CultureSocial Issues

Multiculturalism and Loneliness

About a year and a half ago, I moved right to the heart of Toronto’s Chinatown. I was excited to make the move, not only for the food (Chinese is my favourite), but also because it was my first time living alone, away from any guardian or parent. My first stroke of independence, of creating my own way, and finding my own community — what an opportunity. 

But after twelve months of living in Chinatown, I’ve come to realize that my neighbourhood was not one of community. At least, not for me. Very quickly it became clear that most people in Chinatown speak Cantonese, and only enough English to do business. Every shop displays its name in both Chinese and English, the Chinese normally being a little larger. Chinatown has its own lawyers, its own churches, its own clubs, its own everything. It’s its own self-contained unit. 

Essentially, the Chinese residents of Chinatown live in a different world than “Toronto” — they’ve preserved their Chinese culture perfectly, and plopped it down into the middle of North America. 

Multiculturalism and Loneliness

Of course, this is the definition of “multiculturalism”: many diverse cultures co-existing in one geographical space. Canada is a nation founded on multiculturalism, celebrating all cultural backgrounds without discrimination. To me, and to most, this sounds like (and is) a peaceful way to live in the world and explore different cultures. 

But why didn’t anyone tell me that multiculturalism, that living in Chinatown, would be so lonely?

Everyday, I walk down the same streets, I pass by the same bakeries and corner stores, and everyday, the same realization strikes me: I am an outsider, living in the middle of Toronto’s Chinese community. I float through the different shops and markets, connecting with no one and not taking part in any of the community’s activity. The chatter I hear on the streets is in a language I don’t understand; the shops hold fruits and vegetables I don’t recognize; the styles are ones I’m not familiar with. In Chinatown, I’m a stranger, although in Toronto, I’m a native. 

Now of course, on the other hand, every “citizen” of Toronto’s Chinatown walks through Yorkville or the Annex and experiences the exact same phenomenon. He or she sees a culture wildly foreign to them, hears a language he or she cannot understand, and feels like an outsider in his or her own city. And, to a certain degree, they are. The culture of Yorkville is not the culture of Chinatown. 

Multiculturalism and Loneliness

So with multiculturalism, it seems that we all win and we all lose. We all have our cultures, our communities where we fit in (for the Chinese, Chinatown; for Italians, Little Italy, etc.) with no boundaries or hesitations. But we also all experience the uncomfortable feeling of “outsiderness” — feeling like we just walked into another country by walking a few blocks south. 

After 18 months of living in Chinatown, I’ve grown accustomed to this “outsiderness.” I’m no longer surprised no one makes eye contact with me on the street or seems to understand my “how are you”s and “sorry”s. And I’ve learned a bit about Chinese culture (mostly how to use chopsticks — but hey, it’s a start). I peacefully co-exist with a culture other than my own, accepting my role as an “outsider.”

But beyond my peaceful co-existence, I’ve grown more grateful after living in Chinatown. Spending so much time among another culture has helped me really see and appreciate my own. All those annoying family dinners and traditions that plagued me through high school have suddenly taken on profound meaning: they’re mine. I know, participate, and belong to those traditions, to that culture. There, I’m not lonely. 

Living in Chinatown has taught me that cultures necessarily include and exclude. In order to belong to one culture, you give up your ability to be in another; in order to call somewhere home, somewhere else needs to be foreign. And so it makes sense to be lonely in the midst of our multiculturalism. After all, not everywhere is home, not everyone practices your culture. But this loneliness has made me more grateful for places I do belong and for the culture I call my own. 


  • Sheila Mulrooney

    Sheila is currently completing her degree at U of T, studying English. In her spare time, Sheila enjoys playing piano, singing, and dogs.

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