Know Your Roots: Hopes & Struggles of South Asian Youth

Being a child of immigrant parents, I can relate to the challenges we face to balance our ethnic roots in addition to prospering and progressing among other Canadians. Both as a college professor and as a social worker, and as one who happens to be South Asian, I am often asked by concerned South Asian parents regarding the success of their children. These South Asian parents are among those who migrated here due to the primary hope that their children will have access to the best education and thus, fulfill the dreams that the parents themselves may not have had the opportunity to realize. The children however, can sometimes find it difficult to understand the lived experiences of their parents from back home and may have a different definition of “success” altogether.
So do South Asian youth have it any harder than their Canadian Anglo-Saxon counterparts?
Yes and No. Certainly there are issues that we face as South Asians living in Canada, issues we face as Canadians, and issues we face given our specific ethnicity within the large category of “South Asian”. Every identity comes with its own set of privileges and struggles. I think within the community, we sometimes can exaggerate the differences between “us” and “them”. In fact, the family issues I have worked on as a social worker are common to all kinds of ethnicities. For example, issues around domestic violence, extended family problems, depression, anxiety and mental health, are issues affecting all communities.
At the same time, we are unique given our ancestry, ethnicity, language, faith and so on; even from each other. Sometimes, youth can feel confused and parents struggle with how to effectively parent in a new society with new rules. Meanwhile the mainstream society is also working on how to make everyone fit in and address everyone’s needs. As a social worker, I would say that all of these three factors must be in-sync in order for any child to have the best opportunities for success.
Given the above, I do not want readers to think that this sweeps away the reality of barriers such as racism, discrimination, class and cultural segregation. There are definite differences between South Asian immigrants and white Canadian born families, one of which certainly is the privilege of the number of generations the family has spent in Canada. However, South Asian immigrants also experience differences from their white immigrant counterparts who have been here for the same amount of time. Studies, such as those conducted by Michael Ornstein that got much attention after the 1996 and 2001 Census reports, have shown that white immigrants have an easier and quicker time in settling into Canada than do immigrants who are not white due to various systemic and cultural barriers. This study confirmed what many of us working in the social services sector already knew, that the fortunes for South Asian communities were bleak given that more than half of Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Tamils live below the poverty line in the Greater Toronto area. Thus, there are obvious differences that we must address if we, as a community, are going to make Canada our home away from home.
So how do we balance this? Well, I encourage youth to learn about your own ancestory and histories. I say to find answers to questions such as, where did you come from? Who were your forefathers? If you trace your lineage back, are there many different places in which your ancestors lived and migrated to? What was their socio-economic status, education level and method of livelihood, and has it changed for some members of the family? How did your family end up in Canada as opposed to some other part of the world, or remaining in South Asia for that matter? How come some of your relatives migrated and others did not? What privileges allowed your family to come to Canada? How might you be similar to and different from other South Asian families in Canada? How might you be similar to and different from others who are not South Asian?
When we discover the answers to some of these questions, it seems apparent that migration has been part of global culture for hundreds of years and that some parents may have also been born in a land which was not native to their forefathers. I am certainly an example of this. We can also discover that there is much diversity within our own families due to migration patterns, wars, changes in monarchy or governments, cultural evolutions, revolutions, and so on. So all of these discoveries help to place our modern day issues into perspective.
I firmly believe (and am an example of) that once you have this broader understanding of where you came from, the path ahead seems clearer and any minor ‘differences’ or challenges do not become major barriers anymore. Remember also that other groups such as the Italian, Portuguese and Irish went through the integration process as well. As previous trends show in Canadian immigrant history, it takes about three generations for immigrant families to be at par with the ‘mainstream’ society. This is when careers, educational opportunities and so on, open up and one’s immigrant background is not as much of a barrier to full participation in civic society and other aspects of enjoying a quality of life within what is considered the “norm”. 
My personal motto has always been, ‘Know yourself, love yourself’. I believe that tremendous strength can come from within once we, first and foremost, truly understand and love ourselves.
About the author: Tahmena Bokhari is a professor, social worker and a community activist
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  1. Good article. I am a South Asian youth and can totally relate to the struggles mentioned. I agree that when you have a strong sense of where you are from, you are a stronger person overall.
    Thank you Ms Bokhari for this article.

  2. I agree because I took her advice way back and applied it to myself, I feel much stronger now for it, of course she reminded me that it is never ending learning about yourself and you do get stronger and stronger. It is important to know not just where you came from, but really learn the history of the time and place and this puts your family stories into context. I think all of us not just South Asian youths can benefit from this.
    Thank you again

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