What I learned about the community from my Korean parents who lived in rural Canada

This first-person column is written by Nathan Kim, a teacher in Mississauga, Ontario. For more information on CBC’s first-person stories, please visit the faq.

My parents, Hoon and Insook Kim, immigrated from Korea to Canada 50 years ago. They settled into a tiny apartment in the St. Jamestown neighborhood of downtown Toronto, where they could easily find food from familiar and other Koreans, while enjoying the metropolitan culture and lifestyle available in the area. big city.

In 1983, my father became a pastor of The United Church, and he and my mother moved from Toronto to serve the small mountain village of Jasper, Alberta. I was born there later that year. When the opportunity arose to return to Ontario, my father became a minister in an even smaller village called Wyevale in 1987.

Back then there were probably more elk living in Jasper than people of color and we were literally the only non-white family in Wyevale. As a Korean family playing a central role in a homogeneous predominantly white community, there were inevitably awkward and uncomfortable times.

Hoon Kim, seen in her ministerial dress, and Insook Kim, holding her son Nathan, are pictured in Jasper, Alta. in 1986. (Nathan Kim)

As a child, I didn’t pay much attention to these interactions. But as I got older I began to realize that some of these situations were inappropriate, if not downright racist.

But what stands out is how my parents seemed to let a lot of these encounters go by. Their goal has always been to build relationships with the communities they served and my parents recognized that these interactions were often due to a lack of experience with minorities – not a place of discrimination or hatred.

The principal of my elementary school in Wyevale once asked my parents to give a presentation for the students on Japanese culture. The aim was to prepare the school for the visit of a delegation of Japanese education officials who wanted to visit a rural Canadian school. Considering the history of the Japanese occupation in Korea and the fact that my parents were probably interviewed just because they looked Asian, this request was extremely offensive. If I was asked, my thorns would certainly have been lifted.

But my parents took the opportunity to learn. Without wanting to speak on behalf of another community, my parents were able to share basic Japanese ideas and phrases, acquired while my grandmother was living under Japanese occupation, to give students in my school a basic ability. to welcome visitors from Japan. .

When I asked her if these situations had bothered them before, my mother replied: “Curious people are the ones who try to make connections. [even if] they can ask uncomfortable questions. “

When I was 15, my family moved to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA). I eventually became a teacher in Peel Region.

Nathan Kim is a small town kid who ended up teaching and raising his family in the sprawling city of Mississauga, Ontario. (Nathan Kim)

Education, like the rest of society, currently faces racism. School boards are grappling with systemic issues such as school staff that do not reflect the racial and cultural diversity of the student body. Educators are trained to make our programs culturally appropriate and students learn to celebrate diversity and identify racism.

I am glad that this important work has finally made it to the top of the education priority list.

Still, I’m concerned that some people who really want to know someone from a different culture will hesitate to break the ice for fear of mistakenly saying or asking the wrong thing – and missing the opportunity to bridge the gap between different communities. .

Despite the incredible diversity of the GTA, it sometimes feels like different communities are siled, with different cultures living next to each other but reluctant or uninterested in interacting with each other.

In times like these, I often think about how my parents’ goal has always been to build relationships.

At school, students sometimes ask me if I am related to Asian students or staff members, possibly because of our similar characteristics. Embarrassing as these questions may be, I’m certainly not about to shame these curious kids by calling them racists. I try to think about what questions or comments they might hear at home or on the street, and how that might influence them.

So I take a deep breath and follow my parents’ example in answering their questions with patience and honesty.

Of course, we must denounce the overt racism and micro-aggressions rooted in stereotypes. And my parents’ approach may seem naive to some, especially in the context of the Black Lives Matter dynamic or the rise of anti-Asian rhetoric in North America.

But in its own way, I think it worked. To this day, my father is still invited by families from Wyevale and surrounding areas, who may or may not have attended his church, to perform weddings or have funerals although they haven’t preached or lived there for longer. two decades.

People remember the kindness and sincerity with which my parents served their community. As we put anti-racism front and center in education, I try to approach the students I work with in the same way.

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