Immigrating: How to Thrive in a Foreign Culture

by Teenaz Javat

Canada is a country built by immigrants. It always has been.

Thousands of years ago the Norse people came to the shores of what is now called Newfoundland and Labrador. They were preceded in the west by Asiatic nomads who crossed over the continental ridge in the western edge of the country what is now called the Bering Strait and settled into Canada’s tundra region.

From the east and the west, this vast land was settled, resettled and conquered by the natives, the French and the English.

The twentieth century saw the Irish, the Scots, Russians, Italians, Ukrainians, Latinos, Chinese, Japanese, Africans, south Asians and pretty much everybody from anywhere, seeking safe asylum in Canada. This land, in general, has been kind to all.

In pure economic terms Canada is what is defined as a net importer of human capital. And how we all live and survive here is, at one and the same time, both a marvel and a flash point.

People from every community face problems when they leave their way of life and settle into another culture.

According to Dr. Kwame McKenzie, Senior Scientist within the social equity and health research section at the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), society must not assume that the problems faced by any one individual are because of their culture. "There are several factors that affect resettlement," McKenzie explained. "Why they left their homeland, the process of migration and the individual’s ability and resilience [strength] to thrive in a foreign culture – their ability to adjust will likely depend on these variables."

However, there are many immigrants who leave behind their way of life in their countries only to recreate it here. Researchers at the CAMH (pronounced simply ‘kam-H’), where dedicated studies on immigrants and their ability to adjust are continuously carried out, say there are three big factors that change one’s ability to settle down. They are the ability to work, accommodation and intellectual abilities.

Dr. McKenzie says, "Immigrants who find work in their chosen fields, who have decent and stable accommodation tend to do better. However, the higher their IQ, the worse they tend to do. They constantly reflect on their loss of status. For example a doctor from Iran who had a fairly good status in his home country may find himself stuck at a menial low-paying job where his credentials are not recognised. This loss of status is what makes re-settlement that much harder."

Many families also face what is loosely and sometimes incorrectly termed a culture clash. Take the case of Ghulam Shah who immigrated to Canada from Pakistan with his children and is now a grandfather. He wonders whether the very freedom that Canada offers to newcomers might sometimes be a problem.

"Back home our children were not exposed to so much TV, videos, films. ‘How much is enough’ is the greatest challenge I face in disciplining my grandchildren. If we are too strict, then the school reports us to the Children’s Aid Society so I am confused," said Shah.

Most newcomers to Canada are afraid of allowing their children to attend sleepovers and some go to the extent of disallowing even birthday parties. This insular lifestyle has created a rift rather than building bridges, and it is here that the second generation Canadian is seen to be falling through the cracks.

Dr. McKenzie has a word of caution here. "This clash of ‘tradition versus modern’ has always been present even when Italian immigrants came to North America. The new generation will always try to push the envelope. Traditional society takes longer in coming to terms with Canadian life. The first generation tries to recreate the social support that exists back in your home country. The second-generation kids are trying to get a piece of what Canada has to offer. And negotiating that is not necessarily a problem. I loathe [hate] calling it simply a culture clash. Not everything can be put down to culture. In fact it can be a clash of culture, generation and situation, which is bound to happen. The challenge is to sift out the difference between the three.

"It is interesting to note that people always put it down to a culture clash only when that person is brown or black, not when that person is white. Youth of any colour have always had problems with their parents. When a white family faces this problem they call it the evolution of society. For a family of colour, it is termed a clash of culture," he adds.

Some kids, not knowing which culture to belong to, cannot cope with the duality in their lives. Their homes reflect their exclusive traditional values and culture while the public schools they attend are all inclusive.

According to Farzana Hassan, former President of the Muslim Canadian Congress, "As newcomers we must, to an extent, be prepared to shed our cultural baggage. If we try to recreate in Canada the same lifestyle we had back home then there is bound to be a clash. Canada’s policies have been good to immigrants, we must in return at least try and adapt to the culture of the host country."

For Alia Hogben, Executive Director of the Canadian Council for Muslim Women, "Newcomers – especially women – must focus on civic engagement as a key to full integration. Living an insular life and confining your social life with just people from your faith will lead to even more segregation."

"It is very important if you are from a minority group to be proud of your race and your culture. That said, it is equally important to know how to live in Canada but still hold onto a part of your heritage. It is indeed very difficult, but generations of immigrants have done it before us and all newcomers will succeed if their parents and their community learn to be comfortable enough to allow their children the freedom to be bi-cultural. If the second generation is to succeed, they must learn to be bi-cultural. Our society needs to change and accept and be interested in its immigrants," says Dr. McKenzie.

Success of all newcomers largely depends on how we embrace the Canadian way of life while at the same time remaining proud of who we are and where we are from. That is the test that generations of Canadians have gone through and will continue to go through, as waves of different people make Canada their home.

If you are having difficulties, visit the CAMH website here.

CNM