The pressure to immediately immerse yourself into university as a first-year student is overwhelming. Combined with the recent rise in discussions around finding and creating identity, the compulsion to conform is enormous. I care deeply about my heritage as a Taiwanese immigrant, but I’ve yet to discover a comfortable community based around my ethnicity.
As a Taiwanese immigrant to North America—first to the United States, then to Canada—I’ve always had a strange relationship with Chinese culture. Immigrating from New York City to Toronto melded borders and cultures together until I shaped myself to become a blend of American and Canadian. I didn’t actively start identifying as “Taiwanese” until recently, when academic curriculums required me to reflect on what I considered to be my “identity.” Culture and ethnicity as a Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese immigrant then became an essential aspect of myself.
During Frosh week, as I waded my way through the mass of people at the UTSU Clubs Carnival, I passed a sign indicating a lane of booths as “Cultural & Religious.” I had never been involved in a cultural-focused club before, mainly due to pressing fears about my language abilities. My Mandarin skills no longer match that of a native speaker, and I have always been afraid of having my foreign accent pointed out when I speak in my mother tongue. I felt that if I joined an organization based solely around ethnicity, I would be judged for being too inarticulate in Mandarin. I wondered aloud to my Korean friend, who was eagerly searching to chat with the Korean Students’ Association, whether or not it would be worth it to suppress my doubts and participate in a cultural association, given my outspoken identity as a Taiwanese woman.
I often think of myself as a kind of “other” amongst my Chinese peers—I didn’t move as an infant. I immigrated after I had gone through several years of schooling in East Asia and my mannerisms were inherently Taiwanese. Yet, I did not feel as though I had gained a full understanding of Taiwanese culture due to my North American upbringing, and thereby did not feel fully Taiwanese until recently. Though I have lost elements of Mandarin, I do not believe I have lost key elements of Taiwanese culture. I have always found bonds and been able to create a mutual understanding with other women who speak conversational Mandarin.
Entering UofT, I had been hoping to better engage with others of my background and find commonalities. Walking through the Clubs Carnival and passing groups of students speaking whirls of Mandarin and Cantonese with Taiwanese, Hong Kong, and Beijing accents was terrifying. Interacting in conversation with club leaders in Mandarin, who were surprised I spoke the language, was terrifying. Declining to pay a $10 membership fee and join their organizations was terrifying.
I decided not to sign up for any of UofT’s Chinese cultural organizations, not out of shame that I could not thoroughly read through informational pamphlets, but because culture can be accessed anywhere. Joining and bonding with a group who share the same geographical, ethnic, or cultural background as myself is not the only way to interact with and engage in cultural activities on campus or in Toronto. Culture is pervasive and is embedded within oneself, and it doesn’t take flipping through a Chinese cultural magazine handed to me by recruiters to recognize that. Disseminate and dissect culture how you will, but I did not feel the need to redeem my Taiwanese self with my North American immigrant self by joining a cultural association to further my identity.
Discovering your community in university does not have to come from wandering through a clubs festival. Community and home can be found anywhere.