From an interview with Xiaolun (Lucy) Zhang.
Xiaolun (Lucy) Zhang came to Canada with her mother to visit a family friend in Vancouver in 2011, and that friend suggested Xiaolun should come to Vancouver to study. When they returned to Beijing, Xiaolun and her parents began researching international studies and accommodation in Canada. By May that year, Xiaolun had all of her paperwork ready. On August 24 she landed in Vancouver – she was 15. While Vancouver is a city that people from China can feel very comfortable in (with a large Chinese community), Xiaolun’s parents looked beyond Chinatown, away from familiar tastes and voices. They wanted her to experience more of Canada, improve her English skills, and prepare to work anywhere in the world. Xiaolun shares her story of embracing a brand new culture, education system, and language on her way to finding a new home in Canada.
When my mom and I visited Vancouver during a school break in 2011, I was really surprised to find so many familiar things. In Chinatown and Richmond, for example, the food is very authentic; the environment felt very similar to being at home. So, even though I was very far from home, It was all familiar. I felt comfortable; like I wanted to live in this city. The lifestyle was very laid back. Compared to life back in China, Vancouver seemed really relaxed, and the overall environment gave me a really good feeling.
My mom’s friend had immigrated to Canada eight years earlier and her daughter was doing really well in school. She really liked life in Vancouver. Then my mom asked me, “Do you want to come to Canada and study?” I said I did.
When we got back to China, we started planning everything. We worked with an agent who helped us contact the different schools in Vancouver and file all the right documents. We worked with my Chinese school to provide everything before May, so we had time to apply and get a study permit.
The first thing for us was finding a good high school in a safe neighborhood. We wanted a neighbourhood with local shops and groceries nearby, that was not right in the city, but not too far out. We settled on a small city about 45 kilometers from Vancouver and a five-minute drive from the U. S. border called White Rock. Because I was under 18 at the time, I needed a guardian. We assessed several options suggested by my mom’s friend and the agencies and found a local home stay that became my home in Canada. They helped get me settled. They helped me improve my English, and they even helped me open a bank account here.
We deliberately did not choose a Chinese community because my mom wanted me to immerse myself in the local community, engage with Canadian culture, and practice my English. Although my parents were really sad about me leaving, they were also excited because they wanted me to challenge myself and to live abroad. Making a fresh start would be hard but I was really excited to have a different life in Canada.
Vancouver has a great balance for newcomers from China. They can experience the excitement of a new life in a new country, while enjoying the flavours and culture of their hometown. Canada in general is a very culturally diverse country.
Studying in Canada: New opportunities to succeed
My life back in China was pretty well-planned. From when I was born, through kindergarten, elementary school, middle school, until the day that I left for Canada. My parents have always provided everything that I needed, even guidance and advice on my move, because they wanted what’s best for me.
In China, I was an average student: there was a lot of competition. But my parents and I agreed that life is not just about getting top grades. It’s also about how you can adapt and thrive in different life situations, how you can handle pressures by yourself. They wanted me to take this opportunity to learn more than I might have in China, to give me a new perspective in life, to help build emotional intelligence, and prepare me to go anywhere and do anything. Moving to Canada was time for me to take charge of my life.
Of course I wanted to get good grades and make my parents proud. I didn’t want them to think, “Oh, we’ve paid so much for you to study abroad, and then you are still doing the same as you did back in China.” I wanted them to feel that me moving to Canada was the right decision. I eventually graduated from the University of Toronto, the number one university in Canada.
Moving to Toronto: Starting a new life 2.0
I really enjoyed my three years in Vancouver. It’s a beautiful city. But when I thought about what I would do in the next five or 10 years, I saw myself living in a more fast-paced city. During spring break of my last year of high school in Vancouver, I booked a trip to Toronto – just to see what the city was like.
When I first came to Toronto, everyone seemed a little colder than people in Vancouver – rushing to cross the street before the lights turned. I thought people there were more aggressive, but I also liked the busy feeling. It reminded me a little of my home city, Beijing. It was exciting. This motivated me to start another new life within Canada. Moving to a new place would bring new challenges and new opportunities.
I stayed in a hotel for the first week. During that week I did my research online. I knew rent in Toronto was expensive, so I would need to share an apartment. I asked my network (which was basically a Chinese international student network that started in Vancouver) for help, and found a friend of a friend who was looking for a roommate.
Adapting to cultural differences, like food
Coming from China, one of the first things I needed to adjust to was the temperature of water. If you go to a restaurant in Canada, they bring you a glass of cold tap water filled with ice. I had to adjust to having to drink such freezing water. In China water is served warm because it’s considered good for your health.
In Canada, you can buy four litres of milk in plastic bags, which is funny. The biggest container I’ve seen in China is two litres. I also needed to adjust to eating salad which I’m not used to. Eating greens that have not been cooked was a bit of a shock.
Because I’m a foodie, I enjoy food from all over the world. That’s why I like living in Toronto. You can get food from anywhere. Food is a really special thing. It reminds you of all the memories, the cultures, and all the things you have experienced in the past. I miss the home cooking from my homestay. It was a home away from my home in Beijing. The food they cooked for me was very special, very different from Chinese food: I really enjoy their Canadian home-cooking. It reminds me of the good times I had with them: it will always hold a very special place in my heart.
My homestay mom’s Broccoli and rice casserole
Xiaolun’s four tips for newcomers from China
1. Embrace the unknown
The challenges you encounter in your journey will prepare you for new challenges you may face in the future. Be open-minded, adaptable, and flexible.
2. Immerse yourself in the culture
Canada is a very unique country. Here you can experience Canadian culture and cultures from everywhere in the world. Don’t focus only on your own community.
3. Think of the long term
One of the strengths I brought from China is perseverance. Break down your long–term goals into short-term goals. Achieve each small goal in order to reach your long–term goals.
4. Be yourself
Finding your place in Canada is not just about trying to fit in. I think it’s more about discovering and showing people who you really are. Figure out what you really care about, and express yourself freely in different ways.
Trying new things and keeping your authenticity will help you succeed in Canada and in life. Every unknown can be such a rewarding experience, and an opportunity to gain fresh new perspectives. Embrace them!