“Struggling to balance,” Korean Canadians share their immigration experiences

Nyren Mo
7 min readJan 1, 2020


“Every Asian peer around me was doing it and even though you were told it was bad but you couldn’t help doing that.”

“There were self-conflicting and struggling about my own identity when I was younger.”

“Whitewashed” | image source: Dadu Shin

They are talking about “whitewashed,” which refers to people who are originally from Asia but move to Canada and get exposed to Western Culture. Whitewashed people are usually described as “bananas” that they are yellow on the outside with Asian appearance and white on the inside with thinking patterns influenced by the western world.

That’s what most immigrants have been going through since they stepped onto the land of Canada at a young age. Growing up with culture and environment from both Korea and Canada, Hayley Lee and Suyoung Chun have spent a hard time figuring out how they should identify themselves.

Hayley Lee (at the left) and Suyoung Chun (at theright)

Hayley Lee, a first-year student at Western University, moved to British Columbia in Canada when she was four with her parents and sister in 2004. Her family moved here due to the brutal and intense education system, as well as the lack of gender equality. “I wouldn’t survive the education system and might even revel or drop out of school,” Lee tried to imagine her life in Korea, “a lot of social statuses confirmed by Korean are stupid, and I would feel isolated from the community,” she shrugged and shook her head.

Lee’s grandparents and other relatives stay in Korea, and she says, “it is sad that only a part of the family moved to Canada while everyone else is back in Korea.” She took some of the family photos and stuck them onto the wall of her room. When presenting her family photos, she couldn’t stop smiling and recalling those sweet memories.

Lee remembers the first time she stepped into the Canadian class. “I was nervous because I didn’t speak much English,” she laughed. Luckily for her, there were many Korean kids who looked and talked like her, which helped to ease her transition to Canada and still enabled her to experience Korean culture at school.

As an immigrant, Lee feels the greatest difficulty is the adaptation to new social norms and culture. “Many parents who immigrate try to put their children in western culture as much as they can that they lose part of Asian heritage,” she mentions. But her parents try to balance both that she can speak Korean and still know Korean culture.

Hayley Lee at the graduation from high school

“The hardest is balancing those things as you are trying to fit into Canada and other kids at school, but at the same time, you still have your heritage and cultural roots.” Lee feels that the two different cultures often collapse, and there will be things that don’t match up. “It was a lot of fights with my parents,” she admits, “they want me to do both but don’t want me to lose one, and no one is more important than the other.”

Lee says the fights with her parents are on the decrease as she grows older, but she went through the phase that she wanted to be “whitewashed”. “I wanted to change all my clothes and didn’t want to talk about Korea and even speak the language, I wanted to wear western makeup and follow the trends in western society,” she says. Even though her parents told her how unnecessary that was, she was ignorant and even told them that the environment the culture I was from didn’t matter anymore.

Hayley Lee with her friends back in Korea

Coming from a minority, Lee has experienced some Asian stereotypes that many people don’t think she can speak English, but it is the most fluent language she speaks, and she did really well in high school. “Just because I wasn’t born in Canada means my English learning ability is poor,” she states.

When she was growing up, she stopped caring about stereotypes as she never feels related to them. “They are not representative of who I am, and I am not the very typical Asian that I’m really bad at math and quit playing the piano,” she laughs.

Speaking of her future expectation, Lee hopes to be the authentic version of herself as it is healthy, but she didn’t have the chance to do that in high school. “Moving here and meeting so many people offer me more access to people I want to be with,” she says, “and I will grab every opportunity given to me and seek the one possible.”

Unlike Hayley Lee, Suyoung Chun spent her childhood in Canada and her teenage year in Korea. She has two sisters, and her older sister was not doing well in school, and her parents thought to move to Canada to let her focus on the study would be helpful. They moved to Canada when Chun was four and was back in Korea when she reached ten. Now she is back in Canada for university.

Having moved between Korea and Canada three times, there is a gap between her childhood the teenage years in terms of the cultural environment. She remembers when she went to the Korean elementary school for the first day, the teacher said, “we have a new classmate from Canada, so be nice,” the teacher explained, “Suyoung is a bit different, and please understand.”

However, people still made fun of her accent, and one of her teachers pointed out her saying that she had a very different style. “I was wearing fancy clothes, and no Asian kids would do that,” she recalls, “that’s the moment when I noticed that I was different from these groups of people even though we looked the same.”

Chun deeply understands what her parents had gone through to make a living for their life now. “My mom is really strong,” she says with gratitude, “and even though she didn’t speak the language, she manages to graduate both my sisters from high school and go to universities.” Then she felt regretful when she got mad at her for not being able to speak the language in the restaurant and supermarket, and I would be embarrassed. “Now, looking back, I feel so sorry for her, and I can’t imagine how hurt she was,” Chun looks up and tries to suppress her emotion.

Chun also experiences a lot of cultural shocks as she moves between the two countries. When she visited Korea last winter, she talked with a lot of Korean slangs and her friends were surprised and responded that “it’s so old, are you from 2000?” “You can’t blame me for that as I was not in Korea for a whole year and the culture changes so fast,” Chun explains, “I was trying to fit in.”

She also felt frustrated when she had to say goodbye to friends in Korea before moving to Canada for university two years ago. “It’s really tough as you don’t know if you will see them ever again, so it’s like saying goodbye forever,” she reflects. She is still in contact with her friends in high school back in Korea, but for others, she just remembers their names and faces but doesn’t reach anymore.

Some of the art designs of Chun

Chun keeps the balance between both Korean and Canadian cultures and still identifies herself as Korean. “I’m proud, and I understand the culture here while being able to understand other people and enjoy the culture,” she says. She has developed an interest in English and literature and art design. She also listens to pop music in English and watches Hollywood. “I doubt that maybe I am whitewashed but am Korean,” she chuckles.

“When I came here for the first year, there was a guy mocking the sound of Asian-like languages, and that’s not even an actual language.” She couldn’t believe that is still happening to her because she thought that was old stories. She thinks that Asian people are not included in social activism and feel like people don’t even care.

“I want to travel more and eventually find another country rather than Canada and Korea and settle down while experiencing different cultures,” she dreams. For students who try to become white-washed, “if that’s the lifestyle you want to pursue, good for you. But I think it is important to remember where you are from,” she suggests. She really feels grateful for the efforts her family has made to ease her transition between two cultures. “Don’t forget your blood and understand what your family has been through to make you at that point, cause that is not just about you,” she concludes.

Whether Korean or Canadian, the two girls have embraced their identidy and be themselves truly. Wish them the best of luck on their new jounery of lives.