I’ve spoken about minjok before – the idea that all Koreans are united by the same ‘blood,’ the same unbroken history, and the same ‘race.’ In other words, the myth that Koreans are a homogenous ‘one race’ people (and they always have been). All countries have national narratives, and these stories often have a positive purpose of defining what constitutes a people in order to unite them in a common goal. Minjok was helpful in uniting Koreans against the oppressive Japanese occupation and administration at the beginning of the last century, but these days it is more often used to exclude or discriminate against biracial/bicultural people, stir up nationalistic fever, or warn against ‘outsiders.’
Canada also has a national narrative. Canadians tell the story of how people come. The coming of the aboriginal peoples – whether through myth or trek across the Barring Strait; the coming of the French who traversed the river ways and seas; the coming of the British soldiers but also later the poor tenant Scottish and Irish farmers; the coming of those escaping religious persecution or bombed out post-WW II Europe or civil wars in Africa. Even those arriving because of some undefined ‘better life’ – they are defined as Canadians because they come. If you watched the 2010 Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver Olympics, you saw this narrative skilfully told: waves of people coming and integrating into the land and the seasons. It is a beautiful story – a story with some degree of reality – but also a story manufactured to some degree as all national narratives are in the hopes of defining such a diverse group of people from every country on earth. A while back, there was even a movement to change the national anthem from ‘Oh Canada, our home and native land’ to ‘Oh Canada, our home and chosen land’ (emphasis mine).
Canada is not devoid of racism and xenophobia – not devoid at all, but this story does help to mitigate differences and create an inclusive definition of a people. What it fails to recognize however – especially in this era of increased globalization – is that people not only come, but sometimes they also leave. In the story of Canada, people come and they retain their cultural, religious, or ethnic identity, and in doing so, they make Canada by both the act of coming and the act of sewing their previous existence into the fabric of Canada. They come because life is somehow better – it’s ‘free’, it’s ‘democratic,’ it’s not war ravaged, it has an abundance of space, it has more ‘opportunities,’ it has a better social system. But then, because life is supposed to be so much better, they are supposed to stay. The Canadian story has no real character who leaves. There is no role for the person who maintains their Canadian identity – their culture, background, and ethnicity – and who tries to sew that into the national fabric of another country while remaining Canadian. The narrative goes one way but not the other. There is no place for those who leave except to play the ‘Canadian of convenience’ – the person who comes just long enough to gain citizenship for some benefit (strangely always characterized as wanting to get Canadian health care…which you can’t use anyway after being out of the country for 3 months) – only to turn around and return to their native country again. If there is a role for those who leave, it is the villain in the story – the person who was ‘never Canadian’ in the first place: the person who only identifies with their citizenship and passport when bombs fly in their native land.
Part of the reason why there is a lack of space for a ‘good’ Canadian who leaves is that well meaning tv programs and segments on immigrant Canadians tend to focus on the reasons why newcomers leave their homelands to become Canadians. Many of these people escaping horrible wars, natural disasters, and poverty. I used to work with refugees back in Canada, and one of the first things I learned is that you can’t throw out a question like ‘describe a frightening experience’ and not expect to have a roomful of students reliving very recent (unspeakable) trauma. But there are many places in the world where life – or at least segments of life – are ‘better’ than in Canada. It depends on how you want to define it, but there are other areas in the world with better jobs, more interesting opportunities, and especially in Asia, emerging economies. My sister was in Hong Kong for a year as an exchange student and ended up having the kind of veterinary opportunities (her future career goal) that Canadian students can only dream of. And she didn’t have to search very hard to find them. Likewise, certain parts of life can be hard here in Korea, but there’s something happening in Korea – in China – maybe parts of India and other emerging power-economies – where there is an energy and a vibrancy that can’t be matched in most of Canada. And most certainly – there are people in other countries who earn a hell of a lot more than people in Canada.
A loving and well meaning older Canadian once asked me if Mr. Lee earned more than a $1 a day. Seriously. He was very worried that Mr. Lee would never be able to ‘support me’ (and thus, the fear that Mr. Lee only married me for ‘my money’…LOL). (Of course it doesn’t help that North and South Korea are conflated in most people’s minds). There is also the expectation that Mr. Lee married me to get Canadian citizenship. There was an almost universal consensus among Canadian friends and relatives over 40 when they found out we were dating that Mr. Lee’s greatest goal in life was to come to Canada. We probably will eventually live in Canada, but it’s more about family commitments for me. As the eldest child, I worry about my mother being alone in the future – I worry about maintaining the closeness of my very close family. To be fair, Koreans also suppose that part of Mr. Lee’s intention in marrying me was to immediately get permanent residence and move to Canada, but he actually isn’t super keen on doing it for himself. He acknowledges that the school system is much less cut throat competitive in Canada, and that he can have a more relaxed life there, but even with his very stressful job, he would rather stay in Korea with a well-paying job than move to Canada and be jobless. And in fact, as an ESL teacher, living abroad is actually very beneficial for my career. Yes, there are lots of ESL positions in Canada, but there are more opportunities and most importantly, more exciting and various opportunities for me here in the here and now.
But it’s very hard for many older Canadians – or even the government – to understand where Canadians like me fit into the fabric of Canada. My friend R. who lived here for a year and a half found it difficult for people to understand what she had been doing in Korea. Her hair dresser specifically kept talking about her lying on a beach and enjoying time off during her period abroad. No matter how much she tried to emphasis the fact that she had been working and contributing to Korean society, the woman could only comprehend the fact that she was travelling abroad, not working abroad. Until I got married, I must say that many Canadians also seemed to imply in their conversations with me that I must ‘be enjoying myself’ or ‘having a really fun time’ travelling abroad. Again, older people especially could not seem to understand the idea of working – or even living a normal life abroad. They just thought I was being a bit lazy as a backpacker bumming around Asia instead of holding down a tax paying, pension accumulating job with a regular work schedule and life.
These are minor complaints of course, and I’m not really upset about people having minor misunderstandings of my lifestyle and choices. Perhaps the larger issue is that, with more and more Canadians going abroad…as Canadians – it becomes harder to place them in the story of Canada. In its ideal, Canada’s multicultural identity implies that people bring their gifts and talents from abroad to the shores of Canada (of course, there are people who see immigrants as a burden and drain on Canada, but we’re talking national narratives and ideals here). And of course, those who leave are just Canadians of convenience and thus were ‘never really Canadians at all’…right? But what of those people – born and raised – perhaps multigenerational Canadians – who still identify as Canadians – who go to other countries where they may not be able to legally or socially ever become any other nationality? What of those people who actually contribute to Canada only because they are abroad. The 2.7 million of us living abroad?
There was this very good piece in the Globe and Mail a few weeks ago about Canadians living and making a difference abroad. For Canadian sensibilities, it’s a bit too ‘ra ra Canada’, but I think that’s partly our inability to be publicly positive about acknowledging Canadian strengths. But I do think it highlights the fact that Canadians being ‘Canadian’ abroad do exist, and that, in some cases, they actually do things that are very ‘Canadian’ abroad. (To which we should now, as good Canadians, question what is Canadian and how to be Canadian and…if they are Canadian). If you don’t believe me with regard to how unacceptable it can be to be a Canadian being a Canadian abroad, read the comments section. You’ll see Canadians of convenience/not really Canadians/those damn Lebanese mentioned more than once, and someone who asserts that 90% of those of us living abroad are actually drunk students. Lovely. But you will also see people who note that people have been successful despite the lack of support or acknowledgement, and even one great comment about how those who return may be ‘Michael Ignatieffed’ – a reference to the Liberal Party leader who has faced relentless criticism for not being Canadian enough because he lived in the US for many years.
As for me, I am not under the illusion that I am doing great things for this world or that I am directly making money or advancing the interests of a Canadian company. But, many of my students have gone on to study at Canadian universities as exchange students or in full degree programs. Having taught international students in a Canadian university, I work very hard at trying to prepare students for Western standards of research, critical thinking, and modes of inquiry which many students lack when they come to Canada to study. Some of my other students have also gone to study further at Canadian owned language institutes. And still others now work for companies which do business with Canadian companies. My cousin, another expat Canadian, now lives and works in the US for an American company, but this company is very important in Canada in terms of jobs and multiple industries. He actually comes to Korea regularly because a Korean company provides many of the resources that they use in their products. No….this particular story isn’t about my particular involvement in helping a particular Canadian company – but the good part of the English industry in Korea is that when it works, it really is preparing Koreans to interact better with the global marketplace, and in reality, these lines between what is Canadian or American…or what is beneficial for Canada or America or Korea are very blurred.
It’s very understandable why the Canadian narrative has developed as it has, and when people actually ascribe to Canadian identity as one which includes people regardless of the colour of their skin or ethnic background, this makes for a very tolerant and accepting society. However, in this ever globalized and shifting world, the younger generation is especially open to being a mobile workforce which doesn’t feel as confined by boarders when it comes to making the most of opportunities and pushing boundaries of where innovation, technology, and human relations are going. So it only stands to reason that just as Canadians of yesteryear had to keep redefining what it meant to be Canadian with each wave of immigration, I think it’s only time that we start to understand how to incorporate those who have left in body but still reside in Canada in their hearts.
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