Taking public transit in the years I lived in Seoul, South Korea always felt a bit like being trapped in the pages of Gulliver’s Travels.
Staring at people is about the only safe activity while being thrown around in a tin-can-like bus careening in-and-out of six lanes of traffic. And there’s nothing better to stare at than the giant in your midst, which was me — aka, in this circumstance, Gulliver.
I was a full head taller than the elderly men and women who were pressed against me like sardines, and more than a few inches on those closer to my age. So, they stared.
In return I’d stare back, watching as they took in my kinky, brown hair, my overly large eyes and the bump on my nose.
There were moments when these stares were friendly and others where they turned to open disdain and anger, much to my surprise. There were moments when the curiosity about the strangeness I brought to daily routines felt invasive.
All of this was fine for a couple of years, but being an oddity and acknowledged as such wore thin. By the time I figured out how to navigate the culture and speak the language well enough to get by, I started spending more of my personal time in the foreigner village to simply feel at ease. And, not long after it got to that point, I left. Because I could. Because it was an adventure and the adventure had ended.
South Korea, a decade ago, was a fairly monochromatic culture. People were Korean and the oft’ referred to cultural mosaic I grew up with was nowhere to be seen.
When reading the latest from the census I couldn’t help but remember my brief dalliance as a minority all those years ago because Kelowna was a lot like Seoul, only in a different hue.
Visible minorities now account for 7.8 per cent of the Central Okanagan’s population compared to six per cent in 2011. Twenty years ago visible minorities accounted for a mere 3.9 per cent.
Although there’s growth in ethnic minority populations locally, it’s still a far cry from where things stand in Canada, where the number of ethnic minorities is 22 per cent and B.C., where it’s 30 per cent.
People of South Asian descent represent 26 per cent of the visible minorities accounted for while Chinese residents make up 16 per cent of that population. Those of Filipino descent were next, making up 13 per cent of the visible minority population.
While some of the men and women are immigrants, most are just simply Canadians who have enriched the local landscape by taking their cultural heritage to our pale valley and it’s not an adventure they can step out of, which makes one wonder — do these visible minorities feel, like I briefly did, like Gulliver’s in our version of Lilliput?
Let’s hope not because Canada needs diversity and Kelowna needs an industrious working-age population, to stay afloat when the grey wave of boomers washes over and the city settles into mass retirement.
Studies have shown that people who already feel singled out don’t want to participate in activities outside their comfort zone for the sake of not singling themselves out more than they already are.
Being separated from the masses, for example, in an academic situation can leave students feeling embarrassed, and even cause feelings of anger, blocking them from achieving their academic goals.
That, of course, would be to all of our detriment. Regardless of our ethnicity, when it comes to Kelowna’s well being we’re all in this together and moving forward will require a concerted effort. And we can’t afford to have someone simply walk away from this community.