You come to Canada, to work, to go to school, or for some other reason. You come from a country very far away where things are done differently, people speak a different language and look different. You are called an immigrant or a visible minority or perhaps both
Language and Fitting In
April / May 1992
What is language? Without giving it a strict dictionary definition, we can safely talk of a method of expression, and a very important form of identity of a group of people. Language helps us to communicate very easily and helps facilitate understanding. Someone described it as a barrier and a badge. It is a barrier when we find ourselves in a situation where we are unable to communicate through speech with the people around us. It is a badge when we are able to do so, just like showing a badge as a means of identification, making it easy for one to fit in.
How will it feel to be an immigrant in an environment where you cannot understand the language? Wouldn’t it almost feel like being deaf and dumb? There are other things one has to cope with in a new country, such as the culture of the people, the weather, and even the simple idea of being in a new surrounding. The inability to speak the language is then one of many problems, yet it is a major one.
The first thing people want to do when they get into a new environment is to try and settle down as quickly as possible. It will definitely take longer if the language is a barrier. Simple things can become setbacks and cause a lot of frustration. This lack of understanding can prolong the process of culture shock and make one uneasy most of the time.
This state of uneasiness can result in embarrassment and anxiety, causing the immigrant to react in different ways. One of the ways will be to build a small world and stay in it; but how long can one function effectively in this ‘small world’?
Coming out of this ‘world’ into the real world or the foreign environment requires a conscious effort on the part of the immigrant, and it will be an action which will not be regretted. Taking that first step may initially require a push from a family member or someone from the country of origin. The process of learning and adjusting will next have to be tackled, which, like most things in life, has its ups and downs, but which pays off eventually.
When the language, which had been a barrier, is converted into a badge, the new immigrant is on the way to understanding what is happening all around, and is ready to overcome the culture shock, and the feeling of being lost.
Suddenly, all the things that did not make sense, will become meaningful. When people speak it will no longer sound like noise, but rather it will be intelligible words that can be put together and processed. At this point the immigrant begins to feel a strong sense of identity and belonging to the new world, and the door is now open for integration into the society
Having the Best of both Worlds
June / July 1992
Maybe you came with your wife, and the two of you decide to start a family here in the future. You face so many ‘not so pleasant’ situations, but you decide to take things one day at a time. You miss your home country, but then you find opportunities here that you may not have had back home. You find some values here that you appreciate and would like to add to the values back home that you still hold on to. You still can’t help missing home because there are certain values at home you just can’t find here.
Sometimes you feel that you can’t find acceptance and you can’t find closeness, you have friends here but even when they get close it doesn’t feel like the closeness back home. You begin to wonder if it is in your imagination, or whether you are unconsciously holding back, apprehensive about giving your all. You try hard to make adjustments, taking on the values here that you like and at the same time holding on to values at home, you try to see if you can have the best of both worlds.
So you eventually start a family and your child starts growing in this environment, which is the only one he/she knows. You vow in your heart to instill in your child at every opportunity the values you brought from your home country, of course in addition to some of the values you find here. You vow that your child will have the best of both worlds. (By this time you have done your best in adjusting). You are jolted back to reality when your child comes home from school, looking puzzled, and perhaps sad and asks, “Daddy, Mummy, why am I different?” or “why do I have a strange name that nobody can pronounce?”, and probably threatens to change his name. He may also ask why the other kids pick on him. How do you explain to your child and make him understand that there can be something special about being different, something to be proud of, or that people are basically the same everywhere? How do you explain to him that a name identifies a person and that in your home country this name has a special meaning, that changing his name will not change who he is or what he looks like. How can you make him understand that kids pick on kids everywhere?
Your child may even tease you about your limited vocabulary and your ‘funny’ accent, because most likely your mother tongue is still interfering with the way you speak English. Since your child ‘talks Canadian’ there is the tendency for him to feel superior and will sometimes tell you to “get with it” when it comes to certain habits he is trying to adopt.
How are you going to handle it? Are you going to dote on the child and praise him for being so fluent in English or are you going to try hard to let him appreciate his ‘roots’, and that, it is the inner person that matters and not a person’s looks or way of speaking? Are you even going to attempt to teach this child some words and sentences in your mother tongue or is it really not necessary?
While the family is watching television there is a program on the developing world and there is a focus on your home country. The program will most likely be about problems in the developing world. Let’s say your child reacts in disgust at seeing, for example, poor living conditions; are you going to let it pass or will you tell your child that those are his people too? He will most likely protest vehemently. Would you go further to explain to that child in the best possible way, that he should not look down on those people, or anybody else for that matter? That they are not subhuman, but human beings like everybody else, that they have values, a culture, an identity. How are you going to fight this battle against your child’s belief system in the mind of that child without making him more confused than he already is?
For the immigrant parent this is an added task to the already enormous task of parenting.
As immigrants how do we let our children know that they stand the chance of having the best of both worlds .. or does it really matter? .. Let’s think about what we tell our children …
P.S. The ‘he’ I used for the child is generic.