The word ‘foreign’ does not belong in my vocabulary
By Madeline Liao
Growing up, I always hated the word “foreigner.” I especially hated being called that in a place I considered home. As a first-generation immigrant, I have long battled with the concept of home and what the idea really means to me. I moved to Canada with my parents when I was six years old, leaving behind the rest of my family and the routines I knew as a young child in Taiwan. This chapter brought me new opportunities and experiences, but it also instilled a lot of self-doubt over the years. Spending your school years in a country different from what you and your family have known alters how people look at you. Some people fixate on your differences and build their opinion on you based on these assumptions.
When we first settled in Canada, we lived in what was a predominantly white town at the time. The cultural landscape of Kelowna, B.C., has somewhat changed since then, but for many years I was the only Asian kid in my classes. I didn’t think much of it when I was young, but as I got older, I realized how it substantially influenced me and the way I felt about myself. The subtle racism, the weird looks at my school lunches, unintentional comments resembling othering (the act of treating someone as if they do not fit into societal norms) — those moments stuck to me like a leech. The worst part is, I didn’t realize the leech was there until it was almost too late.
Feelings of internal racism and self-doubt made me involuntarily lose parts of myself. I began to tear away at bits of my heritage. From speaking less Mandarin, to hating the meals we ate at home, I lost aspects of myself that I am still trying to gain back. This further dissipated the definition of home in my brain; the more I was losing my grip on my cultural identity, the less I felt like I belonged anywhere. It wasn’t until high school that I truly regretted the decisions I made as a child. Sure, I was just a kid, but those choices I made continued to affect me as I grew older. I realized that I was letting my culture and ancestry slip away from me by neglecting those parts of myself, by being afraid of sharing my heritage with others. In hopes of fitting in, I actually fell more out of touch with myself.
Initially, a small part of me felt that my home was back in Taiwan, where my family was. Although I just so happened to live in Canada now, that didn’t change how strongly I believed that Taiwan would be the same, exactly as I left it in 2008.
When I would go back during summer vacations, it felt like I was going back to somewhere familiar. It felt like that sense of home I had been longing for. The presence of my family, the smell of familiar spices, and even the cheesy Taiwanese soap operas playing on the TV all made it seem like home. Yet that familiarity seemed to translate differently in other people’s eyes. To them, my family and strangers, I was an outsider — the foreign, English-speaking kid who was different.
Although they never said it to my face, I could feel that kind of mentality from those around me. This shattered the idea of home I had so ingrained in myself and made me see the reality of it all, how I didn’t truly belong, but I didn’t understand why this was happening. I honestly still don’t fully understand why I was being viewed as different when I speak the language, am part of the culture and appreciate my heritage. Hell, I was born there. Why did people see me as a foreigner?
Various memories have stuck with me, which have implicitly shaped my self-view and identity. At times my uncle would say, “She wouldn’t understand, she’s foreign,” to my mother like I wasn’t even in the room. Or that one time in Grade 2 when my teacher used me as an example to describe the word “alien” during our weekly spelling classes. While these comments may have been lighthearted and innocent, they still stand out in my memory and make me doubt my identity, even years after they happened.
Foreign, alien, waiguoren (foreigner in Mandarin); I never liked these words. They made me feel strange, unincluded, isolated. Like I didn’t belong. This feeling manifested itself into a personal crisis — an internal debate between who I am and where I fit in. Many questions have popped up throughout my life. Why am I considered different by the people I identify with? Who am I if not the same as them? Am I anyone at all?
These questions have stuck with me through the majority of my upbringing and still linger to this day. Sometimes I wonder if I’m just being oversensitive, but the idea of home has become such a jumble in my head that the word itself makes little sense.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, home is “The place (such as a house or apartment) where a person lives”. Does this really make sense to me? It seems so simple, just a place where you live. But the feeling of home, that feeling of solace and safety, is so much more than just a place — and that feeling was what I was chasing down as it continuously slipped out of my hands.
As I got older, I continued to evaluate the idea of home. This internal conflict gradually became undramatized as I matured, which allowed me to step back and look at it from a more composed perspective.
After spending my childhood in a state of self-hate, I eventually realized how important it is to hold on to your roots. Going back to Taiwan in the summers helped me stay connected to my family and culture. I took classes to better my reading and writing skills, and I continue to have conversations with my family to learn more about our history. In pandemic times, technology has definitely been a reliable friend. Staying connected through video chat and messaging has been a source of reassurance, and while it doesn’t beat actually being there, it is the next best thing.
Meanwhile, my environment in Canada has become more diversified, especially after moving to Toronto for university. I’ve been able to find people I can connect with and feel a bit less “alien.”
I am extremely fortunate to have a connection with both countries and be able to physically exist in each space. I have the privilege to learn, the privilege to gain back what I threw away in my childhood and the privilege of finding a definition of home. Above all, I have to acknowledge that I am a settler of colour on unceded Indigenous land, that I have the responsibility to listen to the voices of Indigenous peoples and recognize how to reduce the harm done by colonial policies.
People often feel pressured to choose an identity that they have to carry with them for the rest of their existence. What they don’t tell you is that this identity can be multifaceted. In fact, it has to be, your identity is made up of all your life experiences, your ancestors’ experiences and every single thing that came before you. It is not just a box you check. This mindset is the same for the concept of home.
It can be hard to find a sense of belonging as an immigrant child. The complicated labyrinth of finding yourself becomes entangled with even more questions and confusion. But while the experience can feel lonely, it is not limited to one person. It is important to understand that there are so many people who feel the same way and have had similar thoughts throughout their own unique experiences.
I’m still trying to figure out what home means to me. But now, I am learning that this definition does not have to be set in stone, nor does it only have a single and final description. Home is widely interpreted as such a place-rooted word when in reality, it is a flexible concept that is different to every individual. Home doesn’t necessarily have to be a house or a place — it can be anything and everything. I’ve learned that home is family, friends, experiences, adventures; it is all the things that reside in you. The definition doesn’t have to be logical to everyone as long as it makes sense to you. So, maybe home can be two places at once.
This piece was published in New Wave's Spring 2022 Issue