By: Michelle Lee
What might strike you first when you meet me? Maybe my eyes, the slightness of my hands, my skin color? Maybe the way I slur my Korean? Would you notice the weight and the expectations I have shouldered, the discrimination and double standards that I have faced, and the different versions of myself that I present to the world? Probably not. How about the fact that I am an immigrant? I use this word sparingly to describe myself, depending on company and context; recently, it has taken on an almost derogatory tone. Eyes glance away uncomfortably, and polite smiles take on a strained mien; part of my identity is taboo. One of the first times that this really dawned on me was when I was asked to talk about myself to an account that shared profiles about the student body at my school. The day after my profile was posted, a student stopped me in the hallway and asked me quite brusquely;
“You’re an immigrant?”
I was taken aback. We didn’t speak much, and he was not exactly polite to me or my friends; he was insensitive about boundaries and made disparaging comments about different ethnicities. I mean – yeah, I was an immigrant. What about it? Did he want to congratulate me for it? A passing teacher caught the remark and immediately sprung to my defence.
“What’s the issue with her being an immigrant?”
I get it; maybe it was his tone that implied that I was somehow less for being who I was; but I was also put off by the way that the teacher jumped in to help. It wasn’t exactly a bad thing to call a person, and I hadn’t thought about the word that way before. It was as if the classmate had called me some terrible name. I stayed quiet and let her eventually shoo the boy away.
You must understand; Canada is not all that the rest of the world makes it out to be. It’s far from some untouchable paragon of acceptance and inclusivity. When I started high school I began to really see it. The non-international students often make asides about how international students keep too much to themselves, forming ‘snobby cliques’ : but this only happens because the main student body looks down on them. They bring their language, they bring their food, they bring their culture and leave what feels like limited space for the rest of the students. How dare they make no attempt to conform? How dare they choose to live the way they’ve lived up until now, how dare they not reject their culture for the sake of finding a place with the main student body, however hollow it may be? High school is a tough stage to transition into; everyone is standoffish, bristling, and territorial. Kids can be cruel. Kids can be prejudiced, too.
You don’t know how much relief we feel when someone reaches out.
I want to be that person because I’ve been where they’ve been. I have the privilege to be able to help, so wouldn’t leaving others to struggle by themselves be tactless and disrespectful? I’ll never understand why don’t people take other girls seriously: girls who have darker skin, girls who don’t speak english, girls who aren’t slim, or conform to beauty standards. Why are they not listened to? Why do they have to have others speak for them in order to be heard? Respect isn’t all that hard to give, and it makes me terrifyingly angry when people think respect is below them in some way or form. If I can help change that in any way, then I’m all for it.
Almost worse is the model minority myth. It drags all of us down, belittles and shames us for having our individual needs in order to support this toxic and destructive collection of ideas that Asians are all perfect, hard-working, and unfailingly independant. Thoughtless comments like “oh that’s just how they are,” or “you don’t get to talk, this must be easy for you,” stack up. I worked hard to get here: when I was in kindergarten I knew three words of english. In elementary school I hated my family for not being French or British and then forcing me into a system where I had an incredibly dissonant and unfair disadvantage. I had to justify my success and achievements to be even remotely accepted. I had to live up to their expectations of what they thought an immigrant should be because if I didn’t, I wouldn’t be given a place. Even then, it was hollow and superficial. I have to justify myself over and over. The self hatred, the constant striving for perfectionism, how failure and self worth are tied inextricably together. I hate it. It’s become part of my identity to push myself like this, almost to the point of self-destruction; and while it is the kind of work that society and sometimes my family praises, I know that this road ends badly. Sometimes I feel like I’m not living for myself. These feelings of guilt and indebtedness that the children of Asian immigrants have especially towards their parents binds us together. It’s rooted in our culture, and this combined weight, the constant, pounding awareness of discrimination and the fact that people look down on you for being who you are is crushing and exhausting. Which parts of myself do I keep? Do I give up certain aspects to feel more at ease in the context that I am in? Is there really a way to win? Is it compromise, or is it blatant surrender? Because even though I have lived in quiet Canadian suburbs for most of my life, I still feel more at ease in Seoul; there, I can shed the label minority; people don’t give me a second glance if I speak Korean, and they’re impressed if I speak English or French. I don’t have to hide parts of myself away or justify myself. Quite honestly; I’m tired that I have to keep up appearances here. Worse? I’m jealous of those who don’t have these frequent, pounding identity crises or the same weight on their backs.
So if we went back: how might I introduce myself to you if we meet? What might I say if you ask me to tell you a bit about myself? I wouldn’t tell you my Korean name; that’s my first compromise. I would say I am Korean-Canadian. Would I tell you about my past, my origins, and all my inner conflicts? Probably not; after all, you’re not my therapist. But if you made an effort to be accepting and open-minded, not only to me, but to other Asian girls and women, you’d be privy to our friendship and an entirely different perspective. So reach out. Help one another, use your privilege in the right places, and above all, be kind. You just might end up learning something new.
Michelle, in her own words: I moved to Canada when I was two with my family. I traveled around the world with my family the summer before grade nine. I am currently in grade 11, and I am passionate about writing, reading, and the sciences!