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Connecting to my Greek culture and family

Struggling to connect with my cultural identity as a Canadian citizen

Connecting to my Greek culture and family

As The Varsity’s Associate Features Editor, part of my job this year included creating a new online subsection. When I was considering what to pitch, the idea of ‘Intersections’ seemed like a natural choice. The concept resonated with me: how do people’s ethnic identities play into their Canadian experience? Many Canadians are immigrants or descendants of immigrants, like me, and I find that my ethnic identity plays a large role in my worldview. I believe that, by telling our stories, we can foster better relationships with our communities and understand ourselves better.

I am a proud Canadian. I was born and raised here. I’ve been fortunate enough to explore five of our provinces, and I’ve seen both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. I recognize and acknowledge the good, the bad, and the ugly of our history, and I seek to play a role of promoting a better society. Part of that is by acknowledging and respecting both the similarities and differences of those who live in our city and our country.

We may live in a ‘cultural mosaic,’ but we also live under cultural assimilation. Reclamation efforts by those such as Indigenous communities and French-Canadians have made strides, but there is still a long way to go.

But how does cultural reclamation work for descendants of immigrants feeling a lack of identity altogether?

Unlike my grandparents, who struggled to learn English and integrate into Canadian society, or my parents, who became fully bilingual in Greek and English while straddling both Greek and Canadian culture, I have been fully assimilated and thus struggle to hold onto my Greek culture and language.

Perhaps it was visiting Greece and struggling to talk to my family and other locals in Greek, or perhaps it was living with my grandma, who has to translate most of what she says into English, but I feel as though I can’t fully connect to my culture, and more importantly, my family.

As someone who was born and raised in Canada, it might seem strange that I’d be writing about my own multicultural experience — but the stories of our identities and how they form and change affects us all, irrespective of who we are.

My family moved to Canada seeking economic prosperity. My paternal grandfather came in 1957 and changed his name from Kalantzakos to Kell to assimilate easier. My maternal grandmother followed her brother to Toronto in 1965 while seven months pregnant, in hopes of a better future for her children. My grandparents emerged into the middle class through menial labour and odd jobs, achieving success against frequent cultural and language barriers.

My identity is Greek-Canadian. That’s how my parents and I describe ourselves, but what does that mean? Identity is a weird notion, but it is a powerful one. The problem is, I have no idea what I truly am. I was born in Canada, but Canada, for better or worse, has no real identity at least not one that isn’t fundamentally taken from English or French culture. Most of my family has become isolated from the Greek diaspora community. As a result, I struggled to learn Greek, which I only started truly understanding two years ago; we barely eat Greek food due to the prep work required and the fattiness of it; we have mostly stopped going to church; and I can’t have any meaningful relationship with Greek societies on campus, which are more party clubs than cultural ones.

However, at its core, much of my complaining comes down to identity. Some innate, indescribable need compels me to try learning more Greek, become more immersed in Greek culture, consume more Greek food, and be more involved in the Greek community. Unfortunately, I feel that there is no easy way for a third-generation immigrant of any ethnicity to meaningfully reconnect with their family’s historical culture, unless they are forced somehow to do so.

I went to Greece once in 2016. It was the closest I ever felt to a cultural belonging. Despite my scarce vocabulary, I spoke Greek almost as much, if not more, than English. Greece was a paradise, and the euphoria from being able to connect with my culture was amazing. However, I realized I didn’t truly belong there when I went to a bakery one day and a woman behind me asked me a question in Greek, and by the time I understood her question, she indignantly remarked in English, “Oh, you’re not Greek.” In Canada, I could simply say I’m ethnically Greek in English and not have to prove it in Greece, there was no such mercy, and it hurt.

I can’t reclaim my culture by simply complaining about it. I’m proud to be a Canadian and will forever be grateful that my family chose to immigrate here. However, it’d be hard to reclaim one’s culture by using methods that have failed. The best way I can reclaim my culture is writing about it, gathering my thoughts, and learning as I go.

Half and half: growing up mixed-race

My South Korean and Croatian heritage

Half and half: growing up mixed-race

Intersections is a new Features subsection exploring multiculturalism and diaspora in Toronto. Students consider how their cultural backgrounds have influenced their experiences, perspectives, and stories.

If I had an Instagram follower for every time someone told me my mixed-race heritage was “exotic,” well, let’s just say I’d give Kim K a run for her money.

Comments like these always confused me; it never struck me as weird growing up in a biracial household. My father is Korean, and my mother is Croatian. While definitely an uncommon combination, it was normal for me to start the week off eating bibimbap and finish the week eating ćevapčići. However, I’ve never been able to escape the curiosity about my mixed heritage. What seemed like normal to me was a foreign concept to many.

Up until entering U of T, the reservoir of snide comments that had accumulated throughout my life convinced me that my family deviated from the norm of single-race ‘purity.’ But before I explain how U of T changed that perception, we need to recount a bit of history first.

A Chu family history

My dad grew up in Busan, South Korea. He immigrated to Canada when he was in elementary school, and his family settled in Etobicoke. Like a lot of immigrants in the 1970s, he grew up relatively poor, he didn’t speak a lot of English, and as the first-born son, he was under a lot of pressure to become a successful professional.

By contrast, my mother was born in Timmins, Ontario, the perfect example of a tiny northern Ontario town. Despite being born in Canada, she grew up in an extremely Croatian household in a town where there was a strong Croatian community. She and her parents eventually moved down to Oakville and lived a relatively comfortable life.

Despite their vastly different upbringings, both of my parents ended up at U of T for their undergrads. My dad studied Commerce at Vic, and my mom studied History at Trin. Not only are my parents a great example of interracial dating, they are a great example of intercollegiate dating as well. Eventually, they met while working at RBC in Toronto and the rest is history.

I credit the city of Toronto for bringing two people with wildly different cultures and backgrounds together, and for that I will always be grateful. I often think about the circumstances necessary for my existence. If my dad had chosen to immigrate to the US instead of Canada, if my mom never moved down south, or if their parents were stricter about who they wanted them to marry, I might never have been born. But I shouldn’t sweat the details, regardless of the circumstances.

I arrived as a mixed-race kid in a world that had a lot of trouble reconciling that with an overwhelming presence of single-race relationships. It is probably for this reason that my identity was in flux for many years.

Half and half

One of the most relatable songs I’ve ever heard is Miguel’s “What’s Normal Anyway?” Miguel, of mixed Black and Latino heritage, describes the feeling so many mixed kids feel daily when he sings, “I never feel like I belong, I wanna feel like I belong.” Many mixed kids feel the tension between their multiple ethnic identities and often feel pressure to identify with one side more to solidify their identity it often seems much easier to wear one name tag instead of two. There is never a normal for us, only a constant changing of identity to ‘fit in.’

After reflecting on my biracial-ness, I find it interesting that for the vast majority of my life, I was defined by the half of me that was most foreign to the people I was hanging out with. In elementary school, since I was one of the few ethnic kids in a predominately white school, I was known to others as the ‘Asian’ kid. In high school, I searched for a group of friends that wouldn’t tokenize me for my ‘exoticness,’ and so I hung out with a group that was largely Asian. I ran into other issues here because I was considered pretty white, since I couldn’t speak Korean and couldn’t relate to a lot of their cultural traditions.

So, how did U of T help me embrace my mixed identity?

I know people like to complain about this place every chance they get, but truthfully, I have never felt more comfortable with my identity than in my two years here. Sure, maybe you can attribute this to a boost of self-confidence after those crippling, insecure teen years, but I believe that it’s the diversity of the U of T student body that has allowed me to feel the most confident in my skin I’ve ever felt.

There is something particularly unique about our school environment. I have met people from all over the world who speak multitudes of languages, practice different religions, and teach me new things every day. Perhaps it’s the demographics of the GTA, but I think it speaks to the inclusivity of the institution that such a diverse group of students want to attend this school.

Most importantly, I’ve met so many other mixed kids who can relate to everything I’ve just described. Unlike high school, the lack of cliques means your relationships aren’t defined by labels. People are more interested in what I’m studying or what I’m passionate about than my heritage or hometown. I feel like here, we care more about what people are than what people should be.

Of course, the ‘exotic’ comments will never truly stop, but it’s incredibly heartening to say that over the past two years, more people have told me my mixed ethnicity is ‘cool’ than ever before.

Twenty years, three continents, four regions

Learning to embrace change far away from home

Twenty years, three continents, four regions

At Hong Kong International Airport, 2004: I headed to Switzerland with my parents. At Hong Kong International Airport, 2013: I headed to Malaysia with my parents. At Hong Kong International Airport, 2015: I headed to Canada on my own.

Over the past 20 years, I’ve lived on three continents and four regions: Hong Kong, Switzerland, Malaysia, and Canada. I attended eight schools and met many life-long friends — so the one thing I know best is change. Growing up, my dad told me that what humans do best is change, and that every day we experience something different. Although some people prefer to live a static life, others strive to mix it up a little.

Leaving my family  

Attending eight different schools while growing up can make you feel a bit uneasy — you need to make new friends, adapt to a new school environment, and so on. It gets worse when you move across the country, and even more difficult when you have to move across the globe without your parents.

When I was 18, I left my parents in Malaysia to pursue an education abroad. It was the most difficult decision I had ever made because for the past 18 years, I had been inseparable from my mother. I first went to Hamilton, where I attended Grade 12 in an international school. My high school offered me a safe environment and allowed me to learn more about Canadian culture.

During that one year in Hamilton, I did not miss home much. I guess it was because I was still in the ‘honeymoon’ period, but as time went on, I realized how much I missed home. I missed the home-cooked meals, the celebrations, and the people. Despite loving Canada, I still cannot call it my home because my parents are not here. Home is where my parents are.

Canadian schools are very different from the education I received in Hong Kong. After spending around 13 years there, I can assure you that the Hong Kong education system is highly competitive. This explains why it was a little bit easier for me to adapt to the competitive environment at U of T.

When I got my acceptance letter in February 2016, I decided to move into Wilson Hall at New College, and that was when my U of T adventure began. This was also the time I fully got to know Toronto.

Hong Kong, 2007. Photo Courtesy of Sammi Chan.

Maintaining my history at U of T

As a Political Science and English student at U of T, I often come across texts that are written from a white male perspective. I often question why many of the articles and books I read aren’t instead from a female’s perspective. More importantly, why do we rarely learn about history from the perspective of east Asia and Southeast Asia. This Eurocentric approach at a Canadian institution is to be expected, but sometimes I still want to feel included into this multicultural community.

Growing up in Hong Kong as a Malaysian-Chinese kid meant that I knew a lot of Chinese history. I always found our history fascinating and I like to tell people about our festivals, culture, and norms. Although I am just as curious about Canada’s history, lifestyle, and culture, I feel like a part of me still clings onto Malaysian-Chinese history, food, people, and culture. I love that when I lived in Malaysia for two years, I adapted an accent that I use when I see my Malaysian and Singaporean friends.

Here at U of T, this accent only appears when I am with my friends at the Malaysian Singaporean Students’ Association. Meeting students that share the same cultural background as me often reminds me of home.

Malaysian Singaporeans’ Student Association, 2017. Photo courtesy of the MSSA.

Being in Canada has never been easy. I am thankful to my parents for offering me this opportunity, but living away from home can be exhausting. There are times when I don’t understand the slang that Canadians use, or when I feel like I will never fully fit into this community like my friends that were born and raised here.

Sometimes, I see people get really excited about national sporting events. As the Winter Olympics ended recently, I pondered the question: which team should I support — Canada, Malaysia, or Hong Kong? All three of them have had a huge influence on my life. Do I have to choose one, can I choose all, or should I fit in and choose Canada — the country I am living in right now?

I’m still figuring out my answer.

I don’t speak Filipino

Staying true to my heritage while immersed in other cultures

I don’t speak Filipino

In the Filipino poem Sa Aking Mga Kabata — or, To My Fellow Youth — José Rizal, the national hero of the Philippines, reportedly wrote, “One who does not treasure his own language is worse than a beast or a putrid fish.”

Historians question whether Rizal actually wrote that poem or not, but the meaning still stands. To be clear, although I understand most of the language, I don’t speak Filipino. If someone were to talk to me in Filipino, I would carefully respond in English, hoping my inner translation was correct. But the fact that I can’t speak my own native language — and that my national hero would have called me a stinky fish — has remained a blemish on my identity and a stain on my record that I wanted to hide.

To say that I moved around a lot as a kid is an an understatement. My mother’s job took us around the world, from Canada to China, by way of the Middle East and Poland. I never stayed anywhere for longer than four years, so I ended up experiencing a multitude of other cultures.

But somewhere along the way — with the many ups and downs of a typical teenager’s life — I lost a little bit of my own.

Disconnecting from my heritage

Back in my hometown of Tuguegarao, I felt cut off from my family and other close relatives. As  someone who identifies as an introvert, I already did not feel like striking up a conversation, but the fact that I did not speak the language spoken around the dining table made me shy away even further. If I wanted to say something, like how my day was or what my thoughts on current affairs were, I felt weird and I would retreat. It didn’t help that I barely saw my family, since I was always abroad.

In Canada, I was enrolled in a French immersion school and learned an entirely new language. According to my mom, it was around the same time that I forgot how to speak Filipino. I wasn’t around many other Filipino people, and my community was almost entirely made up of people from other diasporas. Though I did make some Filipino and half-Filipino friends, they didn’t speak the language either. As a result, I wasn’t able to speak Filipino that often except to my mom and the occasional acquaintance.

Fast forward to 2009, I was living in the Philippines again for the first time in six years. A week before the flight, I thought everything would turn out okay. I was simply going back, right? ‘Home is where the heart is,’ or so the adage goes. I should have felt better; I should have felt comfortable about seeing my own people; I should have felt happy about returning to a place called ‘home.’ I was dead wrong.

I knew from experience that it was hard to start a life in another country, at another school. But this time was different. Going in, I expected to be normal, to blend in to the sea of people who looked like me. That didn’t happen, as almost immediately, I was met with a reverse culture shock: everyone was communicating in a language I did not know, my schoolmates teased me for being the only new kid that year, and middle school stressed me out.

Eventually, I moved again. At the height of animosity between China and the Philippines, I was a high school student in Shanghai. In the confines of the school walls that were covered by academic freedom, we were taught to be expressive with our culture. I would regale my English teacher and my friends with passionate stories of my past. But outside, I felt the need to hide my identity; I didn’t tell anyone outside of my small community that I was Filipino.

Overcoming a self-made barrier

Throughout the years, I taught myself to try better to re-immerse myself in my culture, even though I wasn’t living in the Philippines anymore. I broke out of my middle school shell and tried to converse more with my cousins and grandparents. Even though I wasn’t speaking Filipino, I realized that it wasn’t a prerequisite for getting to know the rest of my family. Armed with that understanding, I became more comfortable back home.

I took it upon myself to read more news about my homeland. I found that the Philippines has become polarized in the past couple of years, with the election of controversial figure President Rodrigo Duterte. As my political beliefs began to form and mature, I began to engage more with my country’s history.

Anyone who knows me also knows that I’m obsessed with television shows. I remember bingeing How I Met Your Mother and 2 Broke Girls for days on end, but when looking for new avenues of experiencing my culture, and I decided to try watching Filipino shows — or teleseryes, as they’re more commonly known. Even though they were mostly clichéd and predictable, I was hooked. Anything that had James Reid and Nadine Lustre, like On The Wings of Love, I had to watch. Funnily enough, I started picking up phrases and expressions here and there, and began to speak to some friends in a weird mix of Filipino and English.

I still don’t speak Filipino. I still tend to be a little shy around family and other members of my community. But I’ve started to be more open about my cultural roots, and that is the most important part. I’m only 19, and my heritage is like a tapestry; it takes a while to weave, and it continues to take shape to this day. In the end, I’m proud of where I come from and the process it took to get here.

I’m from Afghanistan — at least partially

How Afghan diaspora shapes my views on identity, history, and the world around me

I’m from Afghanistan — at least partially

Intersections is a new features sub-section exploring multiculturalism and diaspora in Toronto. Students consider how their cultural backgrounds have influenced their experiences, perspectives, and stories.

I’m not the kind of person who is open and expressive. This isn’t because I have anything to hide; I just tend to stay away from questions about me because it can get complicated. Simple questions like ‘where are you from’ make me a little uncomfortable. When people say things like ‘I thought you were European,’ it makes me feel weird.

Is it a compliment? I thought it was once, but not anymore.

As I’ve grown up and entered adulthood, I’ve started to find comfort in my discomfort. Everywhere I looked, there was absolutely no representation of people like me. And when I tried to look for it, I found it in the people broadcasted on the 8:00 pm news, covered in blue burqas in a dusty city where bombs were dropped and terrorist attacks had been happening for years.

I’m from Afghanistan. Well, sort of. This is where it gets tricky. Let me explain.

I was born in 1996. That was the year the Taliban rose to its ultimate power and covered most regions of the country. Afghanistan was no longer safe for my parents, who wanted a peaceful life for their little family. Days before I was due, my parents sought refuge in Pakistan, where I was born.

January 14, 1996, in Peshawar, Pakistan. I’m only a few hours old with my older sister and mom. Photo Courtesy of the Asadullah Family.

We moved back to Afghanistan a few weeks later, where my parents spent a year or so trying to live simply  it was nearly impossible. My parents decided to leave and again sought refuge, this time in Kyrgyzstan. I spent the first eight years of my life there, where I spoke fluent Russian, attended school, and made friends from all over the world.

Evidently, it can get tricky telling people where I’m from I don’t even fucking know! My parents are Afghan. I was born in Pakistan. I was raised in Kyrgyzstan. And now I’m here, a full Canadian citizen. Who am I, even?

The question of identity and what constructs mine has been lingering in my mind for some time. The simplest answer I could come up with is that I’m part of the Afghan diaspora. I’m just an Afghan person who has immigrated to other countries. It should be enough, right? But it isn’t.

The ongoing war in Afghanistan a place where I feel I should have been born and raised  has permanently affected millions of people in and around the country, including me. I can’t help but think my displacement was a product of war. The country where my ancestors settled and where my history was created is now a place I will not be a part of. I will never fully be an Afghan. And if I ever go back to Afghanistan, I will always be a foreigner there. For me, this is the saddest thing with which I’ve come to terms.

At a school event in, Kyrgyzstan. It was a mix of Halloween and Christmas. I’m the one in the middle, and I can’t remember my friends’ names. Photo Courtesy of the Asadullah family.

In an effort to make myself feel better, I’ve made it my mission to cultivate and express my Afghan side as much as possible. I’ve started listening to Afghan music, watching news and shows broadcasted from Afghanistan, and learning more about the history of my home through research and observation. I even made an effort to attend the Afghan Students’ Association’s Arts Night at U of T. It was my way of trying to network and find more people that may have experienced an early identity crisis.

But it was a mess.

There was little to no connection between any of us in the Afghan diaspora within the city. What should have been a night of us connecting with each other turned into a night of me having to witness a bunch of 20-somethings too intimidated by each other to speak about anything remotely related to Afghanistan. No one was invested in the actual artwork placed around the gallery or paid much attention to the music, poetry, or songs. It was just a bad dating scene.

The event left me disappointed and with much less to work with than before I attended. However, I think there are a lot of people like me, beyond fellow Afghans, who feel like their identity is incomplete, missing in some sense. In my case, it just a tad more complicated. I’m choosing to accept this incomplete identity and find comfort in this uncomfortable situation.

If you and I ever meet and you ask me the ‘where are you from’ question, I’m sticking with, “I’m from Afghanistan.” However, I always know there is more to me and my story than just that.