Debunking the myth of the “model minority”

Words by rebecca gao

PhotoS by HANA NIKCEVIC

what it means to

be a successful immigrant

We landed in Canada in April of 1999. I was 14 months old and my mother was in her mid-thirties. This was before the birth of my younger sister and much before the arrival of my father. For the first three years of our life in Canada, it was just my mother and me. Despite being a part of the growing middle class in Guangzhou, where my parents were born and raised, they were still worried about how much they’d be able to give me.

So, they decided to emigrate.

For the first six months that we lived in Toronto, we lived with my mother’s best friend from elementary school in a cramped one-bedroom apartment behind Chinatown Centre on Spadina, just south of Dundas. My mother likes to remind me of the hours that she stayed up, rocking me to sleep, because I was unaccustomed to the sounds of traffic below. My mother spent those six months trying to find a job and a home for us. But no one wanted to hire someone who wasn’t a citizen or permanent resident yet and no one wanted to lease an apartment to a mother with a troublesome infant who couldn’t sleep through the night.

After six months of no luck, she knew that we had overstayed our welcome. Our host, who continues to be one of my mother’s closest friends and the godmother of my younger sister, suggested that we look elsewhere.

We moved east into the basement of a small house a few blocks east of East Chinatown. We spent a year there. My mom took the Dundas streetcar into Chinatown every day to find a job. Again, nobody took her seriously when they saw that she was a recently landed immigrant with a two-year-old daughter who needed constant attention.

Finally, we moved to Scarborough, where my parents still live. My mother found a job at the dim sum restaurant down the street, was able to sponsor my father’s immigration to Canada, and had a second child. Somehow, despite all she overcame and all she accomplished in her first five years in Canada, she was not seen as a success.

Stereotypically, Chinese immigrant living in North America are often thought of as rich and entitled. Though it’s true that many Chinese immigrants come from enormous wealth, it isn’t true for everyone. One of the most harmful things about this line of thought is that it erases the struggles of a lot of Chinese immigrants. For every international student you see rolling around campus in a Bentley, there are many more who are like my mother and me.

Chinese immigrants are often perceived as “successful”—more “successful” than our Brown or Black counterparts. And though I recognize the systems of racism and oppression that are at play here, as well as the privilege that I have as a light-skinned person, it’s also important to question why it is that Chinese immigrants are so often regarded as “successful.”

All my life, my parents have worked modest jobs, often keeping two or more side gigs going on in order to support our family. My mother has alternated between being a hostess at a dim sum restaurant, to being a hairdresser, to being a cook, and to being a small business owner. The most traceable aspect of my life, and what I use sometimes to distinguish between eras of my life, is what my mom was doing at the time.

Between my mother’s odd jobs and my father’s relatively stable career doing maintenance for an office building, they were able to build a life for our family. My sister and I weren’t denied much in our childhood; we had swimming lessons, countless art classes, and piano/flute/violin/guitar lessons (depending on our mood that month). Though there were times in my childhood where we were stretched for money, we never struggled immensely.

I recently attended a family wedding where I talked to aunties and uncles that I haven’t seen since our days in East Chinatown. Regardless of the fact that I was able to carry on most of my conversations in Cantonese, I found that my aunties and uncles often turned the conversations into English. When I asked my mom about this, she said that it was because success for her generation of immigrants was often defined by how well they could fit into Canadian society. For them, speaking in their native language was something that marked them as different and therefore unsuccessful in this new land that they were trying to make a home in.

Though it’s true that many Chinese immigrants come from enormous wealth, it isn’t true for everyone.

I noticed this trend throughout the night. My parents’ friends complimented my perfect English and asked questions about my schooling. When they realized that I had achieved a sort of success they think is unachievable for them, they began to see me as somewhat other. For my parents and their friends, I was both Chinese enough and white enough. My upbringing, something that was typical of many Chinese immigrant families, was ignored in favour of my newfound and whiter identity. They congratulated my parents on raising such a good girl, such a gwai loi.

This threw me for a bit of a loop. My parents had always worked to make sure that my education was well-rounded. This included forcing me into Chinese language classes and to learn about our culture through lengthy phone calls with relatives from back home. They taught me the importance of remembering and celebrating our culture, lest I be absorbed into the general Canadian “mosaic of multiculturalism.”

But at that wedding, I saw that some people have absolutely no desire for the balance that my parents worked so hard for. When they saw me, they saw someone who was more Canadian than Chinese and because of that, they saw a “successful” immigrant. They saw me as someone who fit into this mosaic—where they themselves would never truly belong. To them, success was being homogeneous and fitting in with the Canadian (read: white) identity. Considering my perfect English, education, group of friends, and general interests—all things that people my parents’ age associate with being “Canadian”—they see me as the more successful version of my parents; what they could’ve been if they adapted better and fit in more.

I don’t want to preach about whether or not this line of thinking is problematic or not. Of course, it’s somewhat problematic that some people can only view success in terms of whether or not one can fit into Canadian culture. It’s absurd. But it’s also how they’ve been conditioned to see the world.

I am in no position to judge their values or what they see as “successful.” Rather, I want to highlight the stories of people who have found success after immigrating, but are not seen as such. People like my parents, who’ve built lives for themselves and their families but don’t speak a lick of English or have professional jobs, and because of that, will never “belong” in the mosaic of Canadian multiculturalism.

Let’s celebrate them and their paths.