South Asian students on 'Frenchies,' ethnic cliques and the new cool

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. Part two in a series.

Illustration above courtesy of Rob Machida

Ninth graders Amita, Anuja, and Laleh* identify “The Frenchies” as the cool group who reigns supreme at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary. The group's nickname refers to French Immersion students – a pack of youth who study, hang out, and party together.
 
Lunch has just ended and the hallways are empty as students and teachers file back into classrooms. For some undisclosed reason, these three girls are not in class. Leaning against the wall behind their bench, the three offer us a crash course on what it takes to be “cool” at Vancouver’s second-largest public high school.
 
Anuja – with dark, curly hair and glasses, a white hoodie, jeans and running shoes – nestles between her friends. High school popularity, she postulates, comes from participating in the trendy, mainstream version of fun.
 
“I think people probably call them popular because, like, they're the kids that go out the most,” she says. “They go to parties and they’re the outgoing kind of people. So – like, just – people pay attention to them more.”
 
Amita interjects. A slender girl in a long fitted t-shirt, Amita wears her long, curly hair tied back in a pony tail.
 
“Yeah, and drama happens to them, basically,” she says, crossing her long legs as she makes her point.
 
Amita, Anuja, and Laleh aren’t party girls, they insist – they’d rather stay home and watch movies than mastermind Friday-night logistics of attaining liquor and weed.
 
“They have a different perspective on what fun is,” explains Anuja.
 
“Like smoking and taking weed and stuff,” adds Laleh, as she swings her long braid from her right to left shoulder.
 
“And we don’t do that,” Anuja affirms, quickly.
 
“We’re the calm people,” Amita says.


 
Beyond ethnicity, there's diversity
 
Amita, Anuja, and Laleh stick together because they have similar backgrounds and can relate to each other with ease and empathy. Amita and Laleh are both Canadian-born while Anuja was born in Pakistan.
 
“It’s us three and another friend,” Anuja says about their close-knit group. “And we’re all brown.
 
“Not to be racist,” she quickly adds, looking straight into my eyes. They all laugh.
 
“In elementary school, I heard a lot of what people said,”Anuja continues. “You know, people like Asians and the brown people — I call them brown — and, you know, white.
 
“Everyone just hung out together. But then as soon as you hit high school, it separates into groups.”
 
Students self-segregate into ethnic groups after primary school, Laleh explains, as they search for belonging in their new secondary schools.
 
“Because you get separated after elementary school, one goes to one high school, and one goes to another,” she says. “And you feel like you have to be accepted by different people.
 
“So you hang out with people who have similarities with yourself.”
 
The girls noticed the distinct student cliques as soon as their teen cohort hit high school.
 
“Asians together, Frenchies together, the brown people together, the brown guys, the brown girls,” Anuja recalls.
 
The youngest sibling in her family – with three over-protective older brothers – Anuja has reached her own conclusions based on observing her brothers' social lives as well as her own school experiences.
 
“Brown guys usually get accepted by older brown guys,” she suggests. “They try to, like, influence them and make them just like them.”
 
“You know,” Anuja continues, “when you come new, you’re innocent and you don’t know anything.”
 
“You feel like you have to change to fit in,” Laleh adds.
 
The three girls acknowledge they stick together because they share deep similarities – commonalities which go far beyond fashion choices or shared skin colour.
 
One of those similarities is language. All three are fluent in English – but often intersperse it with Punjabi when English words don't cut it. It's a phenomenon known as “code-switching” – the concurrent use of multiple languages in conversation.
 
“When we’re in a fun mode and we feel like joking around, we switch to Punjabi – because there are a few things that just don't sound right in English,” says Anuja.
 
“They’re kind of mostly swearing words,” Amita interjects, bashfully. Her friends laugh as they nod their heads in agreement. Shared language, experiences, and interests cements their friendship – and those commonalities held them together through the eighth grade. It continues to hold them through the ninth, they say.
 


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