International students share their experiences of moving across the world and reconnecting with former peers at U of T
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By Alec Wilson
Alexander Marshall, a third-year student at Woodsworth College, checked his Facebook to find an unexpected message waiting in his inbox. It was from a former classmate whom he had known years before when the two were attending an international school in Bordeaux, France. Included with the message was a photo of Marshall as a young boy with a group of other children.
“She asked me, ‘is this you? I haven’t seen you for about 10 or 11 years!’” he recounts. The message went on to say: “I remember your name. I still have a picture of you.”
Serendipitously, as it turns out, she was once again a classmate of Marshall’s — this time at the Univeristy of Toronto, hundreds of thousands of miles from where they had first met.
Depictions of reunion in film and television are often dramatic scenes marked by a swelling orchestral score as one character’s eyes meet another’s across a crowd. This particular reunion, despite a lack of a background score, was in many ways as implausible as something out of a cinema.
Hailing from places as far-flung as Iran or Brazil, or as a familiar as the US, U of T’s international student body — which, at 10,276 people, makes up 15.3 per cent of the total undergraduate population — represents a broad diversity of experiences. Individuals who grew up in a culture that is not their parents’ for a signifiant portion of their childhood years are called “third culture kids.”
The world is undoubtedly expansive and would not seem to lend itself well to intersecting paths on a mass scale. Yet, if mapped out across time and space, individual lives cross and connect with more frequency than could be imagined.
Marshall was born in Chicago to a British father and Norwegian mother, though he only stayed in the US for a matter of months before getting on a plane bound for Holland as a baby. It was the first in a series of moves tranversing both oceans that would take him to France, India, Shanghai, England, Hong Kong, and finally, Canada.
The extent to which Marshall seems to find himself stumbling in and out of relations with former acquaintances is staggering.
Though they were never particularly close, Marshall and Steve Shi, a third-year Rotman Commerce student, had also met before they ran into one another through a mutual friend on Bloor Street last year.
Shi, who was born in Vancouver in 1994, is the son of Chinese civil engineers who had found work in Canada. He left Vancouver quite young for Singapore before continuing on to Hong Kong and Shanghai.
Like Marshall, whose father is an international commodities trader, Shi’s father was also the catalyst for transplanting the family over the years. “Every time he found a better opportunity, he would just go for it. I don’t think he was concerned about moving too much,” he says.
Shi admits that the pace of travel throughout his childhood impacts his recollection. “It’s kind of hazy, to be honest,” he says of recounting his childhood years and the many temporary locations.
It was in Shanghai that Shi attended an American international school while his brother attended the British international school with Marshall.
Another expat, Jerome Newton, a fourth-year student at Trinity College, was born in the UK in a small town of less than 100,000 called Southport, about a 40-minute drive from Liverpool. But he has spent relatively little time in his country of birth — making “home” a rather challenging concept to articulate.
As a word, “home” bears all kinds of subjective significance, especially for someone who has spent most of their life in international transit. “I suppose home would always have to be where my parents lived,” Newton responds after careful consideration. “Home changes all the time it’s not the UK anymore, and it hasn’t been for many, many years,” he adds.
Like many of the university’s international students, most of his younger years were spent travelling, following his family from place to place, continent to continent. His father’s job has required constant relocation and meant that, growing up, Newton was only ever able to spend three to four years in a single country.
Newton explains that the constant movement quickly became a part of his identity, particularly in his love of travel. “I find it comforting to travel,” he says.
Before arriving in Toronto in the fall of 2011, Newton had spent short blocks of time in the UK, New Zealand, Australia, and Singapore, where he graduated from high school at the United World College of South East Asia.
Ironically, it would be Marshall, now one of Newton’s roommates on campus, who would provide the initial social link between the displaced Brit and another globetrotting student named Jamieson Wang, also The Varsity’s video editor.
Wang’s family left Tokyo before she was born, returning to her mother’s native Singapore so that their daughter could claim citizenship. Like both Newton and Marshall, she spent little time in her birthplace before moving. Her father works for Singapore Airlines, which has required him to shuttle between sales offices across Asia during Wang’s childhood.
Change was a constant fixture in her life, even during periods where her family was settled. She described the experience of international school as perpetually in flux. “Having new kids every year was so common, and having your friends leave every year was so common,” she says.
“I got used to [moving] very quickly,” she adds, “I kind of knew that it was what I had to do.”
She attended schools in Japan, Indonesia, South Africa, Spain, and finally returned to Singapore to graduate from the Overseas Family School.
Wang and Marshall met during his frosh week in 2012, when she and Newton — yet to be introduced — were already in their second years at U of T. Though she would not meet Newton through Marshall until 2013, the two were separated by only eight kilometres for a year in 2009 when he was down the road at United World College.
It was in Japan at the Nagoya International School (NIS) that Wang crossed paths with third-year student Yukari Kosaka. Unlike the others, Kosaka stayed at NIS from pre-school as a toddler through to high school. “It was a tiny, tiny school, probably around 300 from preschool to high school, and I graduated in a class of 17 students,” she describes.
Wang was not in that graduating class; nevertheless, the two recognized one another when, years later, Kosaka enrolled at Woodsworth College. Across continents, this small group of people has managed to bump into one another time and again, and inevitably coalesce at U of T — but having engaged in so many communities, knowing others across the globe is normal for these students. While this repeated shifting can be polarizing, for many internationals, the act of moving has become an important constant in their lives.
Rachel Hillcoat, a political science and international relations student enrolled at University College and former classmate of Kosaka and Wang, was born in Canada but moved with her family to Japan shortly after. She describes experiencing a sense of disparity between her cultural identities. She hopes to eventually find a career that allows her to move around a lot, ideally between her two homes in Canada and Japan.
“Probably because of my upbringing, I definitely see myself moving around a lot in the future,” she says, adding, “I don’t think I could ever stay in one place my whole life.”