Young Overseas Chinese and the Identity Quest – A Conversation with Sally Lin

Rebecca Marighella
Young Overseas Chinese and the Identity Quest - A Conversation with Sally Lin

In the article, TNGO writer Rebecca Marighella conducts an interview with Sally Lin, a first-generation Chinese immigrant who lives and studies in British Columbia, Canada to talk about the phenomenon of the “Chinese Diaspora.”


The Chinese Diaspora is an ongoing phenomenon that has long seen ethnic Chinese groups migrate from mainland China to other parts of the world. While the politically correct term used to identify these groups is “Overseas Chinese“, the term “diaspora” originates from the Bible, referring to the mass migration of the Jews towards a land – Palestine – they believed was promised to them by God.

Today, this territory is politically recognised as Israel and has become theatre to one of the most complicated and saddening conflicts in history, seeing Palestinians slowly lose their own homeland. Aside from this example, however, the majority of these waves of migration occurring worldwide have been peaceful, and heavily depended on the challenging socioeconomic situations that groups of migrants faced in their countries of provenance. Among these waves is the Italian Diaspora of the early 1900’s and the Chinese Diaspora of the post-Mao era.

China is the world’s most populous country, with a population of 1.4 billion. However, to think that another 50 million (2018 est.) Chinese live overseas only makes this data more incredible. According to the Chinese Journal of Sociology (article by scholars Dudley L Poston Jr and Juyin Helen Wong), in 2011 these groups were already spread across 148 countries, with the top 10 destinations all being in South East Asia. In fact, countries such as Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are well-known for representing a large ethnic Chinese group in their national demographics. Below, a map shows the distribution of Overseas Chinese worldwide.

Young Overseas Chinese and the Identity Quest - A Conversation with Sally Lin
“Overseas Chinese in the World.”
CREDIT: Statista

In Canada, ethnic Chinese account for 5% of the population and, according to the latest 2016 Canadian Census, this percentage amounts to 1.7 million civilians. While Canada is currently considered a country very welcoming to migrants and, in general, kind towards foreigners, it is important to remind our readers that its history is far more complex than that, and has seen the population of indigenous people suffer extensively under the illegitimate rule of European settlers.

The first Chinese wave relocating to Canada had already set off in the 19th century, concentrating in the provinces of British Columbia and Ontario. Once there, they worked tirelessly for all kinds of on-field labours whilst unfortunately being subjected to prolific racial discrimination. It is only after decades of hardships that this wave was able to begin integrating into Canadian culture and society.

From the ’70s onward, waves of migration from China tended to involve these migrants belonging to an increasingly wealthy social class which would then start making an impact on Canadian activities of commerce, business, and the services sector. In cities like Vancouver, many ethnic Chinese are owners of enterprises or small businesses. Below, a video by the Government of British Columbia explains the importance of opening the first Chinese Canadian Museum and recounting the history of this group.

Source: NEWS.GOV.BC.CA

The Black Lives Matter movement of 2020 has reopened conversations about identity, race and discrimination as issues that are still unresolved in the U.S. as well as worldwide. With a focus on the Asia-Pacific region, The New Global Order has chosen the Chinese Diaspora to widen this conversation and focus on the group of ethnic Chinese, unjustly thrown in the midst due to the global COVID-19 pandemic.

In this article, TNGO is honored to be able to recount the Human Story of an exceptional Chinese Canadian, Sally Lin, who can be considered the ultimate example as to why groups of “identity-mixed” people add so much value to our world.

What does it mean to be a migrant? And where does a migrant’s home belong?

These are fundamental and extremely intimate questions that should be asked before labeling a person “Canadian”, “Chinese” or “Italian”. Many argue that people are made by the experiences that shape them rather than where they were born.

Young Overseas Chinese and the Identity Quest - A Conversation with Sally Lin
Courtesy of Sally Lin

Sally is an undergraduate student at the University of British Columbia, completing her B.A. Political Science and Human Geography. Moving with her parents to Canada when she was only two years old, Sally considers herself a first-generation immigrant who has gone through the difficult battle of searching for the fine line between ethnicity and identity. The One-Child Policy in China conflicted with her family’s plans to have another child, therefore Sally found herself on a plane that changed her destiny when she was just a toddler.

Unlike second-generation Chinese Canadians, often born on Canadian soil, Sally found herself in a completely different socio-cultural context. She told TNGO that, in Vancouver, people often struggled to pronounce her Chinese birth name – Yuyang – therefore she chose an English name to be more easily recognized.

While this is a common practice among young Chinese both in China and abroad, she believes she made it “out of pressure” and that “it is demoralizing that someone feels like she should change her name, because names make you as an individual”. In fact, she revealed that among the reasons why she chose the name “Sally” is that other children could have made fun of her foreign name. While this event might seem small, if one considers that these thoughts were going through the mind of a child, this only re-confirms that these stories must be told for society to change.

But how does Sally portray herself today? Does her identity lie with her ethnic roots or have other factors shaped who she is?

She believes “identity is something constructed by people and how they perceive you.”

“I am identified as Chinese but I view myself as Chinese Canadian. It is still hard to try and get in touch with what it means to be a first-generation immigrant because when I travel back to China I don’t feel as Chinese as my peers. (…) People in Shanghai know I am a foreigner“.

From Sally’s words, therefore, one can understand that as much as one’s family might come from a certain culture or identify with a certain community, individuals can evolve their identity beyond the boundaries tying them to their ethnicity.

Whilst Sally loves the Chinese traditional customs of cooking and enjoying a rich meal with her loved ones sharing everything on a round table, another side to her is very patriotic at UBC and loves the atmosphere in Vancouver. This, however, does not go without difficulties. The questions concerning where her home is and where her heart lies are always in the back of her mind. As Sally says, she is tied to people rather than places, therefore her home is wherever the people she loves may be. From time to time, she rediscovers the role of Chinese culture in her life thanks to long journeys overseas.

Young Overseas Chinese and the Identity Quest - A Conversation with Sally Lin
Source: AFP

The woman she is today, however, also comes from a place where her identity was impacted by racial discrimination. According to her recounts, in her early years of university, people would try to guess the country she was from. Benefiting since young from her Canadian citizenship, this was extremely offensive to her. While North America is often viewed as a culturally-mixed place, indeed, events like the BLM movement have shown the world that there are many underlying problems with how society is structured and that there might be a preference for certain ethnic groups at the expense of others. When asked about how she is living this difficult time during the pandemic, Sally stated that “COVID-19 brought a lot of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism. In Canada and the Western world, the general public tend to believe Asians are the perfect type of immigrant because they work hard and stick to the rules, but when something concerning China occurs, Chinese are also quickly pointed a finger at“. She adds that this generalization, or the belief that “All Asians are hard-working”, comes from the dominant narrative concerning wealthier Asians, being the Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. “What about other communities in Southeast Asia?” she asks, clearly concerned about these stereotypes.

When asked about her opinion on the death of George Floyd in the U.S., she claimed that the Asian community in North America felt overall outraged because one of the policemen responsible for his killing was Asian. Many, she says, were worried this would bring around new stereotypes and generalisations about her community, on top of the offences already received after Covid-19 started spreading from Mainland China. As long as only a small group of individuals believe this, the harm is minimised, but the fact that one of the world’s most important governments – the Trump Administration – made comments about this being a “Chinese Virus”, made the Chinese community in North America feel unsafe in their own homes.

Sally, on her side, believes these events emphasize on a long history of white supremacism that is no longer acceptable in the U.S., Canada, and worldwide. She claims that “With BLM, I noticed my family may have certain prejudices on ethnic groups that are different from ours and I value having a chat with them about this. Conversations are important, and should be had at this time in every family so that we can start over when our children will be born“. Ultimately, she thinks that, in Canada, the history of what happened to the native population should be prioritized in education, to recognize that racial discrimination is an issue that must be eradicated.

We thank Sally again for her contribution to The New Global Order, and we invite our readers to keep informed about the anti-racism movements going on worldwide and make an impact where possible.


This interview is part of TNGO’s Human Stories rubric.

The views and opinions expressed in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The New Global Order. Any content provided by our authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company or individual.

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