GLOBAL VOICES SERIES – Mandarin Generation 1.5’s Tina Chen and Siying Li

This is part of an on-going series of interviews by Yinsey Wang with East Asian voices around the globe. The series aims to introduce perspectives from different walks of life. 

In this special edition of Nee Hao Magazine’s GLOBAL VOICES SERIES, I sat down with Tina Chen and Siying Li, founders of Mandarin Generation 1.5 (“MGen 1.5”). “Generation 1.5” is a colloquialism that refers to those that immigrated to a new country during their childhood or early teenage years with their parents, and have mastered or are fluent in both native and more recently-acquired tongues, as well as cultures.

girlsAbove: Tina Chen (left) and Siying Li (right)

Privileged in securing a time slot for a lunchtime interview given their busy schedules at the time, I was greeted by the cheerful and confident Tina at her workplace in Procter & Gamble, and a warm and sophisticated Siying who had travelled all the way to Toronto from London (in Ontario) for the meeting. These two accomplished – and irresistibly modest – leaders shared their thoughts and stories about how they engaged others who, like them, also dealt frequently with the blessing (and sometimes, dilemma) of multiple identities. Immensely articulate in both Chinese and English, they reflected on their biculturalism and experiences as cosmopolitan, motivated pioneers.

With an inventory of achievements under their belts, there is much to learn from this talented duo aside from their career successes, but their sense of purpose and altruism. The ambitious project of MGen 1.5 was jumpstarted by a small team each putting in $20 each with a big dream in mind; now the organisation boasts hundreds of keen members and a widening profile amongst Canadian society. What has resulted is a group of multitalented professionals with the potential to lead the future of the Chinese diaspora in Canada, and possibly the world.

Why did you decide to start MGen 1.5? 

Tina: The desire to find like-minded people was a key reason why I wanted to start MGen 1.5. From a social perspective, it’s just nice to be around people who understand my Chinese and Canadian sides. However, they’re difficult to find; you can’t easily identify someone as Mandarin or Cantonese-speaking until you know at least their last name, and even then, it’s difficult to know their background right away. Both immigrant populations are different; I wanted to set us apart from the immigrants that came from Hong Kong or Canadian-born Mainland Chinese. The essence of our situation is that we’re not like the first or second generation immigrants, we’re right in the middle, hence “1.5”. We were also relatively dispersed; when MGen 1.5 started, our executive members only knew a couple of people with a similar background each. However, as we grew, we noticed a distinguishing trend: when we become friends, we become super tight.

 

From a more business-oriented perspective, I found that these traits are appealing to global companies; I took a year off to work in Beijing with Renren (the “Chinese Facebook”) and was asked to sit in a conference with the global executive team of Walmart. It came to my attention that there is a real need for bicultural and bilingual professionals. When the Walmart team found out that I was Canadian and Chinese, they saw me as an insider who was better able to understand them.

“Building bridges of communication through MGen 1.5 individuals, not just on a linguistic level but also on a cultural one, allows exchanges to be much easier. When companies hire haigui (Chinese locals who have gone overseas to study or work), they don’t always recognise that those individuals may still be inherently Chinese and have a very different understanding of doing business cross-culturally.”

Hence, I saw potential for MGen 1.5 as a social and professional association.

Who falls into the category of “MGen 1.5”?

Siying: I suppose it’s difficult to say, we’re still finding our own identity. There are lots of hard questions, for example, how do you define “MGen 1.5”, do you do so through age in which they came over to Canada or by their fluency in both languages? Sometimes circumstances vary a lot depending on the individual. For example, people may have come over at a young age but still have very little English-language competency; whereas others have come to Canada later but have striven to speak more English and understand the Canadian culture allowing them to be thoroughly bilingual and bicultural.

Tina: A lot of our growth is through self-selection. It was tough finding a name together because we wanted to be explicit as to allow an easy filter in expanding our membership. We’ve been criticised for discriminating, but I think it’s natural that humans want to socialise with similar people with similar needs and interests.

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Not to mention, there are already many groups that cater to specific needs, such as the international student community. However, they face problems that we don’t and vice versa. For example, they may have problems deciding where to go for the holidays, whereas we just go home (where we live, in Canada). Furthermore, Canadian-born Chinese, when they go to China, they are often “soul-searching” and finding out more about their ancestral roots; for us, when we huiguo (“return to the Motherland”)we see it as exactly that: going back to another home. Our needs have been underserved and MGen 1.5 hopes to fill this gap.

MGen 1.5 members are very much leaders in their respective fields; is this a coincidence or a requirement to join?

Tina: We mean to cater to people who have graduated, are in a professional field or are entrepreneurs. We try not to be exclusive or elite, because that is not our mentality. Nonetheless, I am always impressed by our members – sometimes shocked (in a good way, of course) by the high quality of our members. However, the sacrifice that our parents have often had to make for us, their children, by moving to Canada, have inherently created a generation of hardworking people.

Siying: Generally, yes, people of our background are top students and very accomplished. However, this is just the tip of the glacier. Stereotypically, our parents have been well-educated and have equally high (or in some cases, moreso) demands for their children to achieve academically; therefore it is unsurprising that the children of this unique generation are in the top strata of their fields. Generally, we have had an upbringing that prizes perseverance; such impressions left upon MGen 1.5 children are therefore likely to be deeper in influencing their personalities and aspirations.

However, you cannot see MGen 1.5 as simply a group of professionals; we are an extraordinarily diverse group of people. This logic is similar to that in which you cannot say each member of a nation’s population are the same.

Why are bicultural and bilingual individuals in such demand; what makes them successful?

Tina: Given Asia’s economic prosperity, business has been and is continuing to be done overseas with China. There is a need for people who can connect with Asian culture, not just understand the language. Even if you hire a non-Chinese who has studied and lived in China for some time, it may be difficult for them to adapt to understanding Chinese approaches to corporate culture. This is obviously not always the case, but has been widely reported. You can see how Google and Facebook did not succeed in China; they could not adapt to the way Chinese companies work. Many blame the laws and regulations in China, because other companies that were in direct competition with Facebook did well. Facebook didn’t pick up in China because they didn’t quite understand the culture of Chinese netizens.

Siying: Before, when I worked at a consultancy company, I used my Chinese cultural background and language skills. No one else in the office had a similar background; so when I was brought to the meeting, the Chinese client immediately felt more comfortable.

Additionally, I was of use in helping draft a letter to a chairman of a Fortune 500 company with my Grade 3 Chinese! Little did I know that I would be able to do it! In my up and coming job, I have also been asked to help interview their Chinese management team.

Do you ever feel a tension between your Canadian and Chinese cultural identities? How was MGen 1.5 fueled or quelled this tension?

Tina: In the West, I think there has been a tendency amongst MGen 1.5 individuals to de-Chinese ourselves in favour of a more “Canadian” identity. For example, often we will identify ourselves as a Queen’s or Western University graduate and miss out on the huge asset of being Chinese. When we came to Canada as children, we were continually taught that China was a developing country.

Siying: (laughing) In elementary school, I actually got a question wrong when I answered “yes” to the question “is China a democratic country”?

Tina: An important point some members have mentioned is that we tend to put more English/Canadian-emphasis in our group’s documents and promotional materials – few of us have a Chinese resume too. We have to ask: how bilingual and bicultural are we really?

Siying: Upon reflection, the group has really made me proud. Other groups have taken notice and people are quite interested in the passion that we share in promoting our uniqueness.

“A common quality throughout all of us is that we’re very self-conscious. For example, many have tried so hard to fit in, yearning for acceptance in general society and hiding away what is so special about ourselves.”

Tina: It’s really hard to define what is bilingual and bicultural. Chinese is one of the hardest languages in the world. We have been running bilingual debates (where you have to switch from one language to another on a moderator’s whim). You get people who think that they can’t handle the challenge, but then they realise that they can. Nonetheless, sometimes when we talk about one topic, we’re more 1.25 in one language and 1.75 in the other! (laughs) As a collective, we are still weak in certain areas.

Siying: Culture is something that is continually changing. Even we end up with certain culture shocks when we go back to China because of the speed of its economic growth. Nonetheless, culture is one of those things that when you put people into a room, it will be shared and organically dispersed: for us to constantly engage in that allows us to make the most of both Canadian and Chinese counterparts.

What sort of support does MGen 1.5 provide to their members?

Siying: We held a successful career forum in Toronto that allows university students to interact with professional leaders. One of the programmes that the Calgary chapter wants to run is a communication programme, which will of course include bilingual debating and speaking. Additionally, we ran a discussion forum about utilizing Chinese background at workplace.

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Tina: We are built around the following three pillars: social networking, professional development and community outreach. We want to provide an environment for MGen 1.5ers to meet one another and build relationships that help further their exploration of their bilingual and bicultural identities. An example of professional development activities that we are planning is a professional Chinese corner. As none of us are professionally trained in Chinese, we want to push our ability to communicate professionally in Chinese as a key initiative through developing it together.

Are you planning to expand MGen 1.5?

Siying: Absolutely. The next step is to run new chapters. There would of course be consistent requirements that would need to be fulfilled, such as our mission and vision. Therefore we will have a stringent screening process, including interviews and a general “checklist”. For example, we have three key pillars: social impact, professional development and member networking. We would provide new chapters with the tools to start their organisations, however there will be aspects that are negotiable since we need to cater to different populations.

Tina: Since we’re relatively a small group, we’re pretty invisible in some respects. General society doesn’t really know we exist. What’s concerning is that in politics, for example, invited for policy issues and commentary are people who are bilingual, but not necessarily bicultural. 

“There’s potential in people of MGen 1.5 backgrounds that more are seeing because we are so unique in what we have. However, we don’t want a rush of people joining MGen 1.5 and dispersing our value.We are a very specific group and want to serve our community. It would be amazing to see MGen 1.5 around the world; when I went to Vienna, I was amazed to see people with a strong background in both German and Chinese.”

It’s very likely that Mandarin will be our common language. I’m definitely really excited about MGen 1.5, and want us to be a close organisation. Each chapter of course will have their own needs and need to tailor to those.

How has MGen 1.5 changed you and its members?

Tina: I’ve gained so much. I have a sense of community and understanding with others that I find so wonderful; I don’t think that six strangers could have become such close friends in similar circumstances. Building a team and watching them grow, making new friends, and so on, have been fulfilling experiences.

Siying: (laughing) It has definitely enhanced my social life in Toronto! It allowed me to make lots of friends very easily and quickly. I feel that we can truly rely on each other. One time, I lost my keys at a mall and had no money. When I got home, I used the concierge’s phone to call Tina; it was at the beginning stage of our friendship but she was so helpful. Her and Easton (another MGen 1.5 executive) came straight away and handed me $300 in cash, gave me a credit card so that I could change the lock – I was so touched!

Tina: Generally, we all have a similar background growing up as only children. We’ve created an atmosphere that espouses an inherent level of trust and understanding, on a familial level.

Siying: Some people have even rekindled their friendships through the group. For example, myself and Debbie knew each other in grade 7; now our friendship has gotten even stronger because we’re constantly seeing and doing things together.

What challenges does MGen 1.5 face?

Tina: We used to have serious challenges securing venues; our parents do not really have social networks that we can truly leverage. As for most of us, we’re currently out of school with no real place to set up meetings. We overcame it by reaching out to the community and investing our time and finances (each of us put in $20 each!). It paid off as we managed to secure sponsorship from Procter & Gamble!

Siying: A huge challenge that we are still facing is dealing with the exclusivity of our organisation, do we exclude those who aren’t really that MGen 1.5, or is everyone welcome? We’ve had huge debates about that. I personally think that we should include everyone, as I have a preference for inclusiveness: I hope that we work as a vehicle that equips others rather than puts together those who are already successful. For example, we ran a career forum at the University of Toronto, which brought together ten professionals from diverse industries to give presentations to students with Mandarin backgrounds.

What would you say is most stereotypically “Chinese” and “Canadian” of you?

Siying: In terms of my Canadian side, I am definitely someone who loves different cuisines. Furthermore, I love Tim Hortons! Yes, I learnt a bit of French in high school, laugh at a lot of Canadian jokes – we live in igloos, Canada’s so cold, we only eat Maple Syrup! Growing up in Calgary, I lived by the Rockies and love camping.

As for my Chinese side, I’m addicted to Mandarin soap operas, I’ll make Chinese cuisine at home (most likely as a result of exposure to methods of my mother’s cooking) and I love bubble tea!

If I had to support a team for the Olympics, it would be the underdog – so probably Canada, simply because China tends to lead with the medals!

Tina: It’s almost easier for me to answer how I’m stereotypically non-Chinese and non-Canadian! In terms of Chinese-ness, I have “non-existent” Asian eyes; play the piano, and was an over-achiever in school (though for the life of me, I cannot do mathematics at all!).

In terms of being Canadian, my guilty pleasure is poutine, I can’t prevent myself from saying “sorry” all the time (even in China), and I do say “Eh”. Not to mention, I spell colour the way it’s supposed to be spelt, with a “u” – proudly so.

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Find out more about Mandarin Generation 1.5 here: www.mgeneration.ca

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