Do All Immigrant Experiences Count? Or Just SOME?

Everyone, important or not, seems to be writing or talking about their own immigrant experience or that of their family members.  That they came to escape persecution.  So here’s my piece.  Most of you know I’m a first generation Canadian born Canadian (or if you want to be ethnically accurate, Canadian born Chinese).  My parents came to this country in the 1970s, a few years before I was born.  Unlike many immigrants, they weren’t escaping persecution in the old country (1997 didn’t crossed their minds when they came here), but saw coming to Canada as a new opportunity for them.  It wasn’t necessarily to give any kids they end up having a better life.  I would have had some sort of comfortable, middle class type upbringing on either side of the Pacific.  I do have to admit that academic pressure would have been MUCH STRONGER had I grown up in Hong Kong.  And no, I wouldn’t have had a backyard to play in or been able to ride bikes up and down the street.  Brownies and piano?  Probably (well, piano, definitely.  Brownies and Guides, MAYBE.  I’m a second generation BP (Baden-Powell) kid as my dad went to Cubs). 

Me, on my first bike

As someone whose parents didn’t come to escape persecution, but for different opportunities, should I feel guilty that I wasn’t “one of those people?”  I’m probably not “typical” and my experience and privileged upbringing, while similar to many Canadian born Chinese of my generation, is probably MORE akin to those who are second generation Canadian born Canadians of other cultures – still having strong connections to the old culture, but at the same time, have better opportunities than a “typical” immigrant family. 

Of course, that isn’t to say that I had zero bad experiences being first generation.  I spent my first two years of school – junior and senior kindergarten – at the neighbourhood public school where the students were overwhelmingly second generation Canadian born and Jewish.  I was one of perhaps five or six non-Jewish kids in my grade and one of three Asians (I was also non-English speaking for the first few weeks.  I didn’t go to pre-school (I don’t think my mom got on the waiting list early enough for the schools she wanted me to go to.  Yes, getting on the waiting list EARLY was a thing even back in the early 80s), so I entered kindergarten knowing only a few words I picked up at a pre-school aged camp I went to the summer before.  It was a very difficult few weeks, but I learned quickly (and if you are second generation or beyond, PLEASE DO NOT APOLOGIZE/FEEL BADLY FOR ME.  NO SUFFERING WAS INVOLVED, SO WHY BOTHER?).  My parents asked a slightly older kid from our street to spend time with me each afternoon.  She was 10 or 11 at the time, so a bit too young to babysit, but not TOO young to feel too weirded out playing with toys a four year old played with either).   The school was unofficially closed on Rosh Hashanah (i.e. school ITSELF was on, but very few people were there).  I don’t know if it was the lack of diversity at the school or the fact that the school had open classrooms (i.e. classrooms without walls) from Grade 1 onward, but my parents switched me to a Catholic school after I finished SK.  It was more diverse – lots of kids who were probably no more than two or three generations “off the boat” so to speak and many were Italian, Irish or Polish.  There were more Asian kids, mostly Canadian born Chinese like me, with some of Korean descent.  I was a great five years – I left to go to a public middle school in Grade 6 when I really started questioning the church/Vatican (after I got upset because we were not given UNICEF boxes due to the UN’s stance on abortion) before heading to a girls-only private school.  Anyway….

Like I said, am I supposed to feel guilty because I didn’t have to struggle (I suppose you can say my parents “struggled” when they got here, but not in the sense of many immigrants who had to work manual jobs due to the lack of proper skills.  Their struggle was more like being in a new environment, country and culture where English was the primary language rather than Cantonese.  They’re very fluent in English and along with post-secondary degrees meant they were able to get office jobs fairly quickly)?  Am I allowed to be grateful that I didn’t have to and be open about it?  Or is my life just too “unrealistic” (really?  What is THAT supposed to mean, anyway?) for a child of immigrants to properly discuss?  I’m not dismissing other people’s more “typical” experiences, but I feel that voices like mine need to be heard too.  Or am I not allowed to because, well, my childhood was too “typically suburban” to talk about?  Because we only want to hear about how one comes out of struggling in a new country?  


NOTE:  My parents didn’t exactly grow up super-privileged, so I guess it makes it more okay?



About Cynthia Cheng Mintz

Cynthia Cheng Mintz is the founder and webitor-in-chief of this site and the petite-focused site, Shorty Stories. She has also written for other publications including the Toronto Star and has blogged for The Huffington Post. Her first novel, Aspirations, was published in 2007. Outside of writing, Cynthia researches and advises philanthropic ideas for family funds and foundations and also volunteers.

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