Conflicts Between Ancestral Culture and Being ‘First Generation Canadian’

My parents are immigrants.  They came to Canada when they were in their 20s and had me a few years later.  Compared to many immigrant parents, mine are probably considered extremely integrated.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t ANY conflict.  Not at all!  I can probably name MANY times we had clashes.  Much of this has to do with being more westernized, and thus, more individualistic.

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Many eastern cultures, including Chinese (which strongly influenced other countries, including Korea and Vietnam) are collective (meaning it’s about the good of a group of people) rather than individualistic.  One is supposed to conform to what is “normal” (e.g. marrying someone of the opposite sex, regardless of sexual orientation) rather than “being oneself” (e.g. someone who is gay marrying someone of the same sex) because one is “born this way.”  It could even be something simpler, like majoring in, say, history, rather than business or sciences (this was me.  I told my mom that even if I MAJORED in business, I would have ended up working in marketing, advertising or PR rather than finance like my dad (which they never tried pushing for some reason).  Science, especially technology (which my mother, who worked in IT, wanted me to do) was a no-go for me, which they accepted very early on (thank goodness)).  So someone who DOESN’T conform to what is “normal” in the group can feel pressured into doing something he or she doesn’t want to do or be – and that can be stressful.  There’s A LOT of stress to PROVE to people that one is “worthy,” and thus, a “good ______ girl or boy.”  Because we all want to be “good” and not shunned, right?

I would say that I grew up in a loving home.  I was an only child, and thus, had more attention from adults compared to a lot of other kids.  I also grew up in comfortable, safe areas, without any struggle whatsoever.  We, as a family, were not disadvantaged economically or educationally.  However, this doesn’t erase conflict – and most of said issues were not with my parents, but my grandmother.  My maternal grandmother was my primary caregiver and fed me with myths of what a “proper lady” not only SHOULD BE, but should LOOK LIKE.  Okay, fine – every girl has body image issues at some point in her life.  However, very early on, my grandmother told me that I shouldn’t take dance too seriously because it would “make one’s legs ‘fat’.”  At the same time, my mother said I needed more exercise (confusing, no?).  I wasn’t blessed with athletic talent in the team sports area, and being tiny, there really wasn’t much I could do to stay fit outside of individual sports/workouts.  I wasn’t and still am not fat, but I could have been more fit as a child and teen had I not felt guilty about eventually having “fat” legs.  I didn’t realize until much, much later (we’re talking 20-something here!!) on that “fat” actually meant “big” as in muscular.  However, being muscular, at least according to more traditional Chinese culture, was “unbecoming” for a lady – at least for a middle class female (I suppose I should have just been rebellious.  After all, this same woman also told me cooking and cleaning were not “lady-like” either).  I wonder what she’d say about Gal Gadot.

I can’t say that I didn’t LOVE my grandmother – and she really loved ME.  However, what she said to me runs deep, and it took me a very long time – until my early 30s – to become comfortable with a good fitness routine.  I probably still have some issues about whether I’m a “good girl” or not – I certainly did not follow the same career route as my first cousins (nearly all are in finance and one is an MD) and my grades certainly weren’t as high as they could have been when I was in high school.  And while *I* thought majoring in drama (something I loved) and history (with a focus on Chinese/East Asian history – a great way for me to be exposed to my heritage) was good for me, once in a while…a long while…I question myself on whether it WAS.  But it’s not something I think about too much and I have mostly come to terms with this issue.  In fact, I’m very proud of my majors!

I know that there are people out there with more “issues” than me.  Their family may be much more traditional than mine, and thus, have more to deal with.  And it’s no wonder some children of immigrants have mental health issues – all of this can be very stressful.  They also have trouble discussing such issues not only because there aren’t enough services specifically catered to the needs of first generation Canadians (which are often different from immigrants themselves), but because they know that it is “unbecoming” to be open about them or that they feel guilty about “ruining” the family name (yes, some cultures have a stiffer upper lip than the British).  However, like my former issues about becoming fit, these people need to come to terms with not being comfortable and start discussing – who cares what the family thinks, right?  It can be hard – and yes, guilt comes into play – but talking about it can you feel much better.



Hong Kong and Canadian flag image: SLdesign/ShutterStock

Cynthia Cheng Mintz

Cynthia Cheng Mintz, previously known for her sites, DelectablyChic! (still "live" and still active on social media) and Shorty Stories, was born and raised in Toronto. In addition to writing, Cynthia enjoys cooking and is an avid supporter of the Canadian fashion industry. She is involved with various philanthropic projects, including music, arts, culture and mental health awareness.