By Riana Torrejon
Riana Torrejon is a twelfth-grade student who is a passionate advocate for human rights. In her spare time, she loves to write and sing. She also runs her school’s Student Council, chairs for ECSD’s Student Senate, and is an actress for Emma the Musical. Martin Luther King, Jr. is one of her greatest inspirations.
Safe spaces, new places, little space, no space.
As a person of small stature who takes up little space, it becomes quite glaring when one isn’t welcome.
There are many spaces which I love to take up such as my reading corner or inside the arms of a loved one’s hug, but there are also many spaces that I would avoid at all costs.
Feeling like you belong in a space compared to feeling like you’re taking up space were the two battling emotions for me as a young immigrant. Although there might be room, it doesn’t necessarily mean you are welcome to occupy that space.
During my first two years in Canada, I was bullied at school. Kids pointed at my long black hair and proclaimed that I was a witch. In addition, Filipino dishes which my mother cooked often called for ingredients like onions, garlic, and fish, the scent of which clung to my clothes like a hug as the aroma reminded me of my grandmother’s home in the Philippines. However, it was considered a stench amongst my classmates. I distinctly remember entering the classroom one morning to be met by the crinkling of noses followed by the backs of chairs at each table forming impenetrable walls. It was only when the bell rang, and the teacher appeared that eventually, I was able to take advantage of their distracted states and force myself through a crack that revealed itself in one of the walls.
I’ve had to fight for my space—like many of my classmates who immigrated from the Philippines. We found ourselves having to work twice as hard to be heard and seen half as much as our Caucasian counterparts. There is the sense of having to prove your worthiness to find space made for you at the tables where your voice makes a difference. This was first made clear to me when I played softball in my 5th grade P.E. class and raised my hand to volunteer to be captain for one of the teams. I was quickly dismissed by the girl sitting next to me who scoffed and said, “Can you even speak English well enough? You’re too tiny for this. Go back to the math books.” Although I believe she meant it as a joke, her words have remained seared in my mind.
This battle carries over to America as well where the term “bamboo ceiling” is repeatedly used by Asian Americans to refer to the numerous factors, such as organizational and cultural, which impede the progress of one’s career. Even now, as the co-president of my school’s student council and chair of ECSD’s student senate, I have observed the differences between those in power. Elected officials such as our board of trustees have no Asian women, and in fact, the board has no Asians at all. However, most of my classmates have been Asian—many of whom were Filipinos who emigrated to Canada during these last few years. They are voices that are slowly being heard more as they are now represented by members of the student senate and have opportunities to speak up through the school surveys, but the final decision lies in the hands of those elected who sit in the big meeting rooms, the trustees.
Today, I walked around my school’s food fair. As the aromas and exciting colours encircled me, I especially appreciated the sounds of different languages spoken at each booth. It was beautiful to watch everyone come together because of a human need that’s also a shared pleasure to indulge in: food. It shows me that we can make space for one another.
Being different does not mean wrongness. This can be observed through simpler things like cuisine as many dishes have evolved to provide us with even more to enjoy because of their differences. From creamy, to spicy to sour, when given the room to grow, we are able to discover new and exciting things.
Although this battle is ongoing, let us continue to work to ensure that it is not one that is still fought by future generations. While sharing space for one another’s food is a great accomplishment, it is not yet the finish line. We all deserve to feel welcome, heard, and recognized in this space. While our country has enough room, it is not yet room readily available for all. Let’s change that.