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History Table of Contents
1997 Summer Conference
Summer Conference 1997
Canada and the Asia-Pacific Promise: Hope, Hype and Reality
The Asian Dimension in Canada

Sun-Kyung Yi, Filmmaker, Toronto

I wasn't sure what to expect at the conference, but when I saw the list of delegates and all those degrees after their names I immediately became intimidated, because one thing my parents taught me to respect are those alphabets after people's names. So I thought, my God, what am I doing!

Unfortunately, I don't have much to add to Audrey, except I don't agree with lots of things she said. My experience is very different. I'm a Korean immigrant. I came here as a child. I was very angry. I didn't feel that I belonged to Canada. I didn't want to belong in Canada. Nor, did Canada really want me.

What I've heard in the last couple of days in this conference was basically hope for the bright future of Canada. The hype. Multiculturalism is beautiful. Isn't this great. The merging of cultures, coming together. We can learn and we'll be wiser for it.

Unfortunately, I cannot share that view with you right now because, unlike Audrey, Korean immigrants do not have that kind of racist history in Canada. The first wave of Korean immigrants came in the 1970s. Most of us became corner store owners. The government did not reject Koreans, nevertheless, I chose to reject Canada.

The whole concept of assimilation, I agree it is crucial to survive in Canada. You need to assimilate. There has to be a host country. You have to show some respect, if not acceptance or understanding.

We cannot have loads of immigrants coming to this country every year and expect Canada to change and accommodate all these changes, when we have over 100 different ethnicities, races, cultures, religions, languages. It just won't work.

Somebody has to be the role model because, after all, immigrants are coming into this country for the better life. They come to Canada for a specific dream that they have. They do not want to come into another country full of chaos and confusion.

The reason I hold this view is that I came, for some God- awful reason I don't know, my parents decided to settle down in Saskatchewan and I was only the Asian student throughout my high school.

Of course, I was subjected to racism and discrimination. When I told my parents about it, they just said, get over it and get a straight A and you'll be better. So, the word racism literally did not exist in my vocabulary.

I came to Toronto to work for The Globe and Mail six years ago after I finished university. I got on a Spadina bus in Chinatown and for the first time in my life I felt scared. It was full of Asians and the only white person was the bus driver. I come from a city where I sit on the bus [and] people don't sit beside me. They'd rather stand, than sit beside an Asian student.

So, for me to get on this bus with all these Asians bringing their fish and groceries onto the bus I was convinced the bus driver was going to stop and ask all of us to leave. I didn't realize growing up in Regina that I had the right to say no. I didn't know that. By the time I realized it, it was too late.

I had a certain bias and perspective on what immigration and multiculturalism policies should be in Canada.

I went to school [and] my principal asked me to change my name, because he said, you won't get any friends if you had a name nobody could pronounce. So, I became Angela. It was just kind of picked out of the blue. My parents never thought of saying no, because it came from an authority. And in our tradition if you say no to a principal or an authority figure you suffer consequences.

So, I come to Toronto and I hear all these different lobby groups, protest groups, saying we want our rights. I wasn't sure what they were talking about. They just came to Canada. They hardly had any time to unpack and they're already expecting what their rights should be. And I didn't understand. I've always separated myself. There was always them and us, us and them.

Over the years I've managed to jump over the line. Sometimes I became Canadian and sometimes not, because this whole hyphenated Canadian, Korean-Canadian, just didn't work for me. I had to be one or the other.

So, for me the line was always there: Them and us. The Canadians were never other immigrants. There were never other visible minorities, regardless of how many generations there had been, because growing up in the Prairies I identified Canadians as white, liberal-minded Caucasians of European background.

So, I come here and I finally discover people are very sensitive. This whole political correctness takes place. You can't say that. You can't ask this question, you can't ask that question. But, you're Korean so you can get away with it.

From the perspective of a very liberal Canadian, my views probably sound very twisted, because I'm not holding a very politically correct view on anything. I agree that we should be more culturally sensitive, but I also think there are more urgent, bigger issues we have to face.

I don't care if somebody asks me, where are you from and why do you have that accent?

The biggest issue is nobody is coming out of this cultural ghetto that we've created for ourself, whether it be Korea, China, you name a country.

They all build this wall around their ghetto and they don't come out. They can give you 101 excuses why it's the way it is. But it still doesn't make it right. I don't see that as contributing to the Canadian mosaic. I see that as a further and further rift between the communications system, between mainstream Canada, the whole society and ethnic minorities. And it's just going to get worse.

Now my views are further skewed by the fact I just spent the past year working with illegal immigrants and refugees in this country.

In the past six years as a journalist, I've interviewed and met hundreds of immigrants, refugees, illegals, legals. I've heard every horror story there is to hear. Trust me, those people are not well-educated, sophisticated or enlightened group of people. A lot of them have never seen a toilet before. One family I visit their house, they have water in their bathtub all the time just in case there's a drought in Canada.

I deal with probably a not very ideal, attractive group that Canada would like as their immigrants. I deal with criminals, prostitutes, petty thieves, people convicted of assault charges, welfare cheats.

You want to get a fake ID? I can give you a number where to go and get one.

After dealing with these people for a year; they're from Asia, European, all kinds of backgrounds, I really do get concerned where this country is going.

Obviously, I'm not objecting to allowing immigrants and refugees into this country. I think that is necessary, but I think it is very crucial what kind of rules and regulations we set in place.

Yes, this is a big country. We could probably accommodate half of China in this country and half of Europe if you want. But what kind of standards are we setting? Immigrants are coming to this country for a better life. They want to change their lifestyle. They're fleeing political persecution in their own country.

If Canada doesn't watch out and protect what we have, we'll lose what we've built up in the last few years and it will defeat the purpose of this country.

This is supposed to be a land of immigrants, yes. But to what extent; who do we let in, who do we kick out? The bottom line is they're all here to stay. What are we going to do about the assimilation problem?

I hold the view that people need to be assimilated. They can't stay in their little cultural ghettos forever, because it just isn't contributing to the wider society. The Canadian spirit isn't there and people are forever asking, what are Canadian values?

I think we can start off by asking those people inside the ghettos to break down the wall and say, what do you want?

The answers you get should be pretty interesting.

When I do say Canadians, I really do literally mean white Caucasian Canadians, because after 20 years in Canada I still haven't brought myself to count myself as a Canadian. I am a Canadian on paper. Physically I am in Canada, but mentally and spiritually I could never make myself feel comfortable in this country.

The problem is I don't really fit in in Korea, either. So, I'm kind of in between places right now.

Standing here I don't see many Asian faces, so I feel like I'm preaching to the converted. I don't know what perspective you have when it comes to the invisible world of immigrants, who are not well educated, who do not contribute to society, either financially or spiritually, or any other way; where a family of six is crammed into a little basement apartment collecting welfare.

When refugee families are running from deportation, I really don't understand how the Canadian system, the Canadian government, could let this happen. They can't exactly blame the refugees for wanting a safer place. Actually they have the right to do that!

But, Canada should have considered what we are going to do with those people, how we are going to take care of them, before we opened the door to those people.

Every immigrant that comes to Canada, whether they're from Hong Kong, Korea, China, Japan, they have a certain expectation of this country.

What's happened, however, in the last few years — because we've had such a big influx of immigrants — [is that] Canada ended up changing constantly to accommodate the newcomers. The newcomers come here. They don't know the system. They don't know the law. They don't know the rules and regulations. So, even if they wanted to go out there and start contributing they don't where to start, how to start. The language is a problem. Many of them are unskilled labourers. So, when I think of immigration and multicultural issues, I have a hard time thinking of it in a song and dance kind of, everything is perfect, the future is bright, isn't this great, my children have friends from all over the world.

What I see is the pain, suffering, resentment, anger, confusion. And until we get that sorted out, or have some system in place, I don't think we'll have [as] a bright a future, as many of you think.