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I was placed in ESL classes despite being fluent in English. It made me feel less Canadian

It took me years to finally be proud of my Chinese heritage

Alvin Ma, pictured here in Grade 1, was placed in classes for English as a second language.

Alvin Ma, pictured here in Grade 1, was placed in classes for English as a second language.

Photo: Submitted by Alvin Ma

RCI

This First Person article is the experience of Alvin Ma, a second-generation Chinese Canadian. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ (new window).

I tried to avoid eye contact and slump in my chair, but it didn't work. It was the start of my Grade 4 school year and for the fourth consecutive year, my name was called to receive additional English language instruction. 

It didn't matter that I could fully comprehend the Guinness Book of Records I purchased from the Scholastic Book Fair or that I read the Vancouver Sun sports section every morning. I was going back to ESL.

I was born in Canada and grew up speaking English with my parents. My Chinese-born mother immigrated to Canada as a high school student and my father, also an immigrant from Hong Kong in the 1970s, taught culinary classes in English. However, my grandparents and other elderly family members were not fluent in English and spoke predominantly Cantonese at home. 

It's why my parents put down Cantonese as the language most spoken at home when filling out my public school registration form. 

It's also the reason we believe I was placed in English language learner classes (ESL) despite the fact I was born in Canada and spoke English fluently.

Alvin Ma’s Grade 3 report card shows he received ESL support while also participating in enrichment activities.

Alvin Ma’s Grade 3 report card shows he received ESL support while also participating in enrichment activities.

Photo: Submitted by Alvin Ma

I don't have negative memories of these ESL classes or teachers themselves. 

But as a kid, being placed in those classes made me feel less than a full-fledged Canadian. 

I just wanted to be treated like the CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) classmates who did not require these ESL classes. Some of these students would occasionally flaunt their English abilities and poke fun at those perceived to be fresh off the boat. I don't remember making fun of people, but I do remember wanting to prove that I was better than others in English — thinking a superior grasp of the language would make me somehow more Canadian. 

Even if I secretly found '90s Cantonese pop songs such as 每天愛你多一些 and Sugar in the Marmalade catchy, I listened to Shania Twain. I unfailingly watched every Hockey Night in Canada broadcast. Twenty-two years before Simu Liu's rendition (new window) at the Juno Awards, I was able to effortlessly recite the "I AM CANADIAN (new window)" rant in its entirety. 

I distanced myself from my Chinese heritage and purposely failed assessments at Chinese school to prove I was more Canadian than Chinese. My mother knew I would only speak to her in English, and there was an unspoken understanding that she was to speak only English to me when she came to my school to pick me up.

Alvin Ma’s report card from a Cantonese heritage language course shows his failing grades.

Alvin Ma’s report card from a Cantonese heritage language course shows his failing grades.

Photo: Submitted by Alvin Ma

When I asked my mother if she thought it was odd that I was placed in ESL for so many years, she shrugged.

Considering that my grandparents supervised me during weekdays, my parents reasoned that additional English language instruction would help my education in the long term.

Then one day and without any explanation, I was put into the regular stream of Grade 5 students. My student record simply noted that my ESL status had been delisted. I felt relieved, but I remained self-conscious of my pronunciation of words and tried to avoid a stutter that would label me as anything but a born-in-Canada Canadian. 

Years after I graduated, my elementary school faced allegations that it falsely inflated the number of English learners (new window) in order to get more government funding.

Alvin Ma, third from the right, poses with his family to mark his graduation from the University of British Columbia.

Alvin Ma, third from the right, poses with his family to mark his graduation from the University of British Columbia.

Photo: Submitted by Alvin Ma

As an adult, I know now that neither my fluency in Cantonese nor perceived accent makes me any less Canadian. Years of academic research and presentations made me a confident speaker in multiculturalism-related issues. 

But I hadn't really considered the impact of those ESL classes until I met a 10-year-old student through a tutoring job. As his mom left the room, she said these parting words: 你需要努力,進步你的英文分 (you must work hard to improve your English mark).

He indignantly responded in English, Stop bothering me in Chinese if you want me to improve!

That student was a mirror of my younger self: a second-generation Canadian who desperately tried to prove his English fluency by shunning Chinese. 

Although I wanted to avoid confrontation, I plucked up my courage. I told him  — and by extension my younger self — that knowledge of another language is a strength; not an embarrassment to hide. My student nodded, but if my journey is an indicator, it might take many years for him to comprehend my message. I just hope the message sinks in eventually.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alvin Ma (new window) · for CBC First Person · Freelance contributor

Alvin Ma works in the education industry in Toronto and advocates for multiculturalism in sport.

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