Decolonizing mothering: Experiences of Asian immigrant mothers in Canada

Every mother wants the best for her child, but how that is defined depends on the context. In her upcoming talk on Decolonizing Mothering at Simon Fraser University (SFU), Yidan Zhu, a postdoctoral fellow in University of British Columbia (UBC)’s Faculty of Dentistry, explores mothering as an ideology influenced by colonial relations, including race, gender and class.

Good parenting is [a] very socially constructed term so it can be hard to define. Immigrant parents have their own style of parenting, own ways of learning, knowing and mothering their children,” Zhu says.

Cultural conflict in parenting practices

Zhu emphasizes that the understanding of good parenting from an Asian immigrant mother’s perspective differs to that of someone raised in Canada. For instance, Asian mothers send their children to school with a hot lunch as part of their idea of being a good parent. In contrast, the focus in Canada is on health, which translates to kids getting salad or fruit for lunch. The lunchbox is different, yet both mothers believe that they are taking good care of their children.

Zhu and her son, Wilson Guo at Whosainiyak Bridge in Hyde Creek, Port Coquitlam. | Photo by Weiting Guo

Zhu states that cultural conflict often arises when parents come to Canada, as traditional parenting styles learned in Asia may be seen as ‘uncivilized or unscientific practice.’

“One of my [research] participants told me that her father, a Chinese doctor, taught her to use Chinese massage with a warm towel while she is breastfeeding,” she recounts. “However, the nurses here told them this is incorrect because the hot towel may hurt the baby.”

Zhu, herself a Chinese immigrant, struggled with whether to adopt Western style or traditional Chinese practices after giving birth in Canada. While traditional Chinese practice involves remaining in bed for a month to foster full recovery, in Canada the doctors immediately took her to a breastfeeding clinic and gave her juice. She was shocked, as women don’t drink juice after birth in China. She believes the difficulty of this decision is about how to construct an identity.

“You really want to integrate, or you want to keep some of the traditional Chinese practice,” she says.

This complexity around identity construction as an Asian immigrant mother in Canada sparked further research.

A decolonization perspective

Zhu reports easily finding parenting courses for immigrant mothers after she gave birth here. In contrast, a white friend struggled to find this information.

“Nobody tells her that she needs to learn parenting to become a good mother. But people tell me I have to learn this,” Zhu says.

While doing her fieldwork in Canada, Zhu found that many parenting courses were targeted
only to immigrant and Indigenous mothers. This reveals an assumption that these mothers lack knowledge of what is considered good parenting practice in Canada. Thus, mothering becomes a knowledge that colonizes that practice from the colonized or marginalized groups.

As Zhu’s PhD dissertation states, “Immigrant mothers’ everyday experience of learning, mothering and settlement, which are socially organized by the state and its agencies, are not only a cultural nexus of transnational encounters, but also social relations with race, gender and class inequalities.”

Zhu highlights that although courses provided by government-funded organizations in Canada may be useful and may acknowledge immigrant mothers’ parenting experience, a curriculum on good parenting implies that fulfilling a Western ideology of mothering is a precursor for successful integration.

“My approach is to really unpack the unequal social relations behind the learning process, why they want to learn parenting here in Canada, how they construct their own identity as an immigrant mother and how they understand the parenting that they learn from China and in Canada,” she says.

One of Zhu’s research goals is to contribute suggestions for policy and program improvement for parenting workshops. She hopes her presentation will increase awareness of the inequality Asian immigrant women experience, such as racial discrimination and violence, and therefore foster a more equal learning environment for their integration process. Zhu invites immigrant mothers to attend and share their experiences and ideas on this topic.

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