September 9-16 is Welcoming Week in Canada. In this post, Zandile Moyo, Supervisor of YW Calgary’s Language Instruction for Newcomers to Canada (LINC), shares her personal experience.

Immigration has historically been a defining characteristic of Canada, and it is often referred to as one of the country’s most significant economic advantages. According to Statistics Canada, in the first quarter of 2022, Canada welcomed 113,699 new immigrants – the largest number in any first quarter since quarterly data became available in 1946. In fact, Canadian population growth over the last two years has been attributed to immigration. Canada’s other focus on immigration is due to its aging population and low birth rate.  I have been an immigrant for 32 out of 38 years of my life. Growing up, I was referred to as a Third Culture Kid (TCK). A Third Culture Kid or Third Culture Individual (TCI) is a person who was raised in a culture other than their parents’ or the culture of their country of nationality, and also live in a different environment during a significant part of their child development years. As a child, I did not really think about what it meant to be an immigrant. However, in adulthood, as I move forward, I am slowly working my way back.

I went to university in the United States. My elementary and high school education occurred in countries that were former British colonies. The context of my English language reflected that, from spelling to grammar, and even vocabulary. In my first year of university, I took English 101. The first assignment was to write an essay to introduce yourself creatively. Creative writing had always been a passion of mine so I was excited that my first post-secondary assignment suited my passions and skills. I sat confidently in the auditorium as the professor handed back our marked assignments, eager to see my first A+. My heart sank to my stomach when I saw my paper stained with red markups! A similar shade of red came over me when I saw the C+ grade that was surely an error! The professor noted my grade was due to poor spelling and grammar and suggested I inquire about tutoring to improve my language skills, especially because I was an international student.  In a brief conversation with her after class, I explained that I used British spelling and grammar and pleaded with her to consider allowing me to re-write it using the culturally appropriate language code. She agreed. My negotiation resulted in an A-.

That experience became a Pandora’s Box that never closed. I had just received part of another cultural script – a technique for articulating culture-specific norms, values, and practices in terms that are clear, precise, and accessible to cultural insiders and outsiders alike. These scripts differ depending on where we live and are interpreted differently depending on where we are from. These narratives tell us what is considered a norm and are dictated by the dominant culture. Success is often determined by how closely you live by the cultural script, and the assumption that the closer you live by that script, the more you feel at “home” in that culture. The converse to that: the more you deviate from the script, the more alienated you feel. In the anecdote above, the script was in a familiar language but the context or metalanguage was foreign. Fast-forward to years later: I immigrated to Canada with two overweight suitcases and a surplus of scripts. The suitcases were easy to unpack; the scripts were and still are not. Those scripts are now somehow amalgamated into one giant and fluid identity.

In thought-leadership, there is an advantage to having access to so many scripts. I liken it to Edward de Bono’s Six Thinking Hats process, which I often use for problem solving and change management. Each script is encoded with a set of cognitive and cultural advantages that benefit the community, workplace and the overall script. Immigrants use the scripts they accumulate as a guide to make choices and understand the consequences of those choices. We add nuance to the dominant culture and, in a way, challenge the writers of said script. We bring inherent parts of ourselves that we are unable to detach from: food, language, innovative solutions to problems (most notably in the form of entrepreneurship), and a new way of thinking.  The immigrant experience is a delicate balance of give and take.

Successful integration relies just as much on learning the script as it does on the recognition of the value we add to the overall narrative.