Inside Vancouver High Schools: Part One

Posted by Beth Hong & filed under Identity.

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Immigrant and first-generation teens can’t define what it means to be Canadian. They turn to buzzwords like multiculturalism, tolerance and acceptance. Some say it’s a passport or a card. Some say it’s ancestral. Others just don’t know. But while they can’t always express it, they live it.

In the wake of Macleans’ “Too Asian?”, Vancouver Observer and Schema Magazine asked 35 Vancouver teenagers in 12 high schools how they see themselves and each other. This is first in the series. Students’ names have been changed.

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Graphics by Nireesha Prakash; used with permission from the Vancouver Observer.

FOB? What’s That?

Fred Lin says that he doesn’t know the difference between “FOB” and “Honger.” He asks his friends if there’s a difference. Someone cracks a joke in Mandarin, causing the two girls in the group to giggle. Fred shrugs. They don’t know.

Fred is a Grade 12 student at Sir Winston Churchill Secondary, the second-largest school in the Vancouver School District, with over 2000 students. He’s one of the forty-three per cent of students at the school that speak either Mandarin or Cantonese at home. Fred says he has to translate a lot of things for his parents into Mandarin.

He sits with five other Grade 12 students in the cafeteria at Churchill. Some of them are friends and others just acquaintances. They chat intermittently with another table occupied entirely by Mandarin-speaking boys playing cards. As the end-of-lunch bell rings, Fred explains his backstory: born in China, he came to Canada in 2005.

Fred and his friends fit loosely into the category of people who, upon arrival to Canada, might have been targeted by words like “FOB” and “Honger”. “FOB” stands for “Fresh Off the Boat”, a term for newly-arrived immigrants who have yet to assimilate into their new country’s language and culture, while “Honger” refers to recent immigrants from Hong Kong. In Vancouver, both words are derogatory slang for people from the Asia-Pacific region.

Today, Fred speaks fluent English and Mandarin. Most of the people he hangs out with are former ESL students who are now in regular classes. Fred is part of a growing number of foreign-born teenagers whose families immigrated to Vancouver in the last decade.

Statistics Canada estimates that by 2017, about half the population of Vancouver will belong to a visible minority. Churchill, like many other Vancouver high schools, already reflects this diversity. The cafeteria is not as neatly segregated as in the movie Mean Girls and definitely not as diverse as Degrassi, but somewhere in-between.

During a six weeks investigaton by the Vancouver Observer and Schema Magazine, two reporters spent six weeks visiting Vancouver’s high schools. They discovered that race and language facility are only two factors that determine how students see each other and how they see themselves. They also found that current and former ESL (English as a Second Language) students tend to stick together.

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Sitting with Fred’s group is Barbara Teng, a Langara College student who graduated last year from Churchill. She’s visiting her Grade 12 friends. Clad in a pair of dark tomboyish jeans and a black jacket, Barbara is a petite girl with reddish-brown dyed hair. Like Fred, Barbara also immigrated to Canada from China in 2005. In her three years of ESL at Churchill, she says she felt that the white, English-speaking students mostly ignored ESL kids like her.

“The English-speaking kids kind of doesn’t like the ESL kids ’cause they think they are…” Barbara pauses as she searches for the right word. “Lower.

When pressed to give a specific example of this, Barbara says she can’t really think of any. It’s just the general vibe that she gets. Barbara admits that she and her friends spoke a lot of Mandarin at school, both inside and outside of class. Her friends in Grade 12 were a mix of Mandarin-speaking students in regular (non-ESL) classes and even in the advanced level International Baccalaureate (IB) programs. They could all speak English well enough by Grade 12, but they were just comfortable staying in the groups where they had built up social bonds. These bonds, however, like high school fads, are not permanent.

Being In-Between

Barbara ponders for a moment over the question of national identity: does she consider herself Canadian? Barbara shrugs and says that she doesn’t know. She’s in-between Canadian and Chinese.

Barbara’s in-between state is familiar to many Vancouver teens whose families immigrated from the Asia-Pacific in the last decade. Many expressed similar sentiments about their national identities, a view of themselves which exists somewhere between Canada and their countries of birth. As first-generation Canadian citizens, they don’t fit completely into any category.

For these in-between teenagers, racial humour on the internet has had a big influence on how they navigate cultural identity. Words like “FOB” and “Honger”, once equivalent to the N-word, are now harmless verbal insults between friends, and have become the subject of countless parodies online.

Racial humor is more accessible to teens than ever before through the Internet. In 2010, according to reports from Canadian media watch organizations and Statistics Canada, Canadians logged online more than any other country, and spent an average of 4.4 hours a month on YouTube (second only to the Germans).

Teens today can watch stand-up routines by professional comedians like Toronto-born Russell Peters and Korean-American Margaret Cho, as well as amateur comedy videos from YouTube vloggers like Vancouver-based Chinese-Canadian Davin Tong (better known as Peter Chao). With over 600,000 subscribers to his channel, Tong is part of the distinguished Wikipedia list of famous YouTube personalities.

Peter Chao, who dons sunglasses in his videos and speaks with a thick, over-the-top Cantonese accent, is a caricature of a “Honger”. In one of his videos, Peter Chao describes a “FOB”:

“A FOB is a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant that come all the way from China to study in North America. Don’t look at me, I’m not a FOB. I’m Peter Chao. FOBs can’t speak a lick of English.”

Tong pauses for a beat, letting the irony surface. It’s a bizarrely subtle moment that touches a particular anxiety among Asian-Canadians of being categorized as “FOBs” or “Hongers,” who lack English-speaking ability.

Even Fred, who refuses to call himself Canadian, says that he doesn’t want to be called a FOB. It’s embarrassing.

That was so three years ago

Fred’s friend Alvin Tang, who immigrated to Canada from Hong Kong in Grade 5, says that words like “FOB” and “Honger” were really a Grade 8 thing. He tunes out of the conversation at this point to play a game on his iPod Touch, with one earphone bud in. He plays for a few minutes, brushing back his spiked bangs without breaking his focus on the screen. When the game ends, he resumes his explanation.

Alvin says a lot of people in Fred’s group knew each other from ESL classes in elementary school or in Grade 8 or 9. Back then, being a newcomer to Canada was a common bond, and such categorizations were novel and relevant to making sense of where they belonged. Now, most have moved into regular classes and can speak fluent English. They don’t really use these terms to refer to themselves or others, except in the occasional joke. Their biggest priority is getting into university in September.

The end-of-school bell rings, and students flood the almost-empty cafeteria and hallways outside. They shout and murmur in English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Punjabi, and Korean. Fred and friends disperse through goodbyes in Mandarin, Cantonese and English.

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