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In 2011, more than 5.7 million people identified themselves as a second-generation Canadian. – National Household Survey
Every second generation immigrant has their own stories about how they grew up, what life at home and society was like. This is mine.
I am a proud Vietnamese Canadian, born in Toronto and raised in Niagara Falls where I’ve lived the majority of my life.
I recently graduated from Mohawk College with an Advanced Diploma in Journalism Print and Broadcasting. I work a full-time retail job, I’m an editorial intern at Culture Magazin, and am slowly trying to figure out this whole life thing after school.
About my heritage, I know the basics – how to eat Vietnamese food (fish sauce in everything) and count. I understand the language and can speak it brokenly. When I was younger all I knew was Vietnamese, not a word of English. Until one day in kindergarten I needed to go to the bathroom and didn’t know how to ask permission. Slowly I read the sign on the girls’ bathroom door, forming my mouth around the letters “wa-sh-room.”
I gradually learned English by watching television and through my teachers at school. By Grade 1, I could hold a conversation and write basic sentences like the other kids.
Growing up I heard what my parents had to go through to get our family to where we are today, but I never really understood what they experienced physically and mentally.
My parents met on a boat. My dad was one of the captains transporting thousands of Vietnamese people who wanted to leave the country for a better life. My mom was a passenger, a 16-year-old girl who left her entire family to go to an unfamiliar place and a very different culture.
I am the eldest of my siblings, one sister and three brothers. Growing up in a cramped, two-bedroom apartment with seven people wasn’t bad in the eyes of a 10-year-old child. Being confined in such a small space made my siblings and I very close. Even though my sister and I had our own shared bedroom, most of the time we slept in the living room with my brothers where there was a big mattress. We didn’t have a lot of space to run around so that made us very creative when it came to playing games and keeping ourselves occupied.
Being the eldest meant I had to care for my sister and brothers when my parents were at work. They both worked on a vineyard doing field maintenance, making sure the grapes would be ready for harvest in the summer and for icewine in the winter. They both worked 7 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day. That meant I had to wash dishes, cook, clean, look after my four siblings and make sure we all got to school by 8:30 a.m.
Although people may think it must have been difficult for a 10-year-old to have all of these responsibilities, I looked at it as my job. My parents depended on me a lot and couldn’t always be there. I understood because they had to work very hard to make a living.
I wouldn’t consider my family a “typical, strict household.” My parents had a lot of rules when it came to raising us, but as we got older I felt like our family really adapted to Canadian society.
- RULE #1: No dating until you are done school.
- RULE #2: Don’t stay out all night. That changed as we got older.
- RULE #3: Always be respectful and greet friends and family.
- RULE #4: Don’t fight with your siblings because we’re all we have.
The majority of my parents’ friends are Vietnamese and I was surrounded by tons of Vietnamese kids around the same age as me. But I found, for the most part, I made friends with Caucasian people. What drew me to people with completely different backgrounds was the fact that I wanted to know what it was like in their households. When I was younger I was eager to go to birthday parties because, from the scent when you walked in the door to the décor, the home was so unlike mine.
Last year, CBC- Angus Reid Institute released the results of a poll of Canadian and American citizens about immigrants. Of the Canadian respondents, 68 per cent said minorities should be doing more to fit in with mainstream society instead of keeping their own customs and languages. Of the American respondents, 53 per cent believed that minorities should do more to fit in.
The results of this poll are unsettling and bring up a lot of questions. What exactly does “fitting in” mean?
I believe becoming Canadian means stepping outside of your comfort zone and learning new things. Food, culture, traditions, and lifestyle. I also think Canada has done a great job when it comes to sharing different cultures and accepting people for who they are.
Brian Trinh, a writer for HuffPost Canada, wrote two articles in response to the poll in a series called Born & Raised. The articles are about Trinh’s life and how he grew up in Canadian society.
In the first piece he sends a message to younger Canadians who are struggling with English or other languages. “I want them to know that you don’t have to choose one or the other,” he says.
Trinh says that being Canadian gives people an option of duality. To be Canadian means you can be more than one thing. There are issues, however, with trying to balance and maintain both cultures. It was a challenge Trinh opted to avoid. “I made a choice to turn my back on part of my identity. In return, I got to fit in,” he writes.
The biggest regret Trinh admits to is giving up on Vietnamese school at a young age. He now realizes that he passed up an opportunity to maintain friendships and expand his circle of community. “I was too lazy, at the time my priorities were different and I shut out opportunities,” he writes.
Serene Tan is a lecturer at the University of Toronto who teaches the Asian Cultures in Canada course in the Canadian Studied Program. She grew up in Singapore and moved to Canada in 2005 to do her PhD in Geography at York University.
When the CBC- Angus Reid Institute poll came out she had a lot of questions. “What do you mean by Canadian culture and how do you know what Canadian culture is?” For her, the fuzziness of the term makes the poll’s findings problematic.
Tan’s advice to new and old immigrants regarding culture and fitting in is to keep what they like, and ditch what they don’t like. “A part of you will always be your culture,” she says.
Kyle Le grew up in Garden Grove, Calif., and for the past five-and-a-half years has been living in Vietnam. He’s created a YouTube channel to share his journey. “I wanted to share my experience in the motherland with my parents and friends. I wanted my parents to see our family and I wanted them to feel at ease with where I am and how I am living,” he explains.
Le’s videos provide a bridge between West and East. His advice to younger generations of Vietnamese people is to consider their culture a gift. “There is no reason not to embrace it. I know that younger people might be too busy to care or just simply apathetic due to communication barriers with their parents,” he says.
Which brings us back to the poll and the question of how far to go when honouring cultural heritage. I understand the CBC- Angus Reid Poll intended to provide the public with information. But who exactly did they question? What was their cultural heritage, since everyone in Canada, other than indigenous peoples, has immigrant roots? What does “fitting in” actually mean? More clarity was needed to put the results into perspective.
As for me, at 22 years old I am slowly getting my life together. I feel like I have found a balance between two cultures and am proud to be Vietnamese Canadian.
As a second generation immigrant I am thankful my whole family had a chance to live a better life. I now have the option of choosing my career path, and a choice to be whoever and whatever I want to be.
By letting my parents come into the country, Canada gave me an opportunity to prove myself, do better and make a difference.
Being second generation, to me, means having a choice.