When I was younger, it was bringing spaghetti and meatballs for lunch to school. More recently, it was how I don’t converse in Chinese with other Chinese Canadians. For most of my life as an immigrant, I have felt like a misfit within other people’s preconceived expectations of what an immigrant should be.
I often find myself somewhere in between the two extremes of complete Westernization and strict adherence to one’s native culture. The unfair standards to which immigrants are held by others forced me to change my identity. As immigrants, we have a responsibility to be proud of the composite of who we are.
For most immigrants, particularly those who moved between countries with drastically different cultures, our lives and habits are dictated by multiple, and often opposing, forces. For instance, I celebrate both Christmas and Lunar New Year with my family, and my legal name is in Chinese Pinyin, while I use an English name in most circumstances.
However, immigrants often have to suppress aspects of their heterogeneous identities and artificially conform to dichotomous expectations from others. In certain settings, like gatherings with family or fellow immigrants, we are expected to be close to our roots and have preserved our “authenticity” as a member of the society we came from. A person may get bombarded with provocative remarks if they do not know how to speak their native language well or if they dress a certain way.
On the other hand, we are expected by Westerners to have assimilated completely or to have had experiences exclusive to those who lived in a Western country their entire life. In extreme cases, immigrants have been harassed for not speaking English. More common, though, are microaggressions, such as those committed by my peers at my predominantly white high school, who called me by my Chinese name as a joke — amused at the fact that I had a second, more peculiar-sounding name.
Both types of actions, from immigrants and non-immigrants alike, further alienate a group of people who already face many challenges in their immediate environment by making them feel like they are not the person they should be. Moreover, they force immigrants to abandon their true, unique identities which enrich the fabric of diversity that exists in Canada and the United States.
It is obvious that non-immigrants should address their prejudices. However, there is a more fundamental problem at the root of the stifling expectations imposed on us — self-suppression and self-categorization within immigrants themselves — that hinders our ability to combat the challenges of unjust standards.
As immigrants, we have responsibilities to ourselves and to others like us. First, we should be proud of our identities. We do not simply fit into one category, but are rather the result of a blending of cultures which allows us to be unique contributors to society. Thus, when we encounter situations where we feel forced to conform to a certain standard, we should instead express the special aspects of ourselves that come from our experiences as immigrants.
Secondly, we should not impose harmful expectations on each other. The most powerful characteristic of immigrants is our existing at different points on the spectrum between two cultures. We all have different backgrounds, so instead of focusing on our differences and using terms like “whitewashed” to cause unnecessary divisions among ourselves, we should appreciate what we experience in common — a fusion of two different worlds that creates something more profound than either alone could.
The road to improving the lives of immigrants starts with changing how we view ourselves. If we cannot even be proud of our identities around those who share similar experiences, we cannot break down the prejudices of those who do not.
This is not to say that the responsibility for change is solely on the shoulders of immigrants, as non-immigrants’ preconceived notions contribute significantly to the struggles of immigrants in Western society. However, it is wishful thinking to hope that Westerners will change their minds about immigrants when we continue to put each other down.
Diversity is not just about the coexistence of different groups of people. Rather, it is the appreciation of the complex identities that cannot be simplified into generalizations that are prevalent in society. Further, even between immigrants, the beauty lies in the unique experiences of each individual and the different ways in which they are able to bring together two opposite sides of the world.
We, as immigrants, still face countless challenges in society, but we have just as large a role to play in making our lives better as those who have not shared our experiences do.
Phillip Kong PO ’24 is from Toronto, Canada. He has a collection of fun socks.