school environment was, in many cases, difficult. I remember being in grade three and embarrassed to open my lunch bag at school, terrified at the thought of someone asking me why my Tamil food looked and smelled so different. I remember angrily asking Amma, “why can’t you just pack me normal food?”. I remember leaving the house with my bindi on and frantically wiping it off my forehead before any of the kids on my school bus could see.

“Why do you wear a paki dot on your forehead?”

“Do you speak Hindu?”

“Are you Indie?”

Oh, the questions I would get. The questions that made me put my head down and walk as fast as my little legs would take me.

Moving into my adolescent years, my sister and I were constantly pushing boundaries to fit in with our friends at school. We had to teach Amma that Canadian societal norms, such as having a social life outside of school, hugging our male-friends or even wearing shorts, were all normal things to do. It may not have been evident from the outside, but, I did a lot of behind-the-scenes work to hide the traditional Tamil social values that were put upon me as a teenager. In those years, I often found myself at a crossroads with conflicting ideologies, especially in terms of beauty, the aforementioned social life norms, and societal values. Long story short, I was the epitome of a brown girl living in a white world. At this point in my life, hearing comments such as, “you’re pretty for a brown girl” truly felt like a compliment. It wasn’t until years later that I no longer felt flattered and realized that I was being marginalized. Additional comments have even gone as far as, “I can cut you in line because I’m actually from this country”. Yeah, that actually happened.

After years of confusion and internally fighting the most authentic part of myself, I reached an epiphany. I have the best of both worlds. What makes me most proud about my identity as a Tamil-Canadian is that I have access to the opportunities that I otherwise would not have had if my parents did not immigrate to Canada, such as pursuing higher education and being able to afford health care, while still being able to hold my Tamil culture, that I love so deeply, close to my heart.

I love feedback! Please let me know how I can make my posts more interesting or if you know any awesome people I can talk to. Email me at jennytkim@gmail.com

cover photo source