Twenty years ago today I arrived at Vancouver International Airport, embarking on what my father calls a “life project.” At 24 I did what my ancestors had done before me, what millions of people do every year: I became an immigrant.
I could tell you my story of the past 20 years. It would be moderately interesting to my family and friends, and profoundly mundane to everyone else. I held jobs. I built a career. I have a wife. We bought a house and a car. We have a 5-year-old son. You get the idea.
What I want to talk about instead is my immigrant experience, because my experience differs in significant ways from that of a large portion of my immigrant brothers and sisters all over the world.
In my 20 years in Canada nobody has ever, not even once, questioned my status in the country. Nobody has told me to “go back where I came from.” Nobody has complained I’m “taking jobs away from real Canadians.” Nobody has mocked me for my culture, my appearance, my politics, my religion, my accent, my ethnicity, or any other part of who I am or my status as an immigrant. When people discover I’m not from Canada, they say “Oh cool! Do you like cross-country skiing?” Until recently when they discovered I had not yet applied for Canadian citizenship, they asked what was causing me to delay the process. From day one, at the airport, talking to an immigration officer thoroughly unimpressed with my lack of planning at entering the country, I’ve been treated as someone who belongs.
My experience stands in sharp contrast to that of the many 1st, 2nd, 3rd, even 4th generation immigrants I know whose existence in this country is questioned every day. It stands in even sharper contrast to the experience of the First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples whose ancestral land I’ve lived on these past 20 years whose basic rights are trampled on and whose requests for clean water, control of what little land has been left to them, and protection of their ancestral lands are met with empty land acknowledgements and militarized police.
For many immigrants and first peoples, the sense of belonging extended to me as I started my “new” life in a foreign land is never offered. Instead they are met every day with challenges to their very existence.
“Go back where you came from and stop ruining our housing market!” a random person screamed at one of my friends. We were having a meal at a mall food court. Her family has been in Canada for 4 generations, likely longer than the person yelling. Yet her physical presentation as a person of Asian decent was enough for this loud-mouthed bigot to consider her an other, an interloper, a ruiner of things for “real” Canadians. When I pointed out that I was the only immigrant at our table, that I was the one “taking jobs away from real Canadians” and helping to inflate the housing market he scoffed. “That’s different” he said. “You’re not Chinese.” At least he was open about his racism.
I only became consciously aware of my privilege when I became an immigrant. Growing up in Norway with an ancestral tree of Norwegians, Danes, and Dutch dating back as long as we’ve been able to trace it, I was the default. Tall, lanky, blonde, blue eyed, pink skinned, I am the prototype of what people think of when they think of Scandinavians.
Moving to Canada these features suddenly took on a whole new meaning. Doors opened. Barriers lowered. Red tape was cut. Questions were not asked. From my original entry through my application for permanent residency to my application for citizenship, the only friction I experienced was the slow pace of bureaucracy and the postal system.
Meanwhile my friends told me of years of interviews, investigations, failed applications, of thousands of dollars spent on lawyers and consulate visits and document retrieval. And even when they became permanent residents or citizens, their existence in the country continued to be questioned. “You need to improve your English.” “You can’t wear those clothes at work.” “Your hair is unprofessional.” “Your name is unpronounceable.” All these statements are true for me, yet nobody has ever levelled them at me. Instead they are directed, often and consistency, at people who has more of a rightful claim to call themselves Canadian than I will ever have, including people whose ancestry on Turtle Island date back millennia.
I am an immigrant. I am also the personification of privilege. And as such it is my job to use that privilege to move us all forward to a future where the privileges I have been afforded become privileges afforded to everyone.
Pluralistic Identity Crisis
Ask our son what he is and he’ll tell you “I’m Canadian and Norwegian and Chinese because I live in Canada and my pappa is Norwegian and my mamma is Chinese.” He understands the words, and I doubt he understands what they mean. I’m not sure I will ever understand what they mean myself.
In four years I’ll cross a line in time where the days and months and years I’ve lived in Canada becomes greater than the days and months and years I’ve lived in Norway. At that point I will, in a purely mathematical sense, be more Canadian than I am Norwegian. But as many immigrants will tell you, I still feel like I am more Norwegian than I am Canadian. And I think I will feel like that for the rest of my life.
I have a friend whose family fled to Canada from former Yugoslavia right before the war broke out in the early 1990s. He was a child at the time, and has only been back to his homeland a handful of times since then. Even so, he feels Serbian as long as he’s in Canada. But when he goes to Serbia to visit relatives, he feels like he doesn’t belong there, that he’s an impostor. That’s a feeling I can relate to more and more.
While in my mind I am a Norwegian living in Canada, and while I follow news from “home” and keep in close contact with family and friends, when I travel to the places I grew up it’s less and less like going home, more and more like traveling to a foreign country. A lot changes in 20 years. Culture, language, community, even roads and buildings. My school was razed and a new municipal building erected. Entire new districts have been created in Oslo. The Norway I feel like I belong to is no more. It only exists in my mind. It makes me, a person who left one fully functioning and democratic country for another, feel unmoored, impermanent, stuck in a liminal space between identities. I cannot begin to imagine how this feels for someone who fled a country in conflict, often in duress, and who may never be able to return, or will return to an entirely different country.
Together, the future
I look at our son and realize the world I grew up in is not the world he lives in. As a child I thought I might visit the USA once in my life. In the years before the COVID-19 pandemic I crossed our southern border dozens of times a year. As a child, making a phone call from Norway to my relatives in Denmark was prohibitively expensive. Today, my son has video chats with his grandparents on the other side of the planet with no meaningful lag and at no cost to any of us. When I went to school, all the kids looked like versions of me. In our son’s kindergarten, every child is the child of first or second-generation immigrants. Between these 20 kids, 8 languages are spoken. Most of them are bi- or tri-lingual. Their parents are from different cultures, ethnicities, religions, and regions, and about half the families are multi-cultural like ours.
When my Norwegian family and friends ask me to describe what Canada is like, the first word that comes to mind is multicultural. Living in Burnaby, a part of the Greater Vancouver Regional District in British Columbia, I am surrounded by a tapestry of cultures. Our neighbours to one side are Italian, on the other Taiwanese. Across the street is a family from India. A quick walk from our house we can get authentic Taiwanese Boba, Korean BBQ, Chinese Hot Pot, Hong Kong style Dim Sum, Vietnamese Ph?, Italian pasta, Turkish halal kebabs, Indian curries, Japanese Teppanyaki, even Chinese/Indian fusion. My friends hail from every corner of the globe, and bring all variants of their ancestral cultures to the table when we meet. We discover and laugh at our cultural differences, our misunderstandings and discoveries, trials and tribulations, and gather around this common knowledge that we all came from somewhere to be together and build a future for our kids and for ourselves.
When our son is a few years older I will ask him what it means to be “Canadian and Norwegian and Chinese” and I look forward to his answer. Because whatever it is, it will be a description of the future he and his friends create together. I can already see it today: He is a plurality of cultures, and so are his friends. After two years of pandemic lockdowns, they find privilege in being together and sharing time and space with one another. And I hope for… no. I will actively help build a future for these kids where the privileges afforded to me as an immigrant presenting as a white heterosexual English-speaking man are extended to all people, wherever they find themselves and wherever they are going in the world.
That is what I offer. I hope you will join me.
Cross-posted to LinkedIn.