Living in a Chinese Enclave in Toronto, Canada

We did not intend to live in a Chinese enclave when we moved into our Scarborough, Canada home in Toronto. It seemed like when a white elderly couple would move out, a Chinese family would move in. As the years passed, this continued, until 50-60% of our street is now Chinese. It also was not our desire to live in a Chinese enclave. Our intention was to live in a multiculturally mixed neighbourhood.

I write this post after being prodded by this article on Markham Chinese enclaves. Markham is just north of the Scarborough and Toronto border, and can be considered an ethnic extension of Scarborough. In fact we often shop there.

No doubt my neighbourhood here in Scarborough is decidedly a Chinese enclave. My observations and recent statistics show this. Once you purchase your house you have little say into how the neighbourhood grows. In my case it grew more Chinese.

There are a lot of advantages in living in a ethnically Chinese neighbourhood. For me, trying to improve my Mandarin Chinese, it is an excellent study environment. My neighbour and the next 5 houses are Chinese, so I literally walk out my door in order to practice my Mandarin. Further practice areas are no further than the local park, where the old Chinese geezers and Chinese parents gather with the local kids, almost all Chinese. Not that all these people speak Mandarin, oh no, with their far flung and varied Chinese dialects, but they all understand Mandarin. When they want to speak to me they know I speak Mandarin.

I have grown up with these kids, and their parents. When the Little Weed was playing at the local parenting centre I was there, as were their kids. If they did not understand something in English they knew I would be there to translate. And so it is at the park. We talk about schools, the local marauding gang of juvenile delinquents, education, summer camps and kids. Amongst themselves they talk about Chinese politics and even sometimes criticize Canadian politics. It is at these times I become a fly on the wall, and improve my listening comprehension. We are, in all respects, neighbourly.

In my neighbourhood I can shop entirely in Mandarin. I can buy home renovation products, food, get a haircut, buy a radio controlled car, borrow books from the library, all in Mandarin, and this is the big selling feature of a Chinese enclave. You need not learn English.

While this is fine for me, as English is my mother tongue, this is counter productive for those who strive to improve their English for work, school or other purposes. It simply is a very poor strategy for language acquisition. But there is more to life than language acquisition. There is living, and living is decidedly easier for recent Chinese newcomers living in my Chinese enclave. Neighbours provide an important support system for Mandarin-only speakers. It is easy to get credible advice that they can understand and believe. Every evening we gather at the local park and watch our kids play together, speaking mostly English. People ask questions about how to live and we give each other advice. In unilingual Mandarin. How convenient is this for a new Canadian? I always joke that Scarborough is a really clean and sparesely populated version of China, and I am not far off.

Of course there are negatives to Chinese enclaves. I often see young 3-4 year old kids peeing in public. Near park benches, they simply drop their pants and do their business. Worse yet is when they defecate on the curb of the street. This is commonplace. We used to have an unofficial Chinese hotel on our road, advertised in newspapers in China as a safe house for the newly landed. They used to walk on the street and not on the sidewalk. Somehow word seems to have gotten out that you might get hit by a car if you keep that up. Thankfully.

These negative are insignificant compared to the benefits a Chinese enclave bring. The kids are respectful most of the time, and parents will sharply correct kids with bad manners. There is low juvenile crime from Chinese kids, which might make up for the Jamaican gangs, but not really. Education is of paramount importance for Chinese families, and this shows in the schools. Attend a school where there is a Chinese majority and for sure your kid will need to work harder to make the grade. How can this be bad? Neighbours are friendly to non-Chinese neighbours as well, though their houses might not be as well manicured as possible. This will come with time and increased incomes.

Where there are significant numbers of Chinese, there are top quality Chinese grocers and restaurants. The average quality shops simply go bankrupt. Food quality is critical to Chinese enclaves. As Chinese grocers grow and attract non-Chinese customers with lower prices and better quality, the local big box grocers are competing in kind. There are more signage and advertising in local weekly flyers as well as newspaper ads, all in printed Chinese. As this happens there is even more incentive for the Chinese enclave to grow, and I am all for it. One local Food Basics on the border with Markham even sells live fish in Chinese-style aquariums, complete with all-Chinese signage.

Overall I am glad that my area has changed into a Chinese enclave. My family and I benefit so much more than the trivial negatives we experience. For my family it works and works very well. This is apparently so for many other Chinese families as well. If, however, I was struggling with learning English and new to Canada, I most certainly would choose to live elsewhere. To live in Canada, English is far too important a tool to not master it well.


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