As a young girl growing up in Canada, I was greatly influenced by the United States. Sesame Street and Reading Rainbow colored my imagination of what life might be like in a big city, a far off and distant place from the cool, misty, melancholic rainforests of British Columbia. My family had immigrated to the Pacific Northwest from Japan in 1981 looking to live a life that wasn’t deeply rooted in centuries-old traditions. Though we appeared plainly Eastern Asian to those around us, we were an unlikely unit: my mother, Japanese, my father, Chinese. They had met in an English language study program at college in Tokyo. I wouldn’t understand how uncustomary this coupling was until many years later, when I began to explore and understand my own identity.
Not my father’s daughter
I am not the dutiful immigrant Asian daughter that my parents dreamed I would be. They didn’t immigrate to Canada for survival or out of desperation, but to embark on a new adventure together. They hoped that the cultural freedom of the West would provide me with a wider range of opportunities. Straddling the line between East and West, my young world was a mixture of Doraemon, pantomime, Yum Cha, Onigiri, Chinese noodle houses and Cabbage Patch Kids. First born on both sides of my family, I was raised speaking Japanese, though my father was trilingual (Cantonese, Japanese and English). My father never exposed me to Cantonese and spoke to my mother in her native tongue, so Japanese became my foundation language. This language filter influenced my early identity, as I had leaned into the Japanese side of my heritage more than the Chinese. When I came of age to attend school, I learned English through assimilation because ESL wasn’t formally offered as an educational program yet. Young and malleable, I picked things up much faster than my parents. I often found myself in the position of being a spokesperson or a translator when we had to interact with the world. I learned quickly to be a chameleon of sorts, keenly observing and smoothly blending into whatever my environment required.
Though Japanese and Chinese cultures are distinct, when it came to certain lifestyle values I’d question if I were burdened with unreasonable and unenjoyable Asian expectations. It was impressed upon me at an early age that I should participate and excel in activities such as ballet, piano, golf, or tennis, attain straight As, have zero social life, and be seen but not heard. I should graduate high school with top honors and attend a prestigious university to pursue a career in medicine, law, dentistry, engineering, or pharmaceuticals. I should be quiet, kind, and obedient, and fit anywhere without noise. Aiming for a mid-management position and earning a respectable income with job security was the finish line. This was the life I was expected to lead, the golden immigrant standard, the life my parents could brag about to their friends and relatives, the one that would validate the sacrifices they made to come to a new country. As I became aware of this, I noticed that this was not the plight of my Canadian friends.
Throughout my life, I grew up with a wonderful group of kids. Though multicultural, my closest friends were mostly non-asian. Ever since I was aware of my reality and existence, an unspoken example had been set by my parents to work toward blending in. For many years, the immigrant way was to seamlessly adopt the western way of life, to become “one of them” if you will. The goal was to be included and associate with the majority — and essentially not be so Asian. Being socially accepted by our western peers would indicate on so many levels that we had successfully shed our foreign status and would be seen as “Canadian;” idealistically imagining we were becoming whatever we thought that was supposed to be. But doing a better job of “becoming one of them” meant that I had to let go of who my parents wanted me to be. Conversely, my friends were raised with what I saw to be less familial pressure to fulfill their parents’ expectations and more emphasis was placed on happiness and finding one’s personal path in life.
Was this because most of their families had been established in Canada for generations? Was there less to prove because their legacies spoke for themselves?
As a child living in this naive, pre-conscious state, I never gave a thought to how confused and conflicted I truly was. I followed orders and did what I needed to do to be agreeable. However, as a teenager I entered into a natural phase of questioning who I was and exploring my purpose. It was at this point that I started to feel the friction between who my parents wanted me to be and the individual I was learning about inside.
Shedding my skin
There was a point at about 16 when I acknowledged that fulfilling the expectations my parents had set upon me was inhibiting a deeper connection I had to resolve within myself. My life could not simply be a vessel that they built and launched for their own gain. The person I was programmed to be had never given me the chance to appreciate all the layers and dimensions that I was discovering about my true self. I had grown into a young woman who reluctantly half fulfilled the model set forth for me. I found that my interests were divergent in their nature as I chose to live a life that felt authentic and real, and I had matured into a unique and whole person that was not trying to carry out some predestined goal or vision that was not my own. I have always wanted to be a good daughter and make my parents proud, but I couldn’t seem to do that without compromising who I was. In embracing all of these cross-cultural experiences as being uniquely mine as opposed to trying to reconcile whether they made me more or less Japanese, Chinese or Canadian, it slowly set in that I was not going to be the proud immigrant trophy daughter. Caught between shifting states and expectations, I was looking for a hard place to land that didn’t exist because I recognized that I definitively did not belong anywhere.
Finding my truth
After my first year of art school I took a leap of faith and planned to move to NYC for the summer. It was time to put my curiosity to rest and see if the big city was what I had dreamed it would be. With $700 dollars, a small job offer and no friends or family there to speak of, I boarded a plane just as my parents had 19 years earlier to see what I could make out of the new world. In all my years living in Canada, my soul had never comfortably settled in. I didn’t have a strong sense of home and I never felt like it was where I belonged. Reflecting on this displaced sentiment now, I can see how I couldn’t have felt any other way. My identity was being challenged on both internal and external fronts while I was thrust into a foreign landscape. I was an unconscious immigrant caught in a transient state. The only way I would find direction and purpose would be to acknowledge and accept my independence, relevance, and worth in this world. Soaring over the Manhattan skyline I felt an immediate sense of affinity with this dynamic concrete jungle. My heart settled into the feeling that I was going home for the first time.
For those of us who are fortunate enough to be presented with the choice and opportunity to immigrate to a new country, we must acknowledge the fact that we aren’t in search of survival. What is it that we seek when we uproot ourselves? And are our hopes and dreams aligned with our traveling companions? To me, an immigrant is a human in search of a new home, but the very idea of what home is must come from a sense of self. Home is a place that is comfortable, where you can afford to be vulnerable because you are well supported and welcome. Home is a place that your heart owns and where you are never lonely. I identify with the fact that I may be a transient immigrant my whole life because I am in love with our world and fascinated by my journey through it. The traditional notions of permanence, assimilation, and culturally defined ideals of success no longer dictate my identity because I let go of the external expectations of my family legacies. My dreams are my own, and my dreams will take me wherever I choose my home to be.
Emily Kwok is a multiple time Brazilian Jiu Jitsu World Champion, teacher, entrepreneur, consultant and writer. A creative at heart, she is passionate about understanding and deconstructing the human experience through her various perspectives on both a personal and professional level. She currently resides in NJ with her husband and two beautifully fierce little girls.