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.

(Page 2 of 2)

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. Her friends in Grade 12 were a mix of Mandarin-speaking students in regular (non-ESL) classes and even in the advanced level International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. They could all speak English well enough by Grade 12, but they were just comfortable staying in the groups where they had built up social bonds. These bonds, however, like high school fads, are not permanent.

Being In Between

Barbara ponders for a moment over the question of national identity: does she consider herself Canadian? Barbara shrugs and says that she doesn’t know. She’s in between Canadian and Chinese. 

Barbara’s in between state is familiar to many Vancouver teens whose families immigrated from the Asia-Pacific in the last decade. Many expressed similar sentiments about their national identities, a view of themselves which exists somewhere between Canada and their countries of birth. As first-generation Canadian citizens, they don’t fit completely into any category.

For these in-between teenagers, racial humour on the internet has had a big influence on how they navigate cultural identity. Words like “FOB” and “Honger”, once equivalent to the N-word, are now harmless verbal insults between friends, and have become the subject of countless parodies online. 

Racial humor is more accessible to teens than ever before through the Internet. In 2010, according to reports from Canadian media watch organizations and Statistics Canada, Canadians logged online more than any other country, and spent an average of 4.4 hours a month on YouTube (second only to the Germans).

Teens today can watch stand-up routines by professional comedians like Toronto-born Russell Peters and Korean-American Margaret Cho, as well as amateur comedy videos from YouTube vloggers like Vancouver-based Chinese-Canadian Davin Tong (better known as Peter Chao). With over 600,000 subscribers to his channel, Tong is part of the distinguished Wikipedia list of famous YouTube personalities.

Peter Chao, who dons sunglasses in his videos and speaks with a thick, over-the-top Cantonese accent, is a caricature of a “Honger”. In one of his videos, Peter Chao describes a “FOB”:

“A FOB is a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant that come all the way from China to study in North America. Don’t look at me, I’m not a FOB. I’m Peter Chao. FOBs can’t speak a lick of English.”

Tong pauses for a beat, letting the irony surface. It’s a bizarrely subtle moment that touches a particular anxiety among Asian-Canadians of being categorized as “FOBs” or “Hongers,” who lack English-speaking ability.

Even Fred, who refuses to call himself Canadian, says that he doesn’t want to be called a FOB. It’s embarrassing.

That was so three years ago

Fred’s friend Alvin Tang, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in Grade 5, says that words like “FOB” and “Honger” were really a Grade 8 thing. He tunes out of the conversation at this point to play a game on his iPod Touch, with one earphone bud in. He plays for a few minutes, brushing back his spiked bangs without breaking his focus on the screen. When the game ends, he resumes his explanation.

Alvin says a lot of people in Fred’s group knew each other from ESL classes in elementary school or in Grade 8 or 9. Back then, being a newcomer to Canada was a common bond, and such categorizations were novel and relevant to making sense of where they belonged. Now, most have moved into regular classes and can speak fluent English. They don’t really use these terms to refer to themselves or others, except in the occasional joke. Their biggest priority is getting into university in September.

The end-of-school bell rings, and students flood the almost-empty cafeteria and hallways outside.  Fred and his friends tell each other goodbye in Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi and English.

* Students’ names have been changed.

More in Investigations

BC Liberal Party director caught up in billion-dollar scandal in Ontario

Premier Christy Clark’s government is caught up in the scandal surrounding the Ontario Liberal government over the billion dollar-and-rising cost of cancelling two planned natural gas electricity...

New "concerned citizens group" has deep pockets and close ties to oil industry

Last week, a new ad promoting oil pipelines appeared ahead of my favourite new song on YouTube. It featured a pair of actors having a simulated ‘real-life’ conversation about the paradox...
Speak up about this article on Facebook or Twitter. Do this by liking Vancouver Observer on Facebook or following us @Vanobserver on Twitter. We'd love to hear from you.