Diversity is real, and we are all part of it
By Mila Bongco-Philipzig
More than thirty years ago, I came to Canada alone as a graduate student.
Assimilation was much harder back then. Throw in my own lack of information on inter-cultural interactions and general naiveté due to my young age, and there were huge gaps in culture adaption from others as well as from myself. In addition, the internet was not publicly accessible yet, and no social media which may have aided in my feelings of isolation and homesickness.
So, the strong pull of family, long-time friends, and the overall comfort and familiarity of the sights, tastes, and ways I knew since childhood kept drawing me back to the land where I was born and grew up. I wanted to go back, I was determined to go back.
But considering the opportunities I could have and the future I could provide for my children, the decision to move and settle in Canada made more sense.
Eventually, I decided to stay. It was not an easy decision to make. I was conflicted because I thought the choice to move to Canada meant I was giving up on my home country, that I was betraying values and traditions instilled by my family, and that I would forever live my life straddling and navigating two cultures and never belonging in either one.
I have now learned to embrace this decision to stay and be grateful for the opportunity to be living, working, and raising a family in Edmonton.
Fortunately, Canada allows one to embrace multiple cultures.
We usually equate culture with a country or a race – but differences in culture can encompass belief systems, social class, economic standing, religion, gender, age/generation, political views, and so on.
Even in this context, there is a tolerance for multi-culturalism in Canada that is not present in the same level in many countries. Of course, Canada is not perfect in this aspect and we hear news of intolerance, even violence, against race, religion, women, and homeless people, among others.
Canada is not insulated against an increasingly fractured world currently battling fears, division, prejudice, and inequity.
Right here in our city, there are still instances of racism, bigotry, looking down on homelessness or people with disability. Just 2 months ago, someone hurled a racist insult at me personally.
I know we still need to fight against ignorance and misinformation and even unfounded hatred. However, and most especially compared to what is happening to our neighbours down south, I still feel lucky to be living in Canada that actively promotes diversity and encourages tolerance.
Somehow, I feel that my journey from a lonely graduate student in the early 1980s to now having a multi-cultural family reflects the journey that Canada also had towards being a more diverse and multi-cultural place.
We see this in Edmonton itself – there is no denying this city is much, much more diverse than 30 years ago. You see it in the people you meet every day, in the restaurants scattered all over the city, in the shelves of grocery stores, in the variety of festivals and events throughout the year, in workplaces, in schools, everywhere.
Edmonton is diverse and this is a fact we need to understand, accept, be grateful for, and continuously teach our children to value and appreciate.
I come from Asia, my husband is European and our 16-yr old son was born in Edmonton. One of my son’s good friends is half-Ghanaian, half-Salvadoran; another one is half-German and half-Vietnamese. We did not intentionally seek them out. We met them by chance, and have been meeting similar multi-cultural families while on the community soccer field, at city events, in schools, at work.
My own friends are even more diverse than my son’s circle in terms of cultural variety. Not only do my friends come from all over the world, but they also range in age from late 20s to early 70s; some are gay or lesbian; some are atheists or don’t care at all for religion or faith, and some are Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, and a whole gamut of other global faith systems.
I am also now friends with people who, due to economic class differences, I would have snubbed or just bossed around in our home country. You may think, this is not possible. They can be your acquaintances maybe, possibly workplace friends at most, but close friends, with such differences?
Well, it is very, very possible. I am talking about close friends who I see regularly, who know my family well, those whose contact information are with my son because in cases of emergency where he cannot reach us, I know these friends will help him no matter what.
I know now that we do not need to fear losing our identity, our values, or our culture when we accept other’s different perspectives, opinions, and values. We do not need to always compare and ask what is better, who is more right. We do not need to feel superior or smug in what is most familiar and most right to us.
I feel that what we need to do is to be curious and open-minded, to be humble and to actively reach out. Instead of thinking what we would lose or need to give up in adapting to a new culture, we can focus on what we can gain and learn in all the richness that a diverse community offers.
As a graduate student back then, joining the International Students Association, a choir, and a sports team got me out of my isolation and opened my mind to understanding differences, and enjoying a country like Canada that upholds peaceful co-existence and tolerance.
I intentionally joined groups with a variety of interests to expand my horizon and an international group rather than just limiting my encounters to people of my own race.
I find that one tendency of new immigrants is to seek out people from the same country, about the same age, from similar educational and economic standing, same religious belief, and so on. There is nothing wrong with getting to know people from similar backgrounds, as sharing experiences help us navigate and settle in a new place. But we should be cautious in gravitating only to circles that share and confirm the same perspectives we already have.
Sometimes, this can lead to an unfortunate cycle of biases being confirmed, prejudices and negative experiences magnified, to the point that some long-ago, heard-from-someone story of an unfortunate incident becomes ingrained in a community’s mindset that something in this new place is somehow against them.
Diversity in Edmonton – in Canada – is thriving and will only grow. I sincerely believe that diversity is something to embrace and enjoy rather than just tolerate.
There are many ways that we can get to know and understand people who are different than us – reach out and get to know our neighbours, taste a variety of ethnic foods, attend cultural and indigenous events, volunteer at a senior’s home, help people with learning or physical challenges, get to know people from different generations in our place of worship, join or watch the Pride Parade, travel with an open mind, learn another language. Getting to know others help us learn about multi-cultural issues and concerns – be it racism, sexism, ageism, xenophobia, or homophobia – and arms us with knowledge to identify and fight discrimination.
In being open minded and curious about diversity, we have so much to gain, so many opportunities to enjoy, so many new insights to learn – and in Edmonton, it can be as easy as inviting and participating in the many different worlds that are already right at our doorsteps.
About the Author: Mila was born in Manila, Philippines and left for Canada in 1984 with a Graduate Studies scholarship at the University of Alberta. After completing her Masters, she left for Germany on another scholarship this time towards a PhD. In Munich, she met her husband and they have one son. Mila and family have been living in various places around the globe – Asia, Africa, Europe and North America – preferring to be on the road and experiencing various cultures and perspectives rather than being tied down with a mortgage. They ended up calling Edmonton home (longer than expected) to provide a more predictable environment where their son can grow up together with his friends. Mila is currently working as a project manager at Stantec, a global company founded in Edmonton. She recently published two bi-lingual children’s books (Pilipino and English) and is active in the community.