The Secret Lives Of Immigrants

I’m an Immigrant too.

I’m an immigrant, one of those 2nd generation ones that you, Ms. Nadia Z. so flippantly dismiss right at the beginning of your piece. I was born in Toronto, but was taken back to India when I was six, and lived there until I turned 19. At that point in time I was shipped off to my country of birth to attend the University of Toronto. Returning to Canada after growing up in India generated an unusual flux of Eastern versus Western culture in my mind — a flux which yielded a need to belong, a need to be accepted, a need to identify my purpose, and ultimately a need to contribute to my community. I had left my entire life back home — all my friends, my brother, my father, and all else that was familiar — and landed in a country of which I remembered nothing. I assume that the kind of first generation immigrant you refer to suffers from the same sort of identity crisis. So, I hope my experience won’t be written off right at the outset.

I am compelled to ask, having read the original piece very carefully, where in Toronto do you live? You mention that you were a landed immigrant in Toronto, but nowhere do you suggest that you moved, or settled elsewhere. If you do in fact still live in Toronto, your being “surrounded by white people” is simply not possible, and I’m not being facetious. The Greater Toronto Area is one of those most diverse places in the world — representing a mix of cultural and ethnic diversity from across the globe. Toronto doesn’t just feature all sorts of people, but the culture of the city mirrors that diversity in its food, its celebrations, and its people. Pick any random person off the street and they will be more exposed to global cultures and cuisines than most other metropolitan cities of the world.

It seems to me that much of your experience is informed by your specific family background. Of course conservative immigrant families exist — South Asian, East Asian, Irish, Italian — all sorts of them, but that doesn’t mean ALL immigrant children have the same kind of experience. I don’t think most of my friends in my friend circle have had the same kind of experience that you did. I’m not discounting your experience, I’m saying that in a piece in which you are talking for ALL immigrant children, it’s pretty shoddy for you as a self described “educator” to use such a broad brush.

Everyone knows South Asians and East Asians put a lot of pressure on their kids to do well; it is a fact supported by the kind of anecdotal evidence that I doubt anyone will counter. But at the same time I don’t think everyone thinks their kids are going to get a 6 figure job at Facebook. In my experience the immigrant diaspora in Canada simply wants the next generation to do better than them. And why wouldn’t they? Isn’t that why they uprooted their entire lives and moved in search of a better life? Our parents could learn to do many things differently and putting undue pressure on their kids is one of those things that I do find very troublesome. However, we can understand it can’t we? Imagine the kind of pressure 1st generation immigrants had to go through growing up, competing with the literal hoardes of kids in national board exams, running in a rat race their entire lives to place, and gain that one coveted seat in an internationally admired academic program in their country of birth. Some of them got to come to Canada because of academics. Others, had to go through the grueling process that blue collar professionals go through when they apply for immigration, all because they were in search of a better life for themselves and for their kids. Even after both groups make it to their new home, they go through unbelievable hardship, low paying jobs sometimes which have little to do with their original profession, and finally make a life for themselves as a successful immigrant. If their kids didn’t do better than them, then all was for naught! Even as a second generation immigrant I face my own struggle to excel, live up to expectations set forth by my parents, my well wishers, my community, and above all, myself. When I have my child/ren I too would want them to do better than me! This is human nature.

I hardly count discrimination in dating as a symptom unique to the South Asian immigrant population. Discrimination from our parents when it comes to dating is definitely an issue — it’s a problem but not one only affecting immigrant kids! Racism is omnipresent in those who are susceptible to it regardless of background. Are you saying that if you were dating someone white, a 100% of the time their parents would be okay with your religious and ethnic background?! Even in a city as progressive as Toronto, I highly doubt that is a likely outcome.

To write off the first and second generation immigrant experience as one that exists in a bubble is an extremely unfortunate thing for you to do, especially if you live in Toronto. Every year disapora communities from around the world (including South Asia and East Asia) put up massive productions on stage in theatres, in their neighbourhoods, in their community centres, on the Harbourfront, at the Ex to showcase their culture. These cultural activities are not only supported financially by all levels of government and corporate entities, but they are encouraged since they bring in so much cultural and financial value to the community. The kids who perform in these Chinese opera productions, or South Asian music/dance/arts festivals all learn their art in Toronto. All you have to do is do a google search for arts schools in Toronto, and you will have a veritable pick of the lot. Classical dance, music, instrument classes are affordable and held in every nook and cranny of our city and the Greater Toronto Area.

Again you put immigrant children in a box when you question their holistic development. All you need to do is visit one of the campuses of the big universities in the GTA and you will see how involved Asian kids are in the communities around them. They found, run and head cultural, religious, political clubs on campuses across the country, not just in the GTA. Asians take a sincere interest in the extra curricular life on campus in many different ways. I say this with good authority since I am a former President of two student unions at the University of Toronto, representing more than 20k and 35k students respectively. It is no surprise then that there is a spillover effect in community activism, and local political organizations. Tamil and Sikh youth specifically are extremely engaged in local politics in their communities. Every election cycle they band together to successfully elect fresh new faces to parliament. Two names comes to mind immediately — Rathika Sitsabaiesan — Canada’s first Tamil Member of Parliament, and the youngest to be elected from the GTA ever, and Jagmeet Singh Dhaliwal, an MPP elected in Brampton. They are young, vibrant, fiery, and have an unbelievable capacity to mobilize the youth. “Followers”?! I think not.

And finally, what you say about the portrayal of immigrants is a little counter intuitive. If government propaganda about immigrants was to make us look like everyday Canadians they wouldn’t post pictures of us in our traditional garb, in our religious institutions, doing “our” thing. And, that’s exactly what they don’t do. Every PSA or PR piece that you will see about immigrants looks the opposite of what you said. I’ve actually used several posters from Canadian media to teach about immigration or recruitment in public service in my classes, and I can’t think of a time when an Asian woman was in a sari, or chinese dress.

I think you are conflating PR materials used to highlight DIVERSITY and not Immigration. I think Canada (specifically the major urban centres) have much to be proud of when it comes to diversity and living in harmony. It would serve the US a lot better if they learnt a little about the “salad bowl” model, and gave up on the “melting pot”.

I am not for a second suggesting that the diaspora community doesn’t have its problems. Of course we do. There are a few heartbreaking stories about immigrant children being emotionally and physically tortured by their parents/family members, even being killed in the name of family honour. There is the story of Aqsa (I was severely affected by her murder a few years ago and wrote in my blog about her), and the one of Jassi Sidhu. I can think of a few more. But thankfully those stories are stories for a reason, and not the norm. We should do more in teaching communities about abuse and violence in the home, how to identify the signs when it’s happening to one of their own, and there should be processes through which effective intervention can take place sensitively.

Ms. Nadia Z. if you do live in the GTA or any other metropolitan centre in Canada, I would like to encourage you to visit with and meet the unbelievable Asian communities that have developed all over the country — they are vibrant, diverse, welcoming, and Canadian in their own kind of way. It seems you are craving a place to call home, away from home. If I could find it at 19, and grow up to be 35 living in the US missing my home Toronto every single day, yearning for the kind of cultural dialogue that we have learnt to appreciate and foster in my dear beloved city, then so can you.

P.S. — Thank you to Kausik Datta for bringing the original piece to my attention, and encouraging me to write up a response. :)