Growing up in a multicultural household: Navigating cultural identity confusion
By: Vivian Nguyen
Published on: April 17 2023
Adapting to a new environment and culture is hard enough for many young immigrants coming to Canada, especially due to the country’s multicultural philosophy. Now, imagine having to navigate more than two cultures in addition to Canadian culture. For many newcomers, they do not have to imagine.
Twenty-one-year-old Szewah Shum is one of these individuals.
Growing up Chinese in Venezuela
Like her mother, Szewah Shum was born in Venezuela to Chinese immigrant parents. Shum’s mother’s parents first fled to Hong Kong from China to escape the country’s political climate, soon immigrating to Venezuela years after. It was in Venezuela that she met Shum’s father, who arrived in the Latin American country at a young age from Hong Kong.
Venezuela is home to nearly 60 000 Chinese whose businesses are mostly related to the culinary field. Shum’s family would often visit a Chinatown in Venezuela to connect with their Chinese community and heritage. Because of this, Shum never felt out of place.
Living in Venezuela, Shum learned to speak Spanish as her first language and grew up eating traditional Venezuelan foods like empanadas, hallacas, and her favourite, tequeños—fried cheese rolls. In addition to being Chinese, Shum felt a strong connection to her Venezuelan side.
“I always knew I was Venezuelan… I never denied that part of me, it was my first home.”
Immigration to Ontario, Canada
When choosing whether they should immigrate to Australia or Canada, Shum’s parents chose Canada because they already had family living here. Research shows that people who do not have adequate supportive relationships experience greater stress than those who do. Moving to a new country is indeed stressful. “Settling is easier with a support system,” Shum says.
She moved to Mississauga with her family in August 2006 and continues to live in the city to this day. Although some memories of her childhood are blurry, she remembers having to deal with the challenges that come with growing up multicultural.
ESL and school systems
The first school Shum attended in Canada was a white-dominant Catholic school. Aside from maybe religion, she did not share many of the same interests or experiences as the other girls. It was not until she switched to public schools where she became surrounded by other students of colour that she felt more comfortable.
In Venezuela, she learned some English in school but most of her language learning was done in Canada. Between Grades 1 to 3, Shum enrolled in ESL (English as a Second Language) classes. She learned English at the same time as her mother did. Both struggled at first, but Shum picked up the language much quicker. She remembers being able to communicate “well enough” with others to make some friends.
Immigrating to Canada, young Shum had a mission: to make friends and have someone to play at recess with. Shum looked to befriend other Asians—people who looked like her. “I naturally looked for Asian friends [because we would have] more things in common.”
Studies prove that people naturally gravitate to those who are like themselves. Humans are also innately motivated by a need to belong—to form personal attachments. By seeking out other Asian children, Shum also sought for a place to belong.
Shum met her now best friend, Mindi, in Grade 3 when their teacher, Ms. Latham, kept confusing them for each other. “On picture day, Mindi and I [wore] the same kind of outfit,” Shum explains. “And the same kind of haircut. We were so confused [and wondered] why [she kept] mixing us up.” They did not know the answer until years later, and still laugh about this moment.
Despite Mindi being Vietnamese Canadian, not Chinese Venezuelan, Shum felt a strong connection with her. They shared the same interests: Littlest Pet Shop and the television show, Phineas and Ferb. They were also in the same class throughout elementary school and Mindi lived just a block away. Thus, the girls were close emotionally, culturally, and by distance.
Navigating multiple languages
Multilingualism is a blanket term used to refer to situations where two or more languages are spoken by a person or a group. For immigrant communities especially, language and identity are closely connected for integrating into a new society and culture.
In her household, Shum primarily speaks Spanish with her family and English with her 17-year-old sister. She described the language she speaks at home as ‘Spanglish mixed with Cantonese’ because she sometimes uses words from all three languages in one sentence. For example, for dinner one night Shum asked her father, “Estamos comiendo Wonton Chai para la cena?” Are we eating at Wonton Chai for dinner? The restaurant name is pronounced in Cantonese the same way it’s spelled in English.
While language switching can pose challenges in everyday speech, Shum believes that knowing Spanish benefits her professional life. “For work, I can say that I can speak Spanish.”
However, she does regret not learning more Cantonese as not knowing the language well prevents her from communicating with her grandparents. She says, “I’m at peace with being Chinese and Venezuelan. [But] I do have those moments where I wish I was [more of one than the other].”
Cultural identity confusion
An identity crisis describes when someone questions their sense of self or place in the world. “Identity” includes the experiences, beliefs, and relationships that make up a person’s own sense of self. According to Lene Arnett Jensen, identity confusion can take the form of “bouncing between different cultural identities across situations and contexts.” People who are exposed to multiple cultures are most at risk to what she calls, “cultural identity confusion.”
“I definitely feel like growing up here in Canada, I would say that I am Asian not Venezuelan,” Shum shares.
When she was younger, Shum feared that other people would assume she was lying if she said she was Venezuelan, as if she needed to “prove” her Venezuelan-ness. The fear of having this assumption made about her “has made it difficult to connect with [others from Latin America].”
A benefit to growing up multicultural, however, is the food. Twice a month, her mother makes homemade arepas while her father cooks Chinese food. Sometimes he experiments with other cuisines using Chinese ingredients like ginger, green onions, and soy sauce.
A message to others
Occasionally, Shum encounters videos on Tik Tok—a social media platform for sharing music and online content—that resonate with her cultural upbringing. In the videos, people share their experiences living in Latin America as Asians. She finds comfort in knowing that there are people out there with similar experiences. With this article, she hopes to provide the same comfort for others, too.
Currently, Szewah Shum is working full-time as a packaging graphics associate at Maple Leaf Foods. She graduated from Toronto Metropolitan University in June 2022 with a Bachelor of Technology for Graphic Communications Management.
Her advice to others for navigating multiple cultures is to embrace who you are. “I would say: don’t let others determine how or what ethnicity [or] culture you can identify with (with reasonable limitations [to avoid] appropriating culture.
“You can be 100 per cent Chinese and also, 100 per cent Venezuelan.”