Growing up in between cultures, students speak up on the question of origin versus identity
Reading Time: 11 minutes
By Sila Naz Elgin and Joannie Fu
Generation 1.5 is the student sitting in the hallway, laughing at a joke in their mother tongue and wishing someone around them would understand it well enough to laugh along. Generation 1.5 is the kid explaining something to their parent, wishing they would understand but knowing that the language barrier makes things difficult. Generation 1.5 is the child looking in the mirror and seeing everything differently from the society they want to fit into. Generation 1.5 is the person learning a language and being made fun of because they are pronouncing a word wrong, yet they say it so confidently because they hear their parents say it that way so often.
People who fall under the ‘generation 1.5’ category are distinct from first and second generation immigrants. Generation 1 typically encompasses immigrants who predominantly identify with their country of origin. Children of these immigrants, who were born and raised in their parents’ new country, are usually considered to be a part of generation 2. Generation 1.5 is stuck somewhere in between.
Individuals belonging to generation 1.5 may have been born in one region of the world and raised in another. Their feelings of identity and belonging may be transitory depending on their stage of life, the people who surround them, and the cultures to which they are exposed. They are stuck between two identities, and there is a sense of longing and grief at never fully belonging in either category, while still identifying with both. Essentially, their identity is often in a state of flux.
Dissecting the question
The struggles of generation 1.5 individuals are profoundly different from the struggles of their parents and those of their second-generation siblings. They have two cultures competing for prominence in their day-to-day lives. This leads to simple questions becoming heartbreaking, like: where are you from?
This question is a complex one; origin can be a uniting or a dividing factor. It might be a question you ask someone you share the same physical traits with, thus creating a sense of belonging. Or, it might be a question you ask someone who doesn’t look quite the same, thus forging division and difference.
In university settings, where critical thinking is encouraged, further examining this question requires exposing certain implications and assumptions. When it comes to students who characteristically hold a ‘two-culture’ identity, the question ‘where are you from?’ should be considered alongside personal identity. For many, this is not a straightforward reckoning.
Kana Shishikura, a Japanese international student, says, “Where are you from is such a strange question — where are you from? What’s being generated from that question?”
The follow-up question — “Why is your English so good?” — is even more presumptuous, says Shishikura.
She continues, “Just because I am non-white doesn’t mean I can’t speak English [fluently], and you wouldn’t ask a white person, ‘Where are you from?’”
Third-year Architecture and Visual Studies student Yasmeen El Sanyoura, whose family moved to Canada from Lebanon when she was young, realizes that her physical traits cause people to make certain assumptions about her.
“I haven’t been treated differently in any particularly significant way, but I recognize that this is because many assume I am white [and] was born and raised in Canada,” she says. “Knowing that I wasn’t born here always comes with replies like, ‘But you have no accent!’, ‘You literally sound Canadian’, or ‘That’s so cool!’”
Shishikura is an interesting example of why this question is so problematic. Born in Taiwan, yet a Japanese national, Shishikura feels a strong sense of connection to Taiwan. However, in spite of this feeling of connection, Shishikura believes that it would be presumptuous of her to claim Taiwan as ‘her own.’
Vinson Shih, a Taiwanese-Canadian student, provides a counter-example. As someone who was born in Canada but had Taiwanese cultural values instilled in him throughout his childhood, he identified more with his Taiwanese side, despite being born in Canada.
“My way of dealing with that was to feel kind of proud that I had something different, but at the same time there weren’t a lot of Taiwanese people in our community. It was a little bit [isolating],” he says.
Contrasted with Shishikura, Shih had created an imagined sense of ‘Taiwanese-ness’ through the influence of his parents. However, Shih felt a shift in his Taiwanese identity.
“As I grew older I felt, like, more Canadian, because I realized the fact that I’d been exhibiting a Taiwanese culture… was inherently Canadian,” Shih says. “The fact that I’m showing my culture [is me] enacting Canadian-ness.”
Shih’s conception of ‘Canadian-ness’ relies on the cognitive dissonance of having a dual identity. At times, there is a feeling of isolation for their differences, but at other times, there is a sense of pride from owning a part of themselves that is different from others.
“It feels weird and maybe problematic, but there is a pleasure that comes from seeing the surprise that usually dominates the reactions of people once they find out that I’m not from Canada,” El Sanyoura says. “There is also a strange comfort that comes with having shared childhood memories with people who have lived here their entire lives.”
“But then again, I had a very Eurocentric upbringing and spent my childhood watching Disney, so that explains that,” she continues. “There will also always be a sense of conflicting duality because my being ‘not from here’ puts me in a strange limbo in terms of where I belong; I am either ‘not here’ or ‘not from here.’ My ‘here’ is in flux and no longer belongs to me, and that’s always disorienting.”
Although born in the Philippines, Ben Tiangco, a third-year Life Sciences student, immigrated to Canada when he was three and felt pressure to be more Canadian.
“A part of me [stays] scared and anxious for the fact that I am different from those born here but is also insightful and optimistic on being a part of two distinct cultures, my Filipino and Canadian lifestyles,” Tiangco says.
Though he has not faced assimilation in Canada, Tiangco also notes a lack of fulsome acceptance by other Filipinos in Canada.
“I moved here at a time when I started learning how to even speak,” Tiangco says. “I am not fluent in Tagalog so I struggle to even relate to other Filipinos in Canada. I only know how to understand a few words, and I lack that accent that resembles those who can speak the language. It was really apparent in cultural difference when my cousins from the Philippines came over. Daily routines were different and it made me not really feel like a Filipino.”
However, certain ‘universal’ interests helped Tiangco relate to others.
“To make friends with others of a different culture, I just had to be me,” he says. “I found people with common interests, such as music. Music is universal, and regardless of a culture, people can find each other through it. I listen to a lot of Korean pop music, and so [do] a bunch of my friends, regardless of where they come from. The beat is amazing, even if I don’t understand what is being said 90 per cent of the time.”
For Atif Khan, coming to Canada as a political refugee from Pakistan resulted in grief due to a separation from his country of birth and, at the same time, the lack of belonging in a country that sees him as a “second-class citizen.”
Regarding his identity, Khan says, “I would say more Pakistani, but I wouldn’t identify as either, because to an extent, I never belonged to Pakistan, I was born there, but we weren’t accepted by law, and then we came to Canada, and we were Muslim… and we were second class citizens now. So we were never really accepted anywhere.”
Khan criticizes the absolutism that comes with discussions on how origin correlates with identity. “I know where I’m from, but that’s not exactly my identity, it’s liberating to have an identity that’s not fixed,” he says.
El Sanyoura, whose family immigrated due to the political instability of Lebanon, shares similar viewpoints.
“Right now I recognize that my identity is dual. I identify as Lebanese yet I do not want to go back and live there,” El Sanyoura says, “I do not identify as Canadian but I can see my life here in a way that I cannot in my home country.”
“However, I am struggling to balance the two and keep the Lebanese part alive, which is hard because Lebanon is ridden with so much corruption that I often wonder if I am projecting an idealized version of my home country to love simply because it is my home country,” she says.
Khan calls having a non-fixed identity “liberating.” He continues, “Our lives are so based on being a diaspora. It’s constantly a web of movement, it allows you to be multiple different people at multiple different times.”
Connections and disconnections
At the same time, Khan regards Pakistanis with more familiarity because of a shared “imagined sense of identity.” For Khan, if the person asking the question ‘where are you from?’ is South Asian like he is, then they will elicit a different response than a white person asking him the same question would.
Comparatively, Shishikura notes that she would say she’s Japanese, while Khan might say that he’s from Pakistan, illustrating the nuances between identity and origin.
Both Khan and El Sanyoura note the importance of mobility and how mobility contributes to their identity. They also note the importance of surrounding themselves with the narratives of those with shared affinities.
“I am constantly scared of losing my culture and my language, which is strange because in Lebanon, it was always about unconsciously yet actively trying to be Western,” El Sanyoura says. “Here, there is a disconnect and it really makes me regret all the times I hated the hours of Arabic class or considered it inferior to English. I think surrounding myself with other Arabs and engaging with the Arab community help a lot, both language-wise and culture-wise. Also listening to classic Arabic music!”
Khan, on the other hand, talks about how if he ever went back to Pakistan, it would have to be planned and strategic due to the country’s political instability. As a result, it makes his ‘imagined’ sense of identity so much stronger because he needs to rely on other people’s narratives, and if he ever did return, he would have to hide his ‘true’ identity due to his status as a political refugee.
Those who have actually returned to their countries of birth or origin have also felt a sense of displacement. Shih says that, in spite of taking pride in his “Taiwanese-ness,” he felt it had become more ‘imagined’ than ‘real’ when he went back to Taiwan. The subtle differences became magnified in the everyday nuances of life.
Vinson recalls an incident in Taiwan where he was waiting in line and attempted to make small talk with a cashier, only to receive a negative response. It was in light of this subtle difference in attitudes that further amplified Vinson’s ‘imagined’ sense of Taiwanese-ness and made him recognize that he would never be truly Taiwanese.
“At that point, I was like, ‘Maybe I’m not that Taiwanese,’ because I was never really living in that culture,” Shih says. “All of what I got was from my parents and entertainment, right? And from that perspective [it made] me realize that maybe I’m Canadian.”
For Angela Hou, who moved to Canada permanently when she was in grade nine and identifies as Chinese, the feeling of displacement applies to her early struggles to integrate and understand Canadian culture. At the same time, she takes pride in the fact that she can play a role in shifting people’s perceptions of China and breaking down common stereotypes.
She also recalls incidents where she felt isolated from international Chinese students similar to herself — notably when they judged her choices in non-Chinese friends.
Tiangco faced the same kind of isolation but from other Canadians. “On multiple accounts, I have been treated differently,” Tiangco says. “Most people often call me out on it and it often makes me feel excluded from groups. I don’t speak the language [well, and] I wasn’t born here, so I feel like I’m on my own. It doesn’t stop me from talking to people, though, [and] I find it easy to talk about myself and find… commonalities with others.”
The family factor
It is important to note the significance of family and how the influences of parents can sway the formation of identity.
El Sanyoura says, “My family is currently incomplete because my father still lives in Lebanon. He comes and visits for 10 days every month and a half or so, so living with just my mother has definitely changed the family dynamics. Much more responsibility has been placed on each of us as well, to take care of each other and to keep our values in a world that doesn’t hold the same ones.”
Tiangco also notes the sacrifices that his father has made and how his understanding of family has contributed to his own personal identity.
“[My father] would tell me stories of how much hours he would have to endure at work in order to make ends meet and how the only time he would be at ‘home’ was to shower, rest, and eat dinner,” Tiangco says. “Even my actions lately haven’t been so loving, I truly thank him for the opportunities he has given me through his sacrifices.”
Hou notes the pressures placed on her by her parents and considers Canadian culture more lenient in comparison to her Chinese culture, which demands that she is educated in a field that will give her access to a stable job.
The question ‘where are you from?’ is a problematic one that raises questions of identity, alongside a consideration of the multiple factors that constitute identity. The question carries grief, joy, loss, and gain. ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that dips into the basic human need of wanting to belong and wanting to connect.
Maintaining connections to both the cultures we were born into and the cultures we adopt allow us to find a meaningful balance.
you loved the sort of girl who made you feel like
a politically correct prince charming
the kind who would let you open doors
as an act of chivalry
but wouldn’t make a fuss when she offered to
split the bill.
you loved the sort of girl who made you feel like
you were back at home
the ones that reminded you of childhood
and foreign countries
languages that taste like noodles
and everything nice.
you loved the sort of girl who made you feel
a little more, a little better
when you stare into her eyes you exhale
and think about how
beautiful she is
when you breathe her in
she smells like a cinematic ending.
I am dragon
there is an overwhelming expanse of space between
and what could be
and it makes me cry some days — —
it makes me write letters on others.
I am two countries
I was born in a place across the world
but I grew up in a place I now call home
my mannerisms are a little quirky
because I think I know more about immigrant
than the average immigrant child
but I think I know less about North American
than the average North American adult.
I am clumsy
I trip on flat ground
and spend entire days watching bullshit tv shows.
I don’t know how to romanticize a flower if
I see it
and I sure as hell won’t tell you your eyes
match your shirt.
I know how to be happy
like no one else can and
maybe I end up bruised in places
no one ever sees
I’ve realized it’s worth so much more to
give than to receive
and maybe that creates crevices
within my body
but I have entire universes
filling in the gaps.
I used to pray to God to make me white
I wanted to be pretty like the girls
I read about in novels beneath my bed covers
but lately I’m not feeling
the purple blue veins
lately I’m feeling
that I’m made of snake skin
and it makes me tougher than
all of them combined.
real life is rarely so neat
my candid moments would never
make it on reality TV
I stumble my way through a life
that doesn’t always feel like mine
but that doesn’t make me
unworthy for the screen
that makes me
— Wen Ning Yeh
Girl From China
Because they don’t know what it’s like
To be foreign
They talk behind their hands
As if I cannot see their words on their faces
They laugh with mouths open wide
Glancing at me to see if I see.
So what if I don’t speak your language
So what if I don’t know the rules
So what if I don’t wear your clothes
I know I don’t wear a bra
And maybe my mother
Doesn’t take me shopping
Like yours does.
— Wen Ning Yeh