Ethnic isolation in a multicultural framework

Encouraging healthy cross-cultural communication between newcomer groups | Photo by Vancouver Film School

Encouraging healthy cross-cultural communication between newcomer groups | Photo by Vancouver Film School

Growing up in Vancouver entails navigating the complexities of the city’s familiar, highly-touted paradigm of multiculturalism. Over the years, I have witnessed many manifestations of this policy in everyday life, ranging from the brilliant to the problematic.

At its best, multiculturalism can foster an appreciation for diversity and encourage inter-cultural dialogue. I have enjoyed various events around the city that have succeeded in celebrating this axiom. Notable examples include the Indian Summer Festival, Richmond Night Market and German Christmas Market, all of which attract diverse, prismatic audiences that enthusiastically absorb the ethnic displays, merchandise, performances and cuisines.

At its worst, however, multiculturalism can ironically isolate ethnic communities – counter to the city of Vancouver’s “commitment to diversity and inclusiveness,” outlined on their website. Particularly during my high school years, I felt that the banner of multiculturalism hid immigrants and international students from society at large, rather than catalyzing their integration. I noticed that the sizeable international student population only socialized within their ethnic groups in their native tongues, which were entirely cryptic to my ears. I felt that some teachers did not sufficiently encourage newcomers to integrate with Canadian society and explore its culture, even at a basic level. Instead, they gave students the liberty of talking amongst themselves in foreign tongues during class. Thus, my high school was heavily segregated culturally, and these social boundaries were rarely crossed.

Frustrated with the status quo, I began to harbour resentment against international students for their supposed inadaptability and wondered if others felt the same way. My opinions – which were, in retrospect, somewhat bigoted – began to change following a spirited discussion in an English class. I do not remember how the subject matter of our typically tangential discussion veered from The Picture of Dorian Gray to that of ethnic boundaries in our community, but only that it triggered a pivotal shift in my attitude towards ethnic divisions. It turned out that many of my peers shared my belief that international students should make more of an effort to integrate with society. However, other classmates – some of whom were immigrants – argued that we are at least equally responsible for the existence of ethnic boundaries due to our failure to proactively engage new members of society.

The scope of my hypocrisy quickly became clear to me: despite criticizing international students for their lack of integration, I had never attempted to bridge the social chasm between us. I had also inadvertently confined myself to a social niche that predominantly consisted of individuals whose social backgrounds were nearly identical to mine (Asian-Canadians raised in Vancouver). Although I had always yearned for a diverse circle of friends that resembled those found in photos of Vancouver tourism websites, I was afraid of socializing with unfamiliar individuals. I realized that this fear of the unfamiliar is perhaps far greater for people new to our society, and my former resentment was soon eroded by empathy.

Although it seemed to me as if the confines of comfort zones created an unbreachable DMZ (demilitarized zone), I observed encouraging examples of healthy multiculturalism in children. As a volunteer piano teacher at the Saint James Music Academy at the time, I noticed that young students across a wide spectrum of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds socialized and played with one another enthusiastically (albeit rambunctiously). Though my job was to teach the children, I, in turn, learned many valuable lessons from them. Fearlessness is a quality I admire in children whose comfort zones are not yet clearly defined. Many adults – especially timid ones like myself –could indeed use a dose of such fearlessness in their attempts to cross social boundaries and broaden horizons.

For me, Vancouver’s model of multiculturalism has alternately resembled a cohesive cultural mosaic and stranded shards of beach glass. Normalizing the former requires a collective effort for which everyone –
regardless of background – is responsible.