The Sunday Magazine·PERSONAL ESSAY

A child of immigrants on walking the delicate balance between two cultures

Sabreena Delhon says the challenges faced by first generation immigrants are the most critical. It gets a little murky after that.... and not necessarily easier. Her essay is called, “Yuppie.”

Sabreena Delhon says the challenges faced by first generation immigrants are the most critical

(Gelek Badheytsang)

The day my mom called me a yuppie, I beamed with pride. We are south Asian Canadians and I received her words as official acknowledgement that I had successfully delivered on the immigrant dream.

For me, "yuppie" was shorthand for securing a higher education, a professional job and a bourgeois fridge stocked with kale and sparkling water. The warm glow of smug satisfaction was short lived. "Yuppie", it turned out, was not a compliment, but a way for my mom to express her dismay that I had become distant and unfamiliar to her. We were both stunned. 

The comment was made in my house, on a street lined with discarded objects – books, shoes, furniture. Earlier that day I'd tried to explain this quintessentially Toronto custom as charming, even altruistic.

"Whatever you don't want, you just put out for someone else!" I chirped. When that didn't yield much of a reaction, I tried the urban real estate angle, "Toilets on the sidewalk mean people are renovating!" Eventually she nodded, looked at me and said plainly, "It's garbage." 

It was great to have a label but I needed more direction - how much was Indo? When was I Canadian? Was I ever both?- Sabreena Delhon

When I was a teenager, my dad imparted the immigrant success plan to me, something that his father had passed down to him. Like most of his important missives, this was delivered to me in a sensible pale-coloured Toyota with patterned covers slipped over the passenger and driver's seats.

We had slowly bumped up on to the driveway of our suburban Edmonton house on a summer day. He began explaining how the first generation carries the burden of arrival to a new country. Next, the second generation establishes the framework that ideally boosts the third generation into a fully assimilated middle to upper-middle class existence. 

The neighbours, also teenagers, played basketball around us. While that normally made me squirm during these car talks, for some reason, I was all ears for this one. The third generation in my family was…me. What my dad had likely intended as a gentle nudge or even an offhand story, I accepted as marching orders, quietly committing to my part in the plan.

The challenges faced by first generation immigrants are the most critical – establishing a home, possibly learning a new language and securing stability in a new culture. This is the familiar, arguably stereotypical portrait of the immigrant experience. It gets a little murky after that - more nuanced, but not necessarily easier.

I remember when I first became familiar with the term "Indo-Canadian." This acknowledgement that my cultural identity had two spheres came as a relief but was also a source of anxiety. It was great to have a label but I needed more direction - how much was Indo? When was I Canadian? Was I ever both? There's no established story arc for second and third generation immigrants. They must find their own way between two worlds, trying to strike to a balance on ground that is always shifting. 

I focused on cultivating cultural capital. This often came in the form of learning how to spend money on things that my parents would have labelled as ridiculous or wasteful.- Sabreena Delhon

Growing up, I didn't have a professional role model that I could identify with. So I created one - a composite character that drew from Oprah, Cher and Barbara Frum. When I realized that hard work and determination were not the only variables that produced success in the professional world, I focused on cultivating cultural capital. This often came in the form of learning how to spend money on things that my parents would have labelled as ridiculous or wasteful.

I recently ate in a celebrated restaurant with a fixed menu, where the server gushed about Chef as a divine being after every course, including one that featured foraged, "over-wintered" greens. From a first generation immigrant perspective, the privilege of such a dining experience is obscured by the fact that you are spending a lot of money to please Chef by eating old vegetables before they hit the compost.

As I moved through university, challenging job markets and a period of acculturation into urban professional life, I leaned on learned behaviours to ensure I was at once both the exception and just like everyone else.  It was exhausting - a constant effort to assure those around me that I belonged, that the space - from a neighbourhood to a boardroom - was mine to occupy. 

In one of my first jobs after graduate school, I had bosses who commended my ability to "work like a dog" and attributed my diligence to the "obedience" that my South Asian parents no doubt demanded of me. With limited room to correct these views, I began to build an offensive arsenal – tight smiles, pearl earrings, detailed notes.

Before I knew it, I was taking a preemptive approach, putting this select group at ease with references to Leonard Cohen songs and feigned interest in stories about that ubiquitous upper-middle class Toronto destination – the cottage. The process of collecting these objects and honing these gestures steadily distanced me from those who inspired me to excel in the first place. It made me wonder about the generations before me. Is this what they meant? Was this the destination? 

Now that I'm squarely on the other side, I'm noticing that I have some company – it's a sight for sore eyes. People who have had a similar path - who were also raised to see paper towels as an extravagance and who are accustomed to being routinely mistaken for that one other brown person at work. People who as a matter of survival, developed robust imaginations to picture and propel themselves to the next professional marker. We've navigated the same contradictory terrain - aim high but not too high, be ambitious and driven but don't overstep, overreach or make anyone uncomfortable. 

On that day in my dad's Toyota, I thought I was committing to a straightforward and solitary journey. While nothing has been straightforward, it has been a welcome surprise to find out I am not alone. I may not know them, but now I have peers who help me feel seen and heard. Together we are paddling our own canoes, which is fitting because we're often the only ones in our families to have ever even been in one. 

Sabreena Delhon lives in Toronto.

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