First Days Leading to Today

Christy Kan

I remember…

my first day in Canada: fresh air, blue skies, neverending prairies, and the scent of freshly cut grass. It was a beautiful summer day in Edmonton and in the eyes of five year-old me who had newly immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada, I was absolutely elated to be in a new city. 

I remember…

my first day in kindergarten: incomprehensible sounds, foreign environment, new faces, and a hard, cold desk (or was it just my hands that were going cold?). Overwhelmed. Panic. Lost. These three words perfectly described my state of mind then. I could barely understand what anyone was saying to me in English. All I could say in response was “I don’t know”, not only because it was the safest answer, but also because I genuinely didn’t know what was going on. 

My “first days” starkly contrasted each other and little did I know that what I experienced – from a dream-like honeymoon phase of excitement to the crisis stage of cultural shock – was a common phenomenon called “acculturation”. Luckily, cultural adjustment was soon to follow and I am glad to be where I am today. 

“Acculturation: The experiences and changes an individual faces when they come into contact with a novel ‘host culture’ that differs considerably from their ‘heritage culture’.”

Being in the PLLC program gave me the opportunity to embark on my Stretch journey to find out exactly what it was I faced these past 15 years in Canada and to further unpack my pluralistic identity. This summer, I had the honour of joining Dr. Kimberly A. Noels, Professor of Social and Cultural Psychology, in her Intercultural Communication Lab at the University of Alberta. My time at the lab not only gave me insight into my own immigration experience, but also insight into the other acculturation experiences of others in the Edmonton community from a diversity of cultures. 

While research is an indispensable part of my Stretch, my goal this summer was to take the knowledge I have acquired a step further – that is to share it with the greater public community, especially to immigrants of which the information would be useful to. This part of my Stretch was achieved through community outreach efforts to mobilize knowledge beyond the walls of the lab. During the annual Canadian Multicultural Day co-hosted by CBC Edmonton and the Canadian Multicultural Education Foundation in City Centre, I represented the Intercultural Communication Lab along with fellow colleagues to showcase our lab’s research, recruit participants, and most importantly, connect with community members of immigrant and non-immigrant backgrounds. I was amazed by the genuine amount of care community members had for their fellow immigrant members of the community as well as their eagerness to learn about the acculturation experience of immigrants and cultural pluralism. I vividly remember a passerby who stopped by in the midst of her lunch break, while still hurriedly chomping down on her sandwich, went out of her way to share her own experience as a second generation immigrant and the touching story of her first generation immigrant parents. At the end of our conversation, she asked me a simple question: “What does it mean for you to be a Chinese Canadian?”. I recall standing there still as a rock when she posed the question deep in ponder…what did it mean for me to be Chinese Canadian? At the time, I regrettably could not give her an answer.

For the whole day that question never left my mind. I had never imagined the question to be this hard to answer, but at the moment I felt like that question rivalled the worst of calculus questions (yes, mathematics is my worst enemy).

For days, I ran around the lab asking each member what it had meant for them to be Canadian or a Canadian with a different heritage background. All the while, I kept formulating my own answer.

By the end of the hustle, I was able to come up with a vision board fit for us to use at our tabling event at Chinese Multicultural Centre on Canada Day. This vision board was painted with a colourful image featuring anonymous quotes from my lab members, friends, and family (who all consented) on what it means to be Canadian to them. On the day of event we had community members write their own unique identity quotes on the vision board and formed a beautiful cultural mosaic by the end of the day. From this experience, I could concretely visualize that each and every one of identities is indeed uniquely distinct, but together, we shape each other’s acculturation experience and share the multicultural community we make out of it. 

So in the end, what is my answer to the question? To me, being Chinese Canadian means that I have the potential to be a mediator, a linking chain. As a first-generation immigrant who immigrated from Hong Kong to Canada at the age of five along with family, I have experienced acculturation first-hand while having also witnessed the differing acculturation process of my parents and brother who are older than me. My experience both enriches and further intrigues my drive to gain more insight on acculturation. Furthermore, being able to engage in community outreach allows for me to put my intercultural communication learnings into use as well as to get back into contact with some of my heritage cultural roots as I work with an ethnoculturally diverse immigrant groups, one of which are Chinese. Therefore, navigating the many ethnocultural backgrounds has definitely been a stretching experience for me. 

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