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.

A Chinese transplant in Canada

Being adopted meant losing any sense of cultural belonging

A Chinese transplant in Canada

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 don’t have a culture. At 10 months old, I was adopted from China by a single, white Canadian woman. I grew up in a semi-rural town populated almost entirely by white people. In that strange circumstance, any meaningful connections I might have had to the culture of my birthplace or the culture I was surrounded by have been erased.

I don’t have a history. According to my mother, I’m from a “dirt poor” rural village, but the orphanage either didn’t have or didn’t provide any further information. My name was originally Yi Shulan, but I don’t know if my birth parents gave me that name or if the orphanage did. I don’t know the day I was born. My official documentation says December 16, but I suspect the orphanage just took a guess and assigned it to me — a fairly common practice, I’m told. My entire history is foggy, a series of unstable estimates. It’s impossible to have a culture without a history.

One of my middle names is Shulan, a testament to my mother’s attempt to connect me to my Chinese heritage. She enrolled me in Mandarin lessons as a child, took me to Chinese celebrations, read me Chinese folk stories, and still gives me a loonie in a red envelope every Chinese New Year. None of it ever took. There was no innate connection I had to the culture of my homeland, no cinematic eureka moment when I heard the spooky red dragons at the new year’s parade calling to me.

Those who know me, and I with them, often make jokes about me being ‘whitewashed.’ It’s true. I bring casseroles for lunch. When I look in the mirror, I’m sometimes surprised to see East Asian features just sitting there on my face. But I don’t expect to see a white woman staring back at me either. My relationship to whiteness is more complex than being whitewashed. I can’t help that whiteness is all I’ve really known, that I’ve lived the majority of my life surrounded by it, but I was only ever surrounded — never included, never embraced.

The racist taunts of bratty white kids in primary school and the subtle digs at my poor math skills in middle school made it clear from the start that I was alien. I didn’t see this otherness as a bad thing per se, but I was acutely aware of it. In high school, East Asians were one of the smallest minorities — I can remember maybe 10 others in an approximately 1,100-person student body. Suffice it to say, the whiteness was intense. Rugby was quite popular.

U of T, then, was a bizarre shift. After over a decade of constantly standing out, I suddenly blended right in, although only on the surface level. If anything, U of T’s large Chinese community only further impressed upon me my alienation. At the frosh week clubs’ fair, I passed by a giant Chinese students’ association booth, and it didn’t even cross my mind that I counted as a Chinese student. I likely walk past hundreds of Chinese students every day, and every day it’s an out-of-body experience to be among them yet feel so distant.

Earlier this year, The Varsity began translating articles into Simplified Chinese. I was sitting on a couch in the paper’s office on one of the first days the translators came in. They filled up the newsroom tables in front of me and began chatting to each other. I saw myself in each of them, but they were speaking a language I couldn’t understand. In them, there was a life that could have been mine in a different world.

My uncle, who was born in Canada, once told me that I should be grateful to my mother for adopting me, implying that my life wouldn’t have been much otherwise. I’m not close with him, but even within my more intimate family, I’m not one of the crowd. Once, when I was wearing a long robe coat that tied closed like a kimono, my mother well-meaningly told me that I looked “Oriental.” She meant it as a compliment.

I do try to remind myself how lucky I am. I wasn’t killed or left for dead as a newborn because I was a girl, a tendency of poor families in a culture that values boys above all. I escaped growing up in an orphanage. I was adopted by a loving, albeit unaware, family and given opportunities I couldn’t have dreamed of in China. But I’ve never been able to shake the feeling that somewhere along the line, I was robbed of a sense of cultural identity and belonging by my circumstances.

Being cultureless is something to which I’ve become accustomed but haven’t accepted. I still can’t tell if it’s liberating or lonely to float through life untethered and without a people you can call your own. When others make reference to their own cultures — something as simple as naming a recipe or humming a song — there are small, fragile threads of my own past that I grasp at to make me feel like I, too, have a place in the world. A birth date on a health card. A middle name.

From Ukraine to TO

The sacrifices made by my parents might be greater than anything I will ever have to do

From Ukraine to TO

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.

Ukraine reached the height of its conflict with Russia when I was 16 years old. With most of my family still there, in the middle of the fighting, I felt a mix of fear for their lives and gratitude for my own safety here in Canada.

During this time, I approached my father, feeling sentimental, and thanked him for moving my family to Canada 10 years ago. He looked at me, almost in tears, and informed me that my mother had been reluctant to immigrate here, and he had convinced her to do so by stating that one day her kids would thank her.

That conversation happened four years ago, and since then, I have learned more and more about the incredible sacrifices my parents made for my future. At 27 years of age, these two first-time parents chose to leave behind their families, their lifelong friends, and well-established careers for the chance of a better life in Canada. This one act is a testament to their incredible strength and bravery — a sacrifice greater than I have ever, or likely will ever, have to make in my life.

When we first moved here, my parents worked 40-hour shifts in a bakery to support my family of four. They worked alongside other immigrants who had moved here from various other countries, people guided by the promise of a better life, but who had failed to find one. My mother once described the despair that permeated the faces of every worker there, which made her and my father afraid that they would get nowhere in life. Instead of resigning themselves to a life of bitter regret and resentment toward a failed dream, my parents chose to persevere.

Once again, they sacrificed a steady, albeit difficult, job to enrol in a school that taught immigrants English. This got them unpaid internships at businesses that would potentially hire them in the future. Their incredible work ethic and the hope of stability for our future were able to gain them steady but low-paying jobs in the business world.

My father continued to go to school, eventually obtaining his Certified General Accountant degree, a program that many people who enrol in drop out of or fail to pass. Now, both of my parents are incredibly high up in their jobs, and they have never failed to provide my two sisters or me with anything we could possibly want.

Despite spending most of my life in Canada, my parents have ensured that my siblings and I are incredibly committed to and involved with Ukrainian traditions and cultures. We speak fluent Ukrainian, have studied Ukrainian dancing for seven years, Ukrainian literature for eight years and we volunteer at a Ukrainian camp to this day. Our family continues to celebrate Ukrainian Easter, Ukrainian New Year’s, and, my personal favourite, Ukrainian Christmas. Every year, on January 6, my family puts on traditional Ukrainian shirts, which are hand-stitched with intricate patterns, and sit down together for a meal made up of 12 specific dishes, such as pierogies, borscht, and kutya, a dish made up of poppy seed and honey, essential to the Christmas dinner table for centuries.

These traditions are incredibly important to me because they provide a link to my family’s past, including the places they have left behind, the friends that they have not seen for years, and the family that I have not had the opportunity to get to know. Even though I only spent a quarter of my life in Ukraine, these traditions have ingrained ‘Ukrainian’ as the central part of my identity, and I still feel as if Ukraine is my home.

The ordeals my parents have endured for my family to come to Canada and achieve their dream of a better life for us have motivated my studies more than anything else. Their ability to succeed in a country where the language, culture, and people are all foreign motivates me to make the most of the opportunity they have given me and to one day repay them in any way that I can.

My work ethic in high school and now in university is fuelled by the need to prove myself worthy of their sacrifices. Being accepted into the University of Toronto was a big step toward making the most of what I have been given. Luckily, I find that U of T has many avenues for celebrating my heritage, such as a Ukrainian club. I am fortunate to be accepted among other students, some of who have incredible stories of immigration that are very similar to my own.

My Indo-Caribbean cultural roots

A student tells the story of their heritage, community, and family

My Indo-Caribbean cultural roots

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. 

When I was young, my background was confusing to me. My parents were immigrants from the Caribbean who had met here in Toronto; my father was from Guyana and my mother from Trinidad. When I was just starting school, we moved outside of the city into the suburbs of Pickering. It was my parents’ attempt to validate their success, thinking that it would somehow keep us safer.

Attending school there only distorted my understanding of my cultural self. The school I attended was predominantly white, although there were a handful of other brown and Black students. But the classmates who looked like me were from India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, or somewhere else in South Asia and the Middle East. The classmates who came from the Caribbean, even from Guyana and Trinidad, did not look like me.

This feeling was amplified whenever I was asked where I was from. If I answered the West Indies, many would assume I meant the western part of India. But the truth is, I knew almost nothing about India. The first time I had East Indian food, I was about 12 years old at a restaurant with a friend. Before that, I didn’t realize the huge difference between the curry that my mother would cook at home and what would be brought to me at the table.

In fact, I knew very little about India at all. Everything I knew was from Bollywood movies, and I mostly just learned to copy the dances and mouth along to a language I didn’t quite understand. The truth is that much of our history was taken away from our family.

Many already have a vague understanding of how the African diaspora ended up in the Caribbean. African people were enslaved and brought to the Caribbean and South America in order to labour in the fields. However, not many people seem to know what happened afterward. Most people seem unaware that there is more than an African diaspora in the Caribbean. In fact, until I began studying my own background, I had no concept of our history or our cultural roots.

In an attempt to avoid paying former slaves the wages to which they were entitled, indentured labourers were shipped in from all over Asia. In some parts of the Caribbean, there are major Chinese and Indian diasporas. Most of the time, these labourers were tricked or misled into agreeing to the indenture. Many of them didn’t speak any of the languages used in their contracts.

In the Caribbean, this led to a major divide between the descendants between these groups, which had been isolated from each other and taught to resent each other and see each other as rivals. Fortunately, I was born away from these politics here in Toronto.

But even with this divide, our traditions blended and created a new culture. We learned how to use the herbs and spices that the Indigenous peoples on these islands had historically been using. African cooking techniques brought us jerk chicken; Indian labourers brought curry; and Chinese labourers brought rice and many other foods. I grew up eating chow mein, curry goat, and doubles, a Trinidadian dish consisting of curry chickpeas between two flat breads. For Christmas, my Guyanese family would cook a turkey to conform to the Western tradition, but it was the pepperpot that we really wanted to eat.

Our culture was very different from the South Asian culture I saw from my other brown friends. While some Indo-Caribbeans held onto their Hindu or Muslim heritage with them, both sets of my grandparents had converted to Christianity, being told that Hinduism was backward and uncivilized. Hindi was a language lost to my family. We spoke with a different kind of accent, and while we spoke English, it wasn’t ‘proper’ English. While I might have looked like my friends, I could not relate to them.

Our idea of family looked very different. In my family, there was a loudness that seemed to be cultural. We were always blasting soca and chutney, Caribbean forms of music that combined East Indian musical elements. When we partied, it was all night long. I often found myself with my cousins pulling on my parents’ sleeves and rubbing sleep from our eyes to convince them to call it a night. But this wasn’t something my South Asian friends recognized.

Now that I’ve escaped the suburbs, my culture has started to make sense to me again. I’ve stopped being a cultural anomaly and have instead found my culture. I’ve even found others who know what pepperpot is. The Caribbean is culturally complex and diverse, and we can see that in Toronto. But even though some of us listen to reggae and some of us listen to chutney, we have found family in each other.