How moving to Paris helped me embrace my Asian Canadian identity

Sometimes, time away from home can bring with it new perspective.. For Corey Leung, it was his experience at HEC in Paris that allowed new perspective on what being Asian Canadian means for him.

I was starting to feel restless. After 27 years in Canada, I was staring at two diverging paths in my life. The first path was one that I always thought I would take: continue progressing in my career, get a mortgage, start a family, then live happily ever after.

The second path was one that simultaneously scared and excited me. Move away, go back to school, and then open my life to the uncertainty of not knowing where I’d go next. For the majority of my life, I had always defaulted to the safer path. Staying at home during my undergrad, I took the more financially-appealing offers, and never went away for too long.

I couldn’t bring myself to do that again. I took the latter option.

Canadian students at the HEC Paris MBA Scholarship awards ceremony
Canadians at the HEC Paris MBA Scholarship Awards Ceremony. Photo submitted.

In August of 2018, I left Vancouver and moved to Paris to pursue an MBA at HEC Paris. Like many other Canadians, I had so many romantic ideas of what living in Paris would be like. I’d eat at a boulangerie daily, wander in awe as I live among beautiful architecture — maybe even fall in love. This is the life I thought was waiting for me as I embarked on this new journey.

However, what I didn’t expect was that my journey would bring me face-to-face with my identity as an Asian Canadian.

See also: Identity through the eyes of a Black Asian: Part 1

From food to friends

Growing up in Victoria, most of my friends were Caucasian. I had a few close friends from different ethnicities, but we always pursued Western hobbies and pastimes. When I moved to Vancouver, which at the time felt like the biggest move I would ever make, I started befriending many fellow Canadian-born Chinese and other Asian Canadians.

However, that was really as far as my circle grew. Almost everyone I hung out with were either born in Canada or had spent most of their life in Canada. Everything was comfortable and familiar.

Paris was different. I joined an MBA program that was 93% non-French and had representation from over 50 nationalities. I met people from places I had never even dreamed of going to. The majority of us were living together in a country that was not home, and it brought us closer together.

Over the 16 months of the MBA program, I could feel my mind opening up to new ideas, new perspectives, and new possibilities for where my future could lie. Simultaneously, the uncertainty that I was concerned about before shifted almost completely into excitement.

However, there was one downside – I couldn’t find a good bowl of Taiwanese Beef Noodle or ramen anywhere. The HEC Paris campus is in the outskirts of Paris, which meant that ethnic food options were severely limited. Within weeks, I was missing food diversity.

Holi Celebrations on Campus.
Holi Celebrations on Campus. Photo Submitted.

Then an opportunity presented itself. I realized that almost all my classmates knew family recipes that were completely authentic. Coming from an upbringing where sharing meals was a very important part of life, I made it my mission to invite different people over to teach me how to cook dishes from their home countries, ranging from Taiwan to Tunisia.

This experience allowed me to tap into groups that I hadn’t really interacted with. Soon, I was finding myself in situations where I was the only one who didn’t speak Mandarin when eating Sichuanese food, or the only one who didn’t speak Hindi when drinking chai. I was gaining first-hand knowledge about so many different cultures that I thought I knew from living in Canada. Ultimately, many of my beliefs were wrong.

A pan-Pacific connection

During this time, I started to really reflect on my own identity as an Asian Canadian. We had nine Canadians in my class and, while we were all friends, I didn’t feel like there was a strong identity that tied us together.

Honestly, I always struggled with what it meant to be a Canadian. My idea of what “being Canadian” meant was never reflected in my upbringing as a minority in Victoria. I love hockey and the occasional Tim Horton’s donut but I had a really hard time calling that an identity.

As the months went by, I started to feel myself getting drawn to people from different parts of Asia. The more I spoke to friends from places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, China, Thailand, and India, the more I found pieces of myself in their experiences and upbringing.

Over countless conversations, the threads that tie us together became more and more clear. The importance of family. The pressures we faced growing up. The types of food we eat. We’d celebrate each other’s differences while learning how similar our lives were growing up on opposite sides of the Pacific.

Group of friends visiting Rotterdam at a lake
Visiting Rotterdam with classmates. Photo Submitted

For the first time in my life, Asia wasn’t just the place where my parents were from. Asia was the place where my friends were from; the place that influenced so much of who I am today. Hanging out with people that never had to question their own race gave me confidence and pride in my identity. I was gaining a sense of confidence that I never found in Canada.

On (Asian) Canadian identity

I started to further reflect on the individual parts that made up my identity and how they were shaped. Growing up, whenever someone would ask me what my favourite food was, I would always say steak and mashed potatoes. While there is nothing wrong with a good steak, I started to question why steak and mashed potatoes were my first reaction to that question.

I learned that I had spent so many years not wanting to be “othered” that I started making my identity as white as possible. The food I ate when I went out, the music I listened to, and the movies I watched — these were all things that I did to make myself seem more Western.

I took pride in being the “only Asian” to do certain things. The only Asian at a certain restaurant, the only Asian taking a certain class, or the only Asian at a concert (I’m a huge indie music fan and I can’t count the number of times this has happened). Moving from Victoria to Vancouver probably kickstarted some of this introspection, but moving to Paris put it into overdrive.

In the last two years, I’ve started reclaiming the Asian parts of myself and reframe the Canadian parts. Undoing a lot of the shame triggers that I had grown up associating with being Asian is a big part of this process. Embracing my history and culture is another. I have started to learn and talk more openly about my family’s immigration story to Canada and I have found so many interesting tidbits that I could write a book.

On being Canadian, I’m choosing to define the Canadian identity as one that is based on the cultural mosaic that Canada’s multiculturalism policy is derived from. This means you can be whatever you interpret your culture to be and, by simply being in Canada, you are adding to and strengthening what it means to be a Canadian.

In many ways, I’m starting to see my Asian Canadian identity as a superpower. One friend told me he saw me as a bridge between so many different cultures based on my unique experiences. I really loved that.

Singapore For Lunch, Paris For Dinner

This past January, after I finished my classes at HEC Paris, I decided to move to Asia. It felt like the next step in my journey. Setting my sights on a future in Singapore, I spent two and half months sleeping on friends’ couches and interviewing for jobs before the COVID-19 pandemic ended that dream.

Author and friends in front of the Marina Bay Sands Hotel in Singapore.
Meeting up with classmates in Singapore. Photo Submitted

Asia would have to wait. While I was disappointed, the experience of living in a place where I wasn’t a minority only strengthened my pride in my identity.

I eventually decided to take a job back in Paris. In many ways, I also feel that my story here is not yet finished. One of my favourite phrases is amor fati, which means a love of fate in Latin. Fate brought me back to Paris armed with even more perspective, and I am excited about what the rest of my time here will reveal to me.

Before Paris went back into lockdown, I would spend Saturdays exploring Paris and hanging out with my culturally mixed group of friends. We would have picnics by the Eiffel Tower during the summers, and explore museums and exhibits during the winters.

On Sundays, I would make a pilgrimage to Le Quartier Asiatique (Chinatown), buy Asian groceries, and eat a meal of wonton noodles or char siu on rice. Chinatown is one of few places in Paris where I can go into almost any establishment and practice my Cantonese.

There is a sense of comfort and familiarity in this routine. It reminds me of my childhood trips to Victoria’s Chinatown to buy groceries with my parents. Or the Saturday mornings I spent over a season as an adult taking Cantonese classes in Vancouver’s Chinatown.

It reminds me of home.

Featured photo submitted.

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