Welcome to HuffPost Canada’s winter series on what fitness means to Canadians: “What Does Fitness Look Like For Me?”
The new year typically brings a lot of stories on how people can “lose weight.” We’re not interested in that. We want to know what Canadians really think about fitness, how it makes them feel, and whether they think it’s important for their health. Because no matter what fitness looks like for you, it’s valid.
Today we’re talking to: Canadian athletes with Asian parents.
Bobby Sahni had all the makings of a great hockey player. He was born and raised in Wayne Gretzky’s hometown, Brantford, Ont., which was teeming with opportunities to play Canada’s favourite pastime. With a stick in his hands, friends could rely on Sahni’s sharp-shooting in evening rounds of pick-up or his flair for passes in weekly floor games. But that’s where the puck stopped: for the son of Indian immigrants working factory jobs, his dreams of playing hockey on skates were on ice.
“We’ve come to this country for a better future for you,” Sahni, now 41, recalls his parents telling him. “So focus on school. We don’t want you to go through the same struggles we did.”
Sahni’s experience is shared by many Canadian-born children of Asian immigrant families; would-be junior athletes who believe their upbringings discouraged getting serious about the sports they loved. Instead of living with childhood regret, second-generation Asian-Canadians told HuffPost Canada how they’ve gotten active later in life — journeys that have inspired their families to improve their own physical wellbeing, too.
Barriers to sports are costly for immigrant families
A 2014 Vanier Institute report said that more than half of all Canadians (54 per cent) said they led moderately active lifestyles, and this rate declined on average after the age of 35. But fitness isn’t a top priority for many newcomers, especially those working long hours for low wages. This effect trickles down to their kids: children of newcomers aren’t as likely to participate in sports than those with Canadian-born parents.
Watch: Toronto immigrants are making less today than in 1980. Story continues below.
Immigrant parents surveyed by Social Planning Toronto said that the cost of athletic participation — which can include the price of equipment, insurance, and other fees — was a huge deterrent to enrolling their children in sports. A lack of funds was why Sahni didn’t join ice hockey, as well as lifestyle and fitness coach Andy Vo.
“My dad was really active back in Vietnam. He would tell us stories about playing soccer with his friends all day,” Vo, who is in his late twenties, said. “But growing up, we didn’t have the money to enroll [in sports].”
Vo, whose parents are Chinese and Vietnamese, remembers growing up in Ontario’s Kitchener-Waterloo region and frequently watched his classmates hurry off to soccer or hockey practice; pursuits that seemed like privileges only Canadian families could afford.
Some Asian-Canadians, like Christy Sebastian, 26, think that Asian families are willing to support recreational activities, as long as they enforce cultural values like fitting in. The Brampton, Ont. resident says her Ceylonese-Singaporean dad and Filipino mom enrolled her in ice skating lessons. She hadn’t asked to learn. At the time, she says they reasoned, “She’s Canadian. She should know how to skate.”
All interviewed told HuffPost Canada that academic excellence was prioritized over any extracurriculars. Sahni and Wong said that if they weren’t getting the best marks, the sports they played were privileges that could be taken away. Sebastian’s parents later put her in piano because, “music means you’ll be good at math.”
“They’re hoping they see results that are practical,” she said.
Scarborough, Ont. resident Alex Wong, 25, said he notices that within his circles, the parents of his second-generation friends didn’t know about the opportunities available for their families; in Wong’s case, the only team sports he played were what his school offered.
“Someone who wasn’t born in Canada might not be aware,” he explained.
Even if they are aware, they might be apprehensive. Sahni, a multicultural marketer at Ethnicity Matters, says growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, there were rarely professional skaters who looked like him. Many immigrant parents of colour turn their backs on the puck because of racism their kids have faced.
“My parents came to this country with a lot of uncertainty… justifying a sport like ice hockey, it’s a pretty big barrier,” Sahni said. “If you look at ice hockey, you don’t necessarily see a South Asian athlete wearing a turban or anything like that.”
How Asian-Canadians become athletic late bloomers
Just over one in four Canadians over the age of 15 participate in sports, StatsCan reports. They aren’t motivated by fitness or becoming Olympian-tier athletes. The majority said their love of the game inspires them to play on a regular basis; this holds especially true for second-generation Canadians who regret not playing sports as kids.
That’s what got Sebastian into roller derby. Instead of skating on blades, it was skating on eight wheels made her heart feel joy.
“[Roller-skating] feels like the world is finally moving fast enough because you’ve given yourself a superpower. It’s the closest thing to flying,” she said.
Pay-to-play sports like roller derby weren’t something Sebastian’s family would be able to afford. But as an adult with a job that could pay off expenses, she could make that choice independently: she joined the Toronto Roller Derby League’s new skater program last year and now skates for its rookie team the Vipers. (Full disclosure: the author is also a member of the Toronto Roller Derby League.)
A learn-to-play league program was also where Sahni finally made his childhood dreams come true. Following the birth of his first son, he realized that second-generation parents like him are in a win-win situation: they could offer their kids the opportunities their moms and dads couldn’t provide, while also participating themselves.
Listen: What changes for children of immigrants when they become adults themselves? Hosts Alisha Sawhney and Al Donato find out on the parenthood episode of “Born And Raised: Love.” Story continues below.
Emboldened by Drake’s motto “You only live once,” Sahni joined the recreational league True North to learn how to play.
“When you get to a certain age, you start reflecting on things you missed out on,” he said. “That’s where I discovered that there were other people like me who also feel like they missed the boat … we’re all stepping on the ice together.”
Others join a sport to find like-minded friends. Wong became part of the Toronto Gay Football League to find LGBTQ+ community. Bonding with fellow players was a huge incentive for him, eventually leading him to come out as gay to loved ones through an Instagram post about what the league meant to him.
Wong is thankful that he picked up flag football later in life, finding advantages to choosing football rather than being signed up for the sport as a kid by his parents.
“Going through this as a late bloomer, you’re challenging yourself to step out of your comfort zone. As kids we’re like, ‘I’ll try this! I’m not scared!’ But as adults, we’re like, ‘Uhhh, no thanks,’” Wong said. “Now I can’t imagine my life without it.”
Getting family involved
Canadians may not feel supported by their immigrant families when they choose to get active, especially when they start competing. Sebastian has sustained on-track injuries and muscle soreness, which she says her family is unhappy about. She points out that in her culture, adult kids of immigrants are still considered their parents’ responsibilities.
“God forbid you’ll hurt yourself, it’ll look bad on them. Not only do you have the external pressure of this new country, you also have pressure from family back home,” she said.
In spite of their worries, Sebastian says seeing how happy skating makes her has persuaded her family to support her athletic interest.
For his part, Wong says he was accepted by his parents from day one. He felt that his sincere Instagram post was a “buffer” for telling the news. While his parents haven’t started flag football themselves, his dad drops him off at practices and his mom loves to cheer him on from the sidelines.
Vo says his family remains reluctant to heed his health advice, in spite of his university background in health and a fitness-oriented career, but they’re making baby steps.
“If you want your family to follow what you do or help them, you have to do it yourself first,” he advised. “They saw me look a lot healthier, so they followed.”
A big suggestion they accepted? Switching from rice to quinoa, which Vo jokes was a bold move for an Asian family.
Although Sahni’s parents aren’t lacing up their skates, he and his wife Bonnie are proud to watch their sons take to the ice with ease.
Hockey Canada profiled the family’s love affair with hockey, which his parents are now happy to support.
Still, Sahni’s found a way to encourage fitness in his parents’ daily routines: he’s enrolled them in pre-paid yoga classes.
“It’s the immigrant mentality. Now that I’ve spent money, they were like, ‘Oh shoot, we have to go now,’” Sahni said, laughing.
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