If you watch the bustle of St. George Street, you’ll see it plainly: Chinese students are everywhere.
They are so everywhere that U of T offers the option of convocating in two places—Toronto and Hong Kong. English-as-a-Second-Language courses have never been more popular here. And one just has to wait in line for the computers at Robarts to see how many Hotmail accounts are in Mandarin.
Yes, we’re easy to spot on campus, us Chinese students. But we’re not as easy to understand. Even we find it difficult to figure out who we are sometimes. For many whose native tongue is English, the Chinese-speaking student community is as familiar yet foreign as Chinatown’s weekend market vendors.
A friend, a self-professed “white bread,” calls the world of Chinese-speaking students a “taboo realm filled with bubble tea and ‘housemate wanted’ ads reading ‘Asian preferred.’” He finds this realm to be an impenetrable subculture that’s “cliquish, shy and wanting to be left alone.” His friend goes even further, calling it “the Asian underground.”
What it means to be Chinese can be a touchy subject. It’s easy to use offensive labels and ignorant stereotypes. It’s also easy to shunt identity into a term such as “underground” that implies it is Chinese-speaking students who do not want to join the outside world. Such terms can easily cram everyone into a jumbo human spring roll called “Chinese,” hiding the diversity.
“When you talk about Chinese in Canada, there are at least three types,” explains my Chinese friend “Rachel” a recent U of T graduate in human biology. Like almost everybody, she agrees to talk only under a pseudonym. “There are the ‘FOBs,’ there are the ‘CBCs,’ and then there are the ‘In-Betweens.’”
FOB—an acronym for “Fresh Off the Boat”—refers to recent Chinese immigrants who dress in trendy, Hong Kong-style attire like Diesel jackets and super-high platform shoes. FOBs drive navy blue BMWs or silver Audis. Fobby accessories include designer cell phone plates and sticker photos.
CBC, on the other hand, stands for “Canadian-born Chinese.” They pull what it means to be Chinese in a whole new direction.
Torn between these two types are the “In-Betweens.” They are Chinese-Canadians who were not born in Canada but have lived here long enough to have lost or given up the fobby style, yet who do not identify fully as CBCs. There are many like this in Toronto.
Having been in Canada for ten years, with fluent English under her belt but preferring to converse in Cantonese and Mandarin with close friends, Rachel considers herself an In-Between.
Another friend, “Casey,” who is a science student, admits she can tell the difference between a FOB and a CBC. When told that she looks like a CBC, her answer is a very satisfied, “Good! I am! I don’t want to look like a FOB.” She detests the tight pants, bright shirts, and dyed red hair, all of which look very fobby to her. “I don’t like to dye my hair red. I’d rather dye it brown,” she says. “I like to look normal.”
“Chris,” a music major, spurts it out: “CBCs tend to emphasize free will, expressing yourself, and being creative. For FOBs, it’s ‘go-go-go!’ It’s all about speed.” He has found it difficult to connect with fellow classmates who speak mainly Chinese. “Compatibility is important. It’s hard [to communicate] when there’s no connection.”
Though there may be different perceptions about what being Chinese means, everyone decries the catch term “underground” for Chinese-speaking students.
“What underground? That sounds like a cult—we’re so on the ground! We’re the obvious ones here,” says ‘Damian’, also a recent U of T graduate. He, too, declines to give his real name. As we talk, our conversation switches between Cantonese and English, depending on what we feel like at the moment. It’s classic “In-Between” chatting.
“Take a photograph of the strip of St. George Street, or go to Sid Smith, or Con Hall, and you’ll see that most of the faces are Chinese. They think we’re underground? They can call us a club. But underground—it’s not a positive word to me.”
Jacqueline So is a Chinese Studies specialist and editor-in-chief of Footprint, the oldest Chinese student publication on campus. She does have qualms about using her real name but eventually agrees.
So explains it this way: “Collectively, Chinese tend to prefer to keep to themselves. Compared to other Asian communities on campus, there are more than twenty associations run by Chinese-speaking students. This is a huge number.”
What about their sense of belonging in this mostly English-speaking university? “Most Chinese-speaking students at U of T intend to return to Hong Kong, Taiwan or China once they finish school. And many of them are international students. U of T is more like a place where they’re passing through.”
Moreover, one’s sense of belonging is strongly rooted in one’s native language. Though the majority of Chinese-speaking students are relatively fluent in English, it isn’t their preferred language.
“English usage is more confined to lectures. Outside the classroom, it’s Chinese. There is also an inherent familiarity in picking up a Chinese novel as opposed to an English one,” says So.
One sunny day, I cautiously bring up this topic with a long-time friend, a Chinese-Canadian who has always refused to be labelled as anythnig other than a human being. Unfortunately he, too, doesn’t want to give his name.
“It seems that the Chinese-speaking student community at U of T may be perceived by the rest of the campus as an underground society of sorts,” I say.
“What do you mean by underground? When have we ever been underground?” he says. The word “underground” evokes rebellion: Yamaha motorcycles, leather jackets, dark sunglasses.
I explain to him that it’s a term thrown around by English-speaking students.
“So just because they speak English and get themselves drunk [he calls this a stereotypically “white’” activity], then they’re aboveground, then they’re normal?”
Yet, what does it mean to be normal? Or to be Canadian? What does it mean to be Chinese?
“Doesn’t mean anything,” says Damian. “I’m just Damian. And I happen to be yellow. Canada is so multicultural, I’m so blending in.”
To him, one questions one’s identity only when there is a crisis. “It doesn’t mean anything whether I’m Chinese or Canadian. We don’t really think about it. If we start thinking about it, then there’s something wrong.”