Multicultural belonging in two acts

Act One

I remember a smooth landing, except for three hours of wait time afterwards to go through customs at YVR. My flight arrived in the afternoon, but it felt like evening in the waiting room. The waiting area was packed, and luggage sat or stood in the aisles. Bags of various sizes, colours and shapes – bags of hope, fear, excitement and burden. Past and future stocked up the necessity of the present.

Young professionals or students who flew solo like me sat quietly and stared at the six available windows and then back to the line that extended beyond the waiting area. We stood or sat on the carpeted floor and pushed our luggage further ahead whenever the line inched forward. Families of five or six huddled in various corners. The adults looked weary, and the babies were either asleep or crying. I lost count of how many different passport covers I saw.

I looked around at the people that I shared the waiting room with and wondered what brought them here. We all landed for the first time in Canada and had to wait for a short interview for our immigration documents to be processed. I searched for words of hope, fear, excitement, beginnings and endings behind the languages I did not understand.

Finally, an officer opened up an extra window and called families with young children and elders to come forward. When it came to my turn, my interview went smoothly – because English was not an issue for me and because my letter of acceptance to a renowned Canadian university was a safe bet for entry. The officer handed me a study permit within minutes.

I worried about those people who did not have the same privilege. I wondered how much longer they had to wait and how they could explain themselves while being questioned. Many of them had flown across an ocean – if not half of the world. After a long day, or sometimes days, of travel, they had to decide what memories to leave behind and what parts of themselves to declare at the border.

I stepped outside the airport and found it was a bright, sunny day. The August breeze felt cool to my tropical skin. It was bizarre, but I was relieved.

Act Two

Many of the immigrant stories I read share common themes: freedom, nostalgia, language or cultural barriers, living in between worlds, experiences of exclusion and discrimination, self-creation, socioeconomic hardships, memories of belonging and longing. Of course, there are a variety of twists and turns, depending on different settings and contexts.

Travelling towards a new life.

To some degree I can relate to some, if not all, of these phenomena. Culture shock? Yes. Sense of not belonging? All the time. But all the self-doubt and worries I had were soon cast in a different light after I heard a land acknowledgement for the first time. On the first day of school, I learned that I was on the traditional, ancestral, and unceded territory of the Musqueam people. I did not quite understand what it meant at the commencement ceremony, and it threw me off then to not have known more about the colonial histories of what is now Canada.

Over the past two years since I arrived here, I have heard praises of multicultural food and arts scenes in Vancouver. In public discourse it has not been difficult to experience the diversity and politeness that Canada is so proud of. But it took me a long time and a lot of hard work to educate myself on what it REALLY means for me to be here – as an uninvited guest from Taiwan. As I continue to wonder what belonging looks like, over time, I realize that belonging is not a state of mind frozen in time and is not detached from the lands and peoples we are in relation with.