VOICES: Defining my cultural identity

Photo courtesy of Michelle Song

When I was in Grade 2, I became a Canadian citizen.

At the time, I didn’t really understand what that meant. I was just excited to take a day off of school to go to a ceremony.

My parents tried explaining to me what becoming a citizen meant, but as a seven-year-old I definitely couldn’t grasp the nuances of being a first-generation immigrant.

I was born in South Korea and when I turned three, my family and I immigrated to Canada.

All of my memories developed in this country.

Although I came to this country at a young age, I was still very in touch with my culture.

My parents raised me in a Korean household: I spoke Korean, ate mostly Korean food, watched Korean television shows and movies and listened to Korean music.

But I also grew up immersed in Canadian culture through the schools I went to and the people I met.

The majority of my peers in elementary school were white and born in Canada. They’d never had any experience with my traditions or culture until they met me.

At a young age, it was difficult to feel confident in my identity due to the fact that I felt too different.  

I remember every time I would bring Korean food for lunch, my classmates would complain about the “weird” foreign smell or the unrecognizable appearance of my mother’s home cooking.

As a result, I began to tell my mother to start packing sandwiches or pasta — something that wouldn’t attract any unwanted attention.

As a kid trying to fit in, I felt embarrassed by something I should have been proud of.

I began to assimilate and try to focus on becoming more like my friends because I thought that was the only way for me to be accepted by them.

I begged my parents to buy me trendy western clothes so I wouldn’t be left behind.

In hindsight, I know that all adolescent kids felt the same way, but as a person of colour, fitting in meant I no longer wanted an “ethnic” label on me.

I wanted to stop feeling like a fish out of water and just be part of the in crowd.

As I got older I became more exposed to Korean culture, particularly from my older sister.

She would show me the latest popular Korean songs, shows and films.

I soon realized that she was way “more Korean” than me.

My sister had more memories of Korea than I did, so she had a deeper connection to the culture. She spoke perfect Korean while I struggled with some words and phrases; she also had many Korean friends.

It dawned on me that I wasn’t as Korean as I thought. But, at the same time, that didn’t mean I was any more Canadian.

When I’m surrounded by a group of people who grew up in South Korea, I am Canadian to them. And when I’m surrounded by people who are third-, fourth-, fifth-generation Canadians, I am Asian or Korean.

So, what am I?

Which group do I fall under more? Korean? Canadian?

I now know that the answer is both.

I am in the middle of two cultures and am still learning to balance two different worlds.

Whether certain groups of people accept me or not doesn’t matter to me anymore.

I’ve learned over time that I don’t have to be one thing. Even though my cultural identity is very important to me, it doesn’t define every aspect of who I am.

Now I’m surrounded by an extremely diverse group of friends who come from all over.

There isn’t a dominant culture among us and we enjoy learning about each other’s experiences and lifestyles. I am being educated on different traditions, religions, points of view and value systems.

This has pushed me to embrace the part of me I tried to suppress and to no longer try to justify my “Canadian-ness.”

Looking back when I took the oath to become an official Canadian citizen, I wasn’t denouncing my Korean heritage or where I was born.

I was adding to my cultural identity; I became a Korean-Canadian.

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