Ethnicity, immigration, and becoming Canadian in Vancouver's high schools

Immigrant and first-generation teens struggle to define what it means to be Canadian. They turn to buzzwords like multiculturalism, tolerance and acceptance. Some say it’s like a passport, or that it’s ancestral. Others just don’t know. In the wake of Macleans' 'Too Asian?' controversy, The Vancouver Observer asked 35 teenagers how they see themselves and each other. The first in our series.

Illustration (above) by Rob Machida. Word graphics by Nireesha Prakash

"FOB? What's that?"

Fred Lin* says that he doesn’t know the difference between “FOB” and “Honger.” He asks his friends if there’s a difference. Someone cracks a joke in Mandarin, causing the two girls in the group to giggle. Fred shrugs. They don’t know.

Fred is a Grade 12 student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary, the second-largest school in the Vancouver School District, with over 2000 students. He’s one of forty-three per cent of students at the school that speak either Mandarin or Cantonese at home. Fred says he has to translate a lot of things for his parents into Mandarin.

I find him hanging out  the cafeteria at Churchill with a few other students. They chat intermittently with another table occupied entirely by Mandarin-speaking boys playing cards. As the end-of-lunch bell rings, Fred explains his back story: born in China, he came to Canada in 2005.  

Fred and his friends fit loosely into the category of people who, upon arrival to Canada, might have been targeted by words like “FOB” and “Honger”.  “FOB” stands for “Fresh Off the Boat”, a term for newly-arrived immigrants who have yet to assimilate into their new country’s language and culture, while “Honger” refers to recent immigrants from Hong Kong. In Vancouver, both words are derogatory slang for people from the Asia-Pacific region. 

Today, Fred speaks fluent English and Mandarin. Most of the people he hangs out with are former ESL students who are now in regular classes. Fred is part of a growing number of foreign-born teenagers whose families immigrated to Vancouver in the last decade.

Statistics Canada estimates that by 2017, about half the population of Vancouver will belong to a visible minority. Churchill, like many other Vancouver high schools, already reflects this diversity. The cafeteria is not as neatly segregated as in the movie Mean Girls and definitely not as diverse as Degrassi, but somewhere in-between.

Image below courtesy of Rob Machida (

During a two month investigation by the Vancouver Observer and Schema Magazine, two reporters talked with kids in Vancouver's high schools. They discovered that race and language facility are only two factors that determine how students see each other and how they see themselves.  They also found that current and former ESL (English as a Second Language) students tend to stick together.

Sitting with Fred’s group is Barbara Teng, a Langara College student who graduated last year from Churchill. She’s visiting her Grade 12 friends. Clad in a pair of dark tomboyish jeans and a black jacket, Barbara is a petite girl with reddish-brown dyed hair. Like Fred, Barbara also immigrated to Canada from China in 2005. In her three years of ESL at Churchill, she says she felt that the white, English-speaking students mostly ignored ESL kids like her.

“The English-speaking kids kind of doesn’t like the ESL kids ‘cause they think they are…” Barbara pauses as she searches for the right word. “Lower.”

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This is a great picture of

This is a great picture of high school life in Vancouver - can't wait to read more! 

I'm wondering if you'll also interview the "non-ESL" students that Barbara referred to...

I'm curious, why does Fred

I'm curious, why does Fred refuse to call himself Canadian? At what point and with what trigger, would he start to, if ever? 

Awesome article

Very relevant and leaves me wanting more.  Looking forward to it!

Age old story in Vancouver

I've lived here for all of my life before moving away for university. I watched this exact story play out in both elementary (1-7) and high (8-12) school from 1988-2000. I went to schools on the west side of Vancouver. This is exactly how things were back then as many new immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China began moving into Vancouver. At first it was hard - being ostrocized in grade 6 because I was the only white guy was hard to take, but as I grew up I began to better understand things. I moved to other places where people had no idea what sushi was, who had never courted a traditional chinese girl at 13. Walking into her house under the eyes of her family was an amazing cultural experience; when I look back on it. So was walking into the lunch room to 'that smell'. Eating food and celebrating cultures so diverse and genuine. It was a true education.

I learned that globalization - an oft misunderstood word - is really about all of us moving from our 'lands' to other parts of the world and looking one another in the eye to finally realize that there is no 'other'. The 'other' is a figment of our imagination. I love meeting people who are different and interesting. There are few places in the world where you find such amazing inter-racial and inter-cultural marriages and babies. It's through generations that we learn the greatest lessons.

Let's get over ourselves, our cultures, our religiions and our tradtions long enough to know that we are all one giant global village on the planet. Now more then ever. We are each on this earth together for a time. Then we are gone. Barring immortality... *fingers crossed*

This article is a great start

This article is a great start to opening up the eyes of non-immigrant people of all ages, as well as other first generationers.  Will you also touch on non-asian immigrants?


It is funny that they only get one perspective, kind of mirrors the people them selves.

The article quoted Barbara saying:"she says she felt that the white, English-speaking students mostly ignored ESL kids like her.

“The English-speaking kids kind of doesn’t like the ESL kids ‘cause they think they are…” Barbara pauses as she searches for the right word. “Lower.”"

Oddly enough, ask a white kid, or a white adult for that matter the same questions about what they feel asian (immigrant or born Canadian) think of them and you will get pretty much the same response. That asians think whites are beneath them, a joke, or not worth their time. I live in downtown and go to UBC and I have talked to many people who say that chinese here in Vancouver look down on non-chinese. Though this is not my experience, since moving here in 2006 the chinese people I have met have been the friendliest, most open, and welcoming -- when they do talk to you anyway. I admit that the majority of them ignore me unless I talk to them first -- which I rarely do with anyone -- but so do many non-asians as well and I never get the feeling it is out of any sense they possess that I am beneath them.

So it looks, to me, that from everyones own perspective the other so called races look down on them. Interesting to find out that while white people are thinking the chinese believe that whites are beneath them the chinese are thinking the same thing about us.

All people have to do is talk to each other to learn how wrong they are about what other people are thinking.

Stay tuned for more

Thank you all for your comments so far-- it is especially heartening for me to read your critical and honest reflections on living or growing up in Vancouver. As you said earthbornhuman, in order to learn about each other, first there needs to be communication. 

There will be much more to come-- keep checking for updates and responding! 


"In her three years of ESL at Churchill, she says she felt that the white, English-speaking students mostly ignored ESL kids like her.

“The English-speaking kids kind of doesn’t like the ESL kids ‘cause they think they are…” Barbara pauses as she searches for the right word. “Lower.”

When pressed to give a specific example of this, Barbara says she can’t really think of any. It’s just the general vibe that she gets. Barbara admits that she and her friends spoke a lot of Mandarin at school, both inside and outside of class."

I think the last bit is a primary reason why native English speakers didn't converse with ESL students.

I remember in my high school, people generally stuck "to their own kind." Plus, if you're a native English speaker who doesn't understand Mandarin/Cantonese/Korean, and you see all these kids who are constantly speaking it, I think it's difficult to relate.
Possibly opening a can of worms here, but ESL classes try and assist non-English speakers to communicate in an English-speaking country. Frankly, if people choose not to speak English and then complain that they have no English-speaking friends, they shouldn't be surprised.

Also from my personal experience, people who are 2nd or 3rd generation and visibly Chinese/ East Asian and can't speak any of the languages are considered "lower" by the East Asian language speakers. So it works both ways, I suppose.

Finally, trying to pinpoint an accurate definition of "Canadianness," "Chineseness," "Koreanness," etc is just grasping for smoke. These definitions change with the times, usually swinging between traditionalism and post-modern "It could be anything!"ism. It just ends up becoming reductionist, essentialist, and overall unhelpful.

Beth, interesting article and

Beth, interesting article and discussion. The school or adult groups with varying linguistic facility in English, and degrees of 'Canadianness' all prefer to converse in their strongest language, in order to fully express themselves at their cognitive levels. I recognise and respect that.

To promote multilingual communication, I created a blog platform where the community is encouraged to post in their preferred languages. Hope to see you there.

Thanks F.L. Feimo! I am now

Thanks F.L. Feimo! I am now following your blog on tumblr and your tweets. Your tumblr posts are fascinating, and very well curated! Keep up the awesome work.a

lmao I wouldn't take it personally

I don't think they'll ever truly be Canadian, because fitting in is a lot harder than you think. I'm 25 right now so I went through the same thing they did. I work as a federal gov't officer and people will admit that they can't tell that I'm Asian on the phone unless they already know, but people will still ask me what's my nationality sometimes, not even where I'm from, but what's my nationality, and when I respond "Canadian", people always seem surprised, confused, even. Would you claim to be Canadian if that was the case?

A 9th Generation white guy

It it very interesting indeed. I grew up in a very white town (Edmonton) and came to Vancouver in Feb of 1999. My family has been in Canada since before 1800 and I am a 9th generation Canadian. I also am a white guy with a little native blood in me as over the past 200 years there have been a few inter-racial relationships in my family. You could probably say "it doesn't get any more Canadian" than I am. I admit that I struggle internally with what I see Vancouver turning into. I guess I feel like the natives did watching their land, culture, and way of life being changed, altered, and influenced by the whites did when they (we) arrived. I struggle with thinking about my children going to schools and being either the only or one of a few white kids (Canadians?) in the school. In my heart, Canada has 2 official languages, English & French. It's not the reality anymore and I admit to struggling with this. In this sense I suppose I wish we were more like America, a "melting pot", rather than "multicultural." It's not racism, either, as my best friend is a black Canadian whose parents are from Jamaica. It's wanting to preserve Canadian culture, or at least what I perceive to be Canadian culture. Language is a big part of culture. Look at how fervently the French protect language in Quebec. I feel the same way about English. I believe everyone living in Canada should be able to speak either English or French. This is not true for many Asians living in the Lower Mainland. I admit it bothers me. I respect ESL's who are trying. Thank you! :)

Also, I know there are many proud Asian Canadians, of course there are but for the most part I think Asians generally think of themselves as Asian first, Canadian second. As for me, I am simply Canadian.

Additionally, I don't "look down" on anybody because of their race, as that isn't the Canadian way. Peace.


Most of you obviously don't

Most of you obviously don't live in Vancouver, where there is actually a multitude of racism, but it's from Chinese and East Asian being racist to Caucasians. 

We live in a city where people from another country can show up with bags of money, jack up real estate so no one born in Canada can afford to buy a house, bring their family to take advantage of our free medicare and subsidized education and get a Canadian citizenship in the process.

An not that this isn’t bad enough, but they then live in segregated communities where there is no English words to be seen.

But if anyone says anything about the erosion of Canadian culture and expresses concern about the lack of cultural awareness from this group we’re deemed racist. 

Vancouver is a Chinese colony and Canadians can do nothing about it.  That’s not racist, it’s just a fact.