Children of Immigrants

When I look at other young men and women around my age, I realize that the majority of people in my generation are first generation Canadians. Our parents have immigrated here from back home to give us a better life, and this is not just families who grew up in Sri Lanka, but from other Asian and South Asian countries as well. My sister and I, like many others, were born and raised in Canada. The environment that we grew up in was mixed between learning about our culture and learning to blend in with the other children our age. When you’re young, you don’t notice things like differences in religion or culture.

Because my sister and I were born and raised here, we were able to learn English as our first language. Oftentimes my dad would phone or text me while he was at work to ask if I could proofread an email he needed to type out or how to spell a certain word. I grew up reading the manuals for new home appliances that we would buy or read out Ikea instructions for my parents so that they could understand the complex language. I’m sure there are other children of immigrants who also have the same experience with helping our parents to install computers and cleaning viruses off the hard drive. Sometimes my father and I would sit on hold with Rogers for an hour together trying to figure out why the Wi-Fi wasn’t working. I typically offer to make these calls myself but my father always jumped at any opportunity to learn something new. He is now able to expertly deal with Rogers in a way that always give us the best deals and discounts on our home plans. I find that our parents have an impressive learning curve, which is amplified by the fact that they came to such a progressive and developed country while barely knowing how a lot of things worked.

My parents always made every effort to make me feel like the other kids around my age. Growing up, we would celebrate American holidays like Thanksgiving as well as other religious holidays such as Christmas. During Thanksgiving we would sit down for a family meal, sometimes catch a movie, or embark on an adventure in downtown Toronto, if weather permitted. The Christmases that I remember were always filled with presents under a tree. In the weeks leading up to the holiday, we would unearth the plastic fir tree from the basement and spend time together decorating it with ornaments and candy canes. My childhood was spent leaving out milk and sugar cookies while waiting up for Santa Claus every year until I realized that Santa wasn’t real. Even though we don’t carry the same traditions now that everyone is older, we still string lights up outside the front of the house and have Christmas dinner together as a family. It wasn’t until later in my young life that I realized Christmas is a religious holiday, one that we don’t really need to celebrate as a Hindu family. Despite that, my parents still wanted my sister and I participate in the wide-spread festivities.

There are other days such as Valentine’s Day and Halloween that weren’t really holidays, but were still a cause for celebration among other American families. My parents did not really understand the concept behind these days merely because they were not typical holidays that were celebrated back home. Regardless of that, they did their best to ensure that we were able to participate in customs that other children were also taking part in. My mother would go Valentine shopping with me and help me write out cards for all of my classmates back in elementary school. She would make sure that I had one card for each classmate and sometimes a small dollar chocolate to go along with it. If I had not participated in these activities, then perhaps I would have been ostracized by the other children for not taking part in something that all the other kids were doing. Halloweens were special days because of all the fun I had dressing up as a witch or a clown or an undead zombie. My mom would help me paint my face with fake blood and gashes and send me off to school in full costume, and my dad would volunteer to take us around the neighborhood for Trick-or-Treating. I’m grateful that I was able to have this experience as a child. It helped me feel like a part of something bigger, even if it was something that my parents didn’t understand.

I realize that as we all grew older, we developed our own personalities and our own distinct opinions. Typically, people my age have a very Westernized mindset since the large majority of us grew up in a Western world. Our parents still carry their old fashioned Eastern ideals, since that is what they have known for most of their lives. There’s a gap between what we think is acceptable and normal, versus what our parents think is acceptable and normal. For example, our parents would not often mingle with the opposite gender in a casual setting, whereas a lot of children of immigrants have platonic friends from both genders that they like to spend time with. Our parents believe that there is a set and strict way of living, while most of us live by the philosophy that life is short and we have to live it to the fullest. It’s not that either perspective of life is wrong. The issue is that both generations believe their own standpoint to be the right one.

When I think about everything that my parents had done for me and given me as a child, I realize that they’ve helped me in ways that I definitely took for granted. Only now do I remember all the times that my mom spent her time trying to make out my illegible handwriting to type up an essay assignment for me on our old dial-up computer, or my dad making me help him assemble furniture for the house. Our parents should also realize that we do try to make them proud in everything that we do, because we understand the sacrifices that they have made to leave their childhood homes and start a new life for us in this country. I try to repay my parents in the small ways that I can, such as introducing them to new technology and teaching them how to use it so that they can keep up with modern changes. When I was younger I always wanted everything that the other kids had, and my parents gave me whatever they could. But it was after I grew up and starting working to make my own money that I realized how much of a struggle life really is. By that time, I learned to be more appreciative of what I already had.

I think that there is a lot of opportunity for discussion between us and our parents. Our parents don’t often understand our Western language and a lot of misunderstandings take place as a result. That being said, there are ways that we can bridge this gap. If our parents are willing to sit down and have a discussion about what is considered normal in Western culture, and learn to accept it as easily as they accepted things like Halloween and Thanksgiving, then that is just the first step to a better relationship between parent and child.

On the other hand, our generation will also need to work on finding the time in our busy lives between work and school to ensure that we meet our parents halfway to have these discussions. A friend of mine mentioned to me that her parents are very logical and progressive, but despite that they still sometimes don’t understand what it’s like to be in our generation in the Western world. Facilitating conversation is the best way to alleviate the stress and frustration that we sometimes have when we argue about the differences between Eastern and Western culture. Our generation has all these brand new influences, namely the media and fast-changing technology that our parents were not exposed to in their time. It’s up to both sides to set aside our pride and try to foster communication between us. Having an old-fashioned mindset is not wrong, what matters is your willingness to learn and progress.

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Ocean Breath

Ujjayi breathing: the act of taking long, smooth breaths as a means of both relaxation and energizing your mind, body, and soul. Also known as ‘ocean breath’.

There is something so meditative about the simple act of breathing. Think about back to when you used to run marathons for track and field day in elementary school. All I can remember is how the gym teacher would chant, in through the nose, out through the mouth, as we jogged lap after lap. At work I take the stairs up five flights from the lunch room to my desk and repeat the same words to myself when I feel like I’m losing my breath. In through the nose, out through the mouth. This control in your breathing actually strengthens your lungs and your heart, leading to a healthier body. Think of ujjayi breathing as a way to mimic the push and pull of the ocean tide. You pull in your breath and with a whoosh you let it back out, like the sound of the waves.

Yoga is an excellent place to learn to control your breathing. The classes that I attend are quiet spaces where I encounter people from many different walks of life. I usually sit right behind a group of surprisingly nimble elder women who are there to bring some life back into their ageing bones. There are middle aged men who attend the classes to heal their back pains, especially after hunching over a desk all day. There are also other people like me, young professionals who sometimes just need a moment of peace and quiet in an age where everything feels like its moving at light speed.

The word ‘yoga’ itself is a Sanskrit word for unifying the mind, body, and spirit. The practice brings an awareness to your body that improves alignment, flexibility, strength, and balance. It brings you a sense of being comfortable in your own skin, and it teaches you to be patient and, above all, forgiving. It is said that people who practice yoga also learn how to deal with the self as well as deal with others. You learn to listen to your body and gently push your limits with every breath that you take, which carries over into our daily lives as well. We, as a collective community of individuals, need to learn to be patient and understand how to push without going too far.

The yoga studio that I currently frequent is located in downtown Markham, in a unit that has windows that face the northern and eastern directions. The yoga room is a large, rectangular space with two walls of windows and one full wall of mirrors. We enter the room and instantly feel the heat from the heated ceiling panels opening our pores and soaking our bones with warmth. I place my mat down, lay out my towel, lie on my back, and wait for class to begin. The first thing the instructor tells us to do is to always give thanks for the opportunity to practice yoga, and to take a deep breath in through our nose, and out through the mouth with an audible sigh. This is the sound of all our troubles and worries dissolving into the air as we sharpen our focus into the present. We then utter a single Om (more correctly pronounced as Aum) in unison with the class, followed by a silence.

The symbolism of the mantra Aum runs deep in yoga practices. The sound of Aum is in harmony with the sound of the universe, by chanting it you are planting a tiny seed inside yourself that allows you to tune in to everything that exists around you. This is how you acknowledge your connection to all other living things in the universe, with a simple vibration of sound that passes through your lips. Aum is a powerful spiritual symbol in Hindu culture that refers to the duality between Atman (the true self, your soul) and Brahman (the ultimate truth and reality of the universe). It’s used during traditional ceremonies, during rites of passage, and for meditative and spiritual practices such as yoga. It is thought to be the elemental sound associated with the creation of the universe.

It’s pretty mind-blowing, actually.

The instructor leads us through several poses once we complete our initial chant. We do a variety of warrior poses, sun salutations, eagle poses, child’s poses, upward facing dogs and, of course, the ever-popular downward facing dog. When I first started this practice, I struggled to do a decent crow pose, which is where you start in a squat and then lean forwards until you are balancing your full body weight on your hands with your knees resting just above your elbows. I kept falling over and feeling like the palms of my hands were on fire. My warrior poses were shaky and I couldn’t balance on one leg for more than six seconds. It’s kind of intimidating to be in a room full of people who are better than you are. That being said, it’s increasingly rewarding when you are finally able to breathe deeply into a pose with the correct stance and posture. You feel your breath permeating your body and absorb into each of your organs, filling you to the brim.

At the end of our classes, we transition into our final Shavasana pose, which is where we lie down on our backs with our palms facing skywards and take deep, ocean breaths. I always feel that the end of the practice is the best part. I feel the sweat from the past hour roll down my skin and soak into the mat. I relax my shoulders and let my body melt into the ground, limb by limb. There comes a point where my ocean breaths have become shallow and more spaced out without my realizing it. I tune into my body and listen as my muscles tell me how tired they are and marvel at how much I strained myself. Everything else just comes to a stand-still. You tend to forget what you were stressed about at work that day, you forget the argument you had with your friend/parent/significant other. Your mind goes blank and you zone out, almost until you fall asleep.

Finally, the voice of the instructor calls us back to our bodies. I wiggle the awareness back into my fingers and toes and blink my eyes open into the darkened room. We slowly sit back up, backs straight and legs crossed. We take a moment of silence before the instructor thanks us all for sharing our energies with each other. We then take a final breath in through the nose and breathe out with a sigh through the mouth, and say Namaste in unison to formally end the practice. We roll up our mats, put our things away and head back out into our separate lives. The hour that I spend with these strangers means so much more to me than the hours I spend at work or at home with my family. It’s the quiet peacefulness that you absorb into your body and carry with you throughout the rest of your day.

Yoga is for the people who want to bring a sense of balance into their lives. The feeling that you get when you leave the hot room and step into the refreshing cool air beyond it is like no other. Being a part of the practice helps me feel like I’m more in touch with my spiritual side. My breaths have more meaning now and every step I take feels more firm and grounded.

This is what I learned from this practice: inhale the awareness into your body, and exhale the doubt and negativity. In through the nose, out through the mouth.

Religion

Religion is one of those things that people either love to argue about, or avoid all together. It’s a topic that’s led to wars and crimes against humanity. But you know me, I love to talk about stuff that makes people uncomfortable. I identify myself as an agnostic rather than as a Hindu like I was raised, although I used to tell people that I am the latter to avoid questions. To be agnostic means to believe that the existence of God is unknown and may always be unknowable. We’ll never really prove that God is real, but we also don’t have a sure method to prove otherwise.

I personally don’t believe in creationism. Evolution is what makes sense to me, but I know that there are those people who believe in both. Science and religion are often seen as opposite sides of the same coin but it is possible to see truth in both. Some say that the two are complementary as they deal with different human experiences. Accepting one doesn’t mean that you’re dismissing the other.

I always wonder back to when humans first started believing in a higher existence. Why is it so powerful that people today are still divided into religious beliefs? The three major Abrahamic religions are a great example of religious division. Judaism, Christianity and Islam are all based on a similar monotheistic premise. Christianity and Islam believe that Jesus was the messiah. Judaism and Christianity say that Jesus died at the cross, which Islam does not follow. Only Christianity believes that Jesus was resurrected, while Judaism does not believe that there will be a second coming of Christ. It’s a little confusing, but the point is that these three ancient beliefs are very similar to each other, yet the relationship between them isn’t fields of daisies and roses. People like to play the “my religion is better than yours” game. Why they are divided instead of following one common belief could be due to a difference in how they interpret their religion. It’s similar to how Christianity is further divided into different denominations such as Catholicism and Protestants, each with their own varying practices.

I may not believe in God but I do believe in karma. It confuses me when people ‘ask’ God for things. We ask for better grades, a well-paying job, good luck for our children, but the temple is not a marketplace where we ask for things and wait for it to happen. I believe that we are supposed to make our own decisions and give thanks for when we feel that thanking is necessary. We live our own lives according to what we feel is right, and hope that through whatever guidance we have, we make the right decisions. We shouldn’t ask an invisible being to place a shortcut on our path, we need to learn how to take the long way around, mistakes and all.

People like to have something to believe in, we want to know that there is someone out there who is looking after us, because to know that we are completely alone in the universe is a depressing thought. We like hoping that there is a reason for the good and the bad in our lives. Over the years we’ve all become divided in our faiths because we all see religion with difference perspectives. Some people believe in a single god, while others believe in polytheism. We can’t really judge someone for their beliefs, your faith is your own and no one else’s.