Hendrix arrives at the café out of breath. He looks both ways before he notices me right in front of him. “Long time no see!” he says. He smiles and we shake hands. He’s wearing a neon green beanie, gauges in his ears, and a flannel button-down.
Hendrix is a musician as well as a student at Ontario College of Art and Design studying photography. However, he brushes away questions about his projects in either capacity, offering vague descriptions, none longer than a few lines. Talk of his family is affectionate, but similarly sparse.
The conversation turns to Christianity. “It doesn’t really mean anything to just go to church on Sundays,” he says. “Y’know, growing up in a church environment taught me a lot of things about what it was to be a believer. Mainly, maybe it’s cliché, maybe it’s cheesy, but to really know about who Jesus is as a person.”
He tells me about how for a while he was just going to church as a matter of routine, how it became a social exercise rather than a heartfelt commitment. He apologizes for how much time he is spending on the topic. “I can totally go on for an hour rambling about my faith.”
He proceeds to do so.
Hendrix speaks for a while about having a personal relationship with Christ and how it saw him through difficult times in his life. I nod along, understanding nothing. Finally, he pauses, and then adds: “For me, it was really… Y’know, I’ve really screwed up a lot in my life. There are a lot of things that I don’t even want to remember because they’re so shameful.”
“[W]hen I was younger, I felt like I had to fight against the stereotype of just being a nerdy little Asian, but now I’m just more comfortable with who I am. I don’t care if I’m Asian; I got fucking bangs. I look more Asian than ever.”
My jaw sets when he says this. “And I know that a lot of people are not going to forgive me for them.” I stare for a while, not quite hearing him as he continues. I do all I can to not remember that night; I remember it. Failure upon nearly forgotten failure bleed their way into my mind.
“So the faith has become a really, really crucial part of my life.” I blink a few times. I smile. We turn to talking about what it means to be Asian.
“There’s more schoolwork; the workload is definitely heavier in China, no matter what,” says Hendrix, recalling growing up in Hong Kong. “Coming to Canada, it’s a lot more laid back, which is not necessarily a bad thing, because we kind of enjoy the leisure part of life. It’s not that they cherish that part more; it’s just like they recognize this is an integral part of growing up.”
He thinks about this statement for a while. He looks to the café’s trendy immigrant clientele while Ellie Goulding’s “Burn” blares above the table. “I would say now, after seven years in Canada, I feel like procrastination is my best friend. It’s just something I love to do,” he says. “I don’t know. I just feel like living in Canada and being Chinese, even though there’s the whole thing about working hard, in the long run, you’re just going to start chilling back, and eventually you get to a point where all this work is overwhelming versus thinking, oh, I’m just going to do all this work, and then when I’m done that I’m going to go play.”
“This is interesting, except the questions are kind of boring,” says Sofia after talking to me for a few minutes. I’ve been asking about her family and what her parents do for a living. More than simply not being interested, she seems to be actively avoiding the subject. Every answer begins with “uh…” and ends with a stream of deliberately chosen, staccato words.
Sofia was born in Scarborough, where she spent some of her childhood before moving to Woodbridge. She works multiple jobs, including one at a fashion magazine called Worn and is also The Varsity’s Arts Editor, and is studying diaspora and transnational studies. She brightens up when the conversation turns to her current life.
“Going to Finland this summer was a huge thing for everyone in my family pretty much, because my parents were against it from the very beginning, and I don’t like taking no for an answer,” she says, describing a trip she took the previous summer. “I knew I couldn’t pass on this opportunity, so [I said] I’m going to fund it myself, and my parents didn’t really pay for much.” She only recently paid off the debt from that trip.
“I got to go to Amsterdam, which I’ve been wanting to go to since I was, like, 15. I got to go to Berlin; I got to experience small-town, non-traditional Europe. When people think of Europe, they think of really pretty big cities, but I got to go to Estonia, which I think nobody would ever go to Estonia unless they absolutely have to. I got to go to Finland,” she says. “When people think of Europe, the general idea is like Paris, London, Italy. It’s not wrong; this is just, like… on the fringe.”
Sofia’s outfit is entirely black; a black dress; black, thick-rimmed glasses; a large black sun-hat (in the dead of winter). She seems happiest when talking about ways she defies the ordinary, when she does things others simply don’t think to do or does things specifically because she was told not to do them.
“It’s really frustrating, because I remember being in a restaurant once, and this guy was like, ‘What are you studying?’ and without even waiting for me to answer, he was like, ‘doctor,’ like he went into very stereotypical careers, and I was just like, ‘No, none of that,’” says Sofia, “There’s just a bunch of expectations I have to live up to.”
“I have a reputation in my family for being really rebellious,” she says. “For them, being rebellious is just not following what’s acceptable from within the culture.”
“I hear, ‘Because you’re a girl, you shouldn’t be doing this so often,’ so I just do it as kind of a ‘fuck you,’” she says, “Like, I talk a lot about travelling, and they’re like, ‘Well, you shouldn’t be going to this country because you’re a girl,’ and I’m like, ‘Fuck you; I’m going to do just that, and I’m going to come back just fine and maybe even better.’” Sofia says she goes out of her way to break her family’s expectations, which, in their eyes, simply means failing.
Sofia wants, more than anything, to live somewhere that’s not Toronto for more than a year. “Because I don’t like things that are too permanent,” she says. “I get tired of things really easily, and the idea that Toronto or Canada is what is home now, and it’s been my home for the past 20 years; I don’t want that to be my home for the next God knows how long, 10, 20, 30 years of my life.”
“That’s terrifying, only knowing one place that’s home. That just seems so limiting. That just seems like you live in a box your whole life,” says Sofia. She doesn’t have a specific place in mind. She would be happy to move anywhere as long as it’s somewhere else. “The opportunity to relocate is such a big, important thing to me, that if someone was like, ‘Hey, would you move here in a week?’, I’d be like ‘Yes.’”
Shihan Wan steps into Starbucks for our meeting. A computer scientist, he might be the only person I know who is still doing exactly what he said he’d be doing when he entered university three years ago. Easily the most reticent individual I know, he refuses to be recorded. He deflects almost every question with a one-sentence response. “The Chinese have a 3,000-year history of lessons,” he says at one point. “Why would we want to give up that tradition?”
“Also, do you have a pen?”
I lend him the one I keep in my pocket, and he begins painstakingly writing a card in Chinese. He mentions offhand that it’s for somebody who “did something important” for him. I consider his word. “Tradition.”
I think about Elizabeth, who has struggled against anxiety and depression for years and still found the wherewithal to be one of the most talented, frank people I’ve ever met. I think of how lost she is, how at the end of a childhood keeping things together, she has found she doesn’t know what she wants to create.
I think about Albert, who spent his early childhood alone, because his parents needed to largely ignore him as they worked to eventually give him a better life. I think of how he spent the better part of his adulthood so far applying the impossible work ethic he inherited, before stopping to think of what that work implies.
I think about Ivy, the terrifyingly driven young capitalist, who is ingenious and passionate and tireless. I think of the way she has set out to conquer the world, having only 20 minutes to look back before she needs to continue her inexorable journey forward.
I think about Hendrix, the man of faith, the artist from a society they say is composed entirely of doctors and engineers, the diligent student who worries that Canada has made him lazy.
I think about Sofia, who is willing to go anywhere as long as it’s away.
Shihan returns my pen. I examine his letter. The characters look flawless to my untrained eye. I ask him if his Chinese writing is exceptionally good. He looks taken aback.
“Not really,” he says.
“I don’t get to practice it a lot.”