Nfld. & Labrador

From Taiwan to Town: one family reflects on multiculturalism in St. John's

The Hsu family took part in the very first Sharing Our Culture diversity celebration back in 1999. Now, on its 20th anniversary, they look back on how much their city, and their lives, have changed.

20 years ago the Hsu family took part in the first ever Sharing Our Culture event

From left to right, Tzu-Yang, Li-Hui and Tzu-Hao Hsu pose for a picture. (Jeremy Eaton/CBC)

St. John's had a totally different look and feel to it in August 1995.

No tourists rushed in for fine dining, there were no slick commercials promoting the province abroad, and the Hsu family had just landed at the airport from Taiwan. 

"Before we came here didn't even know what Newfoundland was," Li-Hui Hsu said.

"We never heard of it."

Hsu is looking back on her family's first days in the city as the province's Sharing Our Cultures program marks its 20th anniversary this week, an annual province-wide effort to foster diversity. The Hsus took part in its very first edition in 1999.

Tzu-Yang and his three ESL classmates were all featured in The Telegram back in 1999. (Submitted by the Hsu family)

English immersion

But years before that, the family had just arrived in St. John's: Hsu, her husband and their two children, Tzu-Hao — then just 11 — and her little brother Tzu-Yang, 7. Hsu had initial thoughts of continuing on to Vancouver, but didn't for fear her kids would only hang out with other Chinese or Taiwanese immigrants, and never learn English. 

A few short weeks later, Tzu-Hao and Tzu-Yang were dropped off at a McDonald Drive Elementary classroom with no grasp on a new language. 

"They didn't know anything about English," their mother said.

A steep learning curve for two young Taiwanese students, but a challenge they were up for, even if there was only one English word they knew. 

"I am in a place where I don't speak the language and the only thing I recognize is McDonald's. What am I going to do?" Tzu-Hao said, with a smile. 

Now a business manager, Tzu-Hao spent a lot of time learning phrases from the Chinese-English dictionary their mother had bought her and Tzu-Yang.

I am in a place where I don't speak the language and the only thing I recognize is McDonald's. What am I going to do?- Tzu-Hao Hsu

As practice, she'd just blurt out phrases and base the success of her English on her friends' reactions, while Tzu-Yang took a more calculated, quiet approach and soaked in all the language he could.

"The teachers were a little concerned — 'he doesn't ever say anything,'" Tzu-Yang said.

"Then a couple of months in they said they couldn't get me to shut up."

Both Hsu kids said they benefited greatly from the English as a Second Language (ESL) program at their school, and their vocabulary, along with their circle of friends, quickly expanded.

When their mother floated the idea of moving, "they said, 'Mommy no, we are staying here,'" Li-Hui Hsu recalled.

"Then we went to look for a house and that was it. No more talking about moving."

Tzu-Hao Hsu taught others about Taiwan during Sharing Our Culture events. (Submitted by Hsu family)

'It was a lot of fun'

Then, in 1999 the Sharing Our Culture initiative began, with its goal to promote inter-cultural understanding in the province and connect culturally diverse school-aged children. 

As part of that program 20 years ago, Tzu-Yang and three other ESL students got the chance to share with their peers the stories of where they came from.

The four Grade 6 students partnered with high schoolers, with the older students asking their younger counterparts questions about how they grew up.

"It was a lot of fun," Tzu-yang said. "They just wanted a chance for all of us to tell our own stories about our countries, our hometown and our interests."

Out of those stories came four books, one for each ESL student, that became teaching tools for social studies classes. The Hsu family still has a copy of Tzu-Yang's, filled with colourful drawings based on his stories.

An excerpt from Tzu-Yang's book about Taiwan, created as part of Sharing Our Cultures. (Submitted by Hsu family)

Likewise, Tzu-Hao also got the chance to teach her peers about Taiwan through the Sharing Our Culture program.

This year the event makes four school stops across the province: in Happy Valley-Goose Bay, Grand Falls-Windsor, Corner Brook and at The Rooms in St. John's.

Now Newfoundlanders

The Hsu children both attended Memorial University and continue to live and work in St. John's, and have witnessed the transformation of the city into a diverse, dynamic place. 

"You don't realize it, until you sit down and think about how far we've come as far as multiculturalism," Tzu-Yang said.

"You take a stroll on Water Street now — the cuisine that is available now is not even comparable to 10 years ago."

His sister calls their life here a "fantastic ride," as she now identifies as Newfoundlander, Canadian and Taiwanese.

You take a stroll on Water Street now — the cuisine that is available now is not even comparable to 10 years ago.- Tzu-Yang Hsu

"There were some unique challenges to go with it. Once your path is established, being here, or being anywhere else in the world, it's no different," she said.

As her two children told CBC News the story of their start in St. John's in 1995, Li-Hui smiles.

"My daughter-in-law is a Newfoundlander, my son-in-law is a Newfoundlander — which is really, really good," she said.

"Newfoundland people are really, really kind and nice."

Her ties to the province are about to grow even stronger: she's set to become a grandmother in the coming months. 

Read more articles from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador