East Meets West in Toronto

How can Asians keep their traditions when they study in the West?

November 13, 2000

How can Asians keep their traditions when they study in the West?

Soo Ing is a thirty-year-old Chinese-Canadian. She left home at sixteen, moving to Toronto after high-school. There, she had worked first as a clerk in a brokerage firm, rising to office manager before her eighteenth birthday. Before long, Soo was attending the University of Toronto, paying her own way.

She knew how practical she was and didn’t worry about studying subjects that would help her get a job. She was good at getting jobs already. She studied literature, sociology, the arts. One summer, she toured Europe and met some German girls who spoke a little English. They traveled together and then became pen pals when she returned to Toronto. But they stopped writing, and rather than lose touch with them, Soo took a course in German.

She fell in love with German, finding the language beautiful. She made another visit, this time on a scholarship, and, her German getting better, she imagined living there. When she got her degree from Toronto, her graduation had the feeling of a farewell.

Her parents, who rarely left their restaurant, made the long drive to see their daughter in cap and gown. After they arrived, she had a moment of panic: As she was collecting her stuff for the ceremony, an organizer said she wasn’t on the graduation list.

This seemed incomprehensible to her, so she kept insisting and finally the organizer checked another list, and there it was, her name. It was the list for honors students. Soo had received the second-highest rank in her college (out of many hundreds of students).

She might not have told her father about her achievement because she knew her parents did not give praise. She is not “from a praise culture,” she tells people. But having received a fright when her name wasn’t immediately found, she revealed her delight almost by reflex. She told her dad she’d gotten second honors.

“You’re not the highest, you’re not number one.” He said.

“You’re right, dad. I’m not.”

No anger, Soo just saying it flat. Like it was normal for this and for her Dad to say this and for her to agree. And it was, really, because he had barely finished school much less attended a fancy university. He had humility. He saw people without pretense, naked, stripped to their bones. For a person of little education, who was bright but had few opportunities while coming of age amid the civil war in China following World War II, this was a common way of looking at the achievements of others.

So Soo did not blame her father. Even more, she thanked him. She knew he meant to help her. And his digs drove her to work harder. Yet at the same time, he reminded her not to get carried away with herself. To remember that she had both roots and wings and that wings would take her only so far.

Adapted from "The Global Me" by G. Pascal Zachary. Copyright © 2000 by G. Pascal Zachary. Used by permission of the author.