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Grandparent Project provides students with insight into their family, emigration and themselves

A young Asian woman with her hand on an elderly man's shoulder - both smiling

The project encourages young researchers, many of them international students or first- or second-generation Canadians, to investigate themes like home, mobility and identity, while also learning qualitative research methods. ©iStock.com | stray_cat.

Students are getting insights about their own lives by interviewing their parents and grandparents about the reasons they immigrated to Canada.

It’s all part of the Grandparent Project, an unusual venture at the Asian Pathways Research Lab in U of T’s Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs.The lab recently launched the Grandparent Project in order to build an archive of life-history interviews with Asian Canadians.

“The reason this project is unique is that these students have to negotiate this dual role of researcher and family member,” says anthropologist Emily Hertzman, postdoctoral fellow at the Munk School’s Asian Institute and manager of the research lab.

“We want this to be about that family member’s journey, and the student reflecting on how that journey is different from theirs, and what they can learn from each other’s experiences.”

The project encourages young researchers, many of them international students or first- or second-generation Canadians, to investigate themes like home, mobility and identity, while also learning qualitative research methods.

Bushra Zaheer’s mother, a teacher, moved to Canada from Sri Lanka in 1997 to escape civil war, and her grandmother followed in the early 2000s. They both love Toronto and consider it as much their home as Sri Lanka, says Zaheer, who was born here and identifies as Sri Lankan-Canadian.

“They place heavy emphasis on the need to succeed here, because to them, this is the land of opportunity, and my mother really valued this idea of the Western dream,” says Zaheer, a third-year international development student.

“I am obviously grateful to be born here and have opportunities, but I feel there are opportunities for success anywhere in the world. I don’t really root it in the geographical location.”

Zaheer says the skills she learned will be useful next year when she goes abroad for an international development project as part of her studies.

Ailin Li and her family moved to Canada from China in 2004 when she was six and settled in Calgary, where her mother’s best friend was living. Her mother — an engineer — felt restricted by China’s one-child policy, and was uncomfortable with the pollution and corruption in her homeland.

Li says the project awakened her passion for research and changed her mind about pursuing a law degree in favour of international development work relating to China or East Asia.

Li admits that she didn’t appreciate her parents’ culture or language as she grew up, but as she interviewed her mother, that all changed.

“Doing this research and brushing up on my Mandarin has made me realize how many things I didn’t understand or notice when I was younger,” says Li, who is entering her third year as a psychology and social cultural anthropology student.

Li says the project awakened her passion for research and changed her mind about pursuing a law degree in favour of international development work.

“It’s been a great experience in terms of taking down people’s stories and fitting them into a larger context.”

Like his father and mother before him, Stanley Chia came to Canada for a university education with the intent of eventually returning home to Malaysia, and says the practice of taking such a “sojourn” is common in that part of the world.

He interviewed his father, who worked in IT in Canada for 10 years and met his mother here before returning to start a business in Kuala Lumpur. Chia had no idea how researchers in the field did interviews before starting the project, and says those skills will help, especially if he goes further into anthropology.

While Chia is unsure what he’ll do after graduation, he feels his own identity is less tied to his homeland than his parents.

“Many people wrestle with their identity after spending time abroad,” says Chia, who is entering his fourth year as an international relations, history and contemporary Asian studies student.

“Canada exposes you to a whole different environment, and that really opens up your mind and makes you see a broader picture.”

In September, the first cohort of students will be posting their interviews, photographs and reflective essays on the Asian Institute website and in the Pathways print publication.

The project will continue each year with a new group of students as it continues to examine the circular nature of migration, and the “entangled trajectories of multiple generations of family members,” says Hertzman.  She hopes the archive — a database of original qualitative data — will be a resource for future researchers to explore and use for larger and more long-term research projects.  She also hopes it will stimulate learning about mobilities, including comparative analyses, and provide examples to train students to conduct oral history interviews.