Immigrant children gain opportunities but find sense of belonging difficult
China is a country where success in school determines a student’s only chance to escape poverty, but for those that immigrate to Calgary, a sense of belonging and history can be hard to come by.
Both Cecily Fan and Phoebe Luo have immigrated to Calgary from China. While their perspectives of Calgary aren’t the same, they do agree that growing up in Calgary differs greatly from China.
“In China you have to study so hard,” said Fan, 18, who immigrated three years ago with her parents. “You start school at 8:30 a.m. and go until about 9 p.m. in junior high and then in senior high you go until about 10 p.m. Here is not as stressful and I have more time to do what I want.”
Fan started volunteering with Immigrant Services Calgary about a year ago where she met Phoebe Luo. Luo, 24, had immigrated with her parents from China about two years ago, after she graduated from university.
In China, a large part of growing up for children is time spent in school. Fan, who was in Grade 9 when she came to Canada, said that in China, one large test at the end of high school determines the student’s entire grade and whether they get into university. Black July, as the testing time is referred to, often creates high stress for students, she said.
Phoebe Luo, left, and Cecily Fan, third from left, immigrated to Calgary from China. Both are involved with Immigrant Services Calgary.
Photo: Courtesy of Phoebe Luo
Luo explained that for some students from small cities or villages, the Chinese SAT is their only hope to get out of poverty to go to the big city, and eventually have a better life.
“Most Chinese parents don’t spend time with their kids, but mine were good,” Fan added, saying that parents often gave their own homework on top of school, and hired tutors who would assign even more. She said that outside activities were never considered. The focus was simply academic.
Luo said that despite all the hours, school for her was not bad until high school. She said that most of her life in China was very happy.
Still, things that can be taken for granted in Canada, such as spending the afternoon playing with friends, can be a special treat for children in China she said.
“I found that we don’t really have many opportunities to play after school with other kids,” Luo said. “So every time we get together, children are much more excited.”
Both Luo and Fan’s parents decided to immigrate to Calgary to give the girls a better chance, not only at university, but at a job.
“We came to Canada for her,” said Fan’s mother, Li Wang. “There is lots of competition in China and not enough jobs; 50 per cent (of students) that graduate from university can’t find jobs.”
Wang said parents mainly immigrate for their children since parents have better jobs in China that don’t transfer over here. Wang is a textile engineer back in China but the job doesn’t exist in Calgary.
Since the family’s move to Calgary, Fan said she has been able to get excited about her graduation from high school this year.
“We never get excited for grad in China, everyone is just focused on the one big test,” she said.
Despite the fact that school had consumed most of the girls’ lives in China, other aspects of growing up, such as being outdoors, are also different now that they are in Canada.
“The environment here is much better,” Fan said. “China is so polluted you can barely see the sun, and there are so many stars here.”
Fan said she now loves to be out and about, and has taken up yoga with her extra time.
Still, Fan said it was hard to make friends when she first came to Calgary, since most people were already in their own groups. In addition, Fan and Luo said it was hard to get a feeling for the new culture.
“Since I came here, me and my family have realized that we love our country more than ever,” Luo said. “The sense of belonging is much stronger than ever. But before, I didn’t realize that when I was still in China.”
“When [I spent] my first few months in Calgary, to be honest, I was disappointed,” Luo said. “China is a country with thousands of years of history. I can feel the sense of ancient time according to the buildings and trees and a lot of things. But I can’t here. Here is kind of blank. But the arts industries impressed me a lot. I love to wander in the galleries to see different works.”
Luo also said that being in Calgary changes family roles for those that have immigrated.
“In China, usually we are still being looked after by parents,” Luo said. “We don’t need to worry about paying bills, contacting others to repair the house, etc. But when I came here, everything in the family I have to take care of…because my English is good enough and my parents have language barriers.”
Even after spending more time in Calgary, Luo said it is hard not to compare the two.
“I used to compare a lot between the two cities I have lived in,” Luo said. “But finally, I can’t tell which one is better. I’ve been given the identities of the cities. From then on, it becomes really hard to answer the question like ‘where are you from?’”
Luo now works for Immigrant Services Calgary with the Multicultural Youth Action Project and Fan became a volunteer about a year ago.
“It sounded interesting, we listened to presentations and we have started our own project to make a difference in the community by having activities to help new immigrants become connected,” Fan said.
Immigrant Services Calgary is a non-profit organization that has been in Calgary for 33 years. The organization’s focus is to help with the integration and settlement of immigrants and refugees in Calgary.
The Mosaic Family Resource Centre, part of immigrant services, offers a large number of family and youth programs. There is a program focused on high-risk youth, a men’s program, a program for in-home support on parenting, and literacy programs, among others.
“I think it is a sign of our success when we have visitors who were in our preschool program come back and visit us,” said Wendy Auger, manager of the Mosaic Family Resource Centre. “We have an impact on the lives of families and bridge them into the community. We help them feel connected as part of the big picture rather than isolated in their home or specific community.”
Auger said that when children immigrate to Calgary they often feel different, as if they have a foot in two cultures, and are confused as to where they fit in. She said this makes them prime targets for negative influence.
“As Canadians you have information on things to watch out for, but immigrant youth don’t have that knowledge and don’t know who to ask,” Auger said. “They can ask their parents, but their parents often don’t know either.”
Auger said that while most do end up following a positive path there are always those that fall to the darker side simply because they are more vulnerable. Another issue that immigrant youth face is that they often become more accustomed to Canadian culture than their parents, said Auger. The children want to fit in but their parents want them to follow a more traditional path, she said.
Auger said the Mosaic Centre follows a holistic model, meaning they only offer programs that have family involvement.
“We always want to be family inclusive whether it is grandparents or aunties and uncles,” Auger said. “Our goal is to be a family-centred centre.”