CHRISTINA STILL REMEMBERS the first time she felt like a complete outsider.
It happened when she was 13 years old, just a few weeks after she moved to Vancouver from Vernon, a small town in the interior of BC.
Interestingly enough, it wasn’t the move itself that made her feel this way. In fact, Christina felt confident that she’d be able to quickly adapt to her new environment–after all, back in Vernon, she had always found it easy to meet new people. Instead, what made her feel out of place was a specific incident that occurred on her first day of school.
“To this day I remember walking into the cafeteria and noticing this really clear divide: all the Asian kids were sitting on one side of the cafeteria and all the Caucasian kids were sitting on the other,” Christina remembers. “I’m half-Japanese and half-Czech and look like it, so you can imagine I wasn’t really sure what to do.”
Christina suddenly felt overcome by a strange feeling. Growing up, she had never really thought about race, and had never felt a need to define herself based on her ethnic background. And yet as she stood in the middle of the cafeteria on her first day of school, she felt a sudden need to decide who she was and where she belonged.
But Christina wasn’t ready to do that, so instead of picking a side she just walked up to the nearest empty table and sat down to eat on her own.
Christina’s family and friends were the first to realize that she had developed symptoms of an eating disorder. They’re the ones who first convinced her to get help, even though she had yet to admit to herself that she had a problem.
IT GOES WITHOUT SAYING that there was no official rule in Christina’s new school that stated that the student body was to be divided by race. However, as the weeks passed, Christina began noticing that most students acted as though there was: not only would they sit separately in the cafeteria, they would also try to avoid working together in class, hanging out after school, and even talking to each other in the hallways.
“That situation was really stressful for me, and figuring out where I belonged became a huge deal,” Christina remembers. “I didn’t know who I was supposed to be and who I was supposed to hang out with, so I would stay up at night asking myself if I was Asian or White… It seems silly now, but at the time it was all very confusing.”
This feeling is actually quite common among people who have two distinct racial backgrounds, and has even been given a name: the “racial impostor syndrome.” According to experts, the “racial impostor syndrome” is a feeling in which biracial (or multiracial) people feel like they don’t necessarily belong in either of their racial groups, which can make them feel isolated, and sometimes pushes them to develop insecurities that can lead to anxiety and depression.
Christina had no idea at the time, but that was exactly what was starting to happen to her.
“At first I was just concerned about where I belonged within the school’s social structure, but as time passed I began to feel really insecure about myself and felt like I didn’t belong anywhere and started questioning my identity,” she says. “This started weighing on me, and by the end of the year, it had really affected my self-esteem.”
CHRISTINA SPENT HER FIRST YEAR IN VANCOUVER feeling insecure and worthless.
But while these feelings continued for well over a year, a newly discovered talent made them slowly start fading into the background by the time Christina reached the middle of Grade 9.
“I started running cross country and discovered I was actually really good at it,” she says. “Discovering that hidden talent made me feel good about myself again, and actually helped me start feeling like I belonged at school.”
Over the next few years, running would become an important part of Christina’s identity. The more she did it, the better she got, and the better she got, the more recognized and accepted she felt by her peers. This pushed her to train harder and harder to continue improving.
Before long, Christina was part of one of the best cross-country teams in the province. Her school won the provincial tournament and Christina got good results race after race.
Anyone looking from the outside would have said that Christina’s dreams were finally becoming a reality, but deep within her, something was still very off.
“In my head I had noticed that the more I ran, the thinner I got, and the thinner I got, the better I ran and the more accepted I was. So I put together an extreme training routine to lose as much weight as possible: I started counting calories and exercising all the time so I could continue improving as a runner and be more accepted at school, but at some point it got to the point where I was completely out of control,” says Christina. “At the time, I didn’t necessarily think it was a bad thing because I was getting so good at running, but looking back it’s clear that I had developed an eating disorder and that it was tied to the depression I had been feeling for years.”
I really just had to do a lot of talking to myself and saying to myself that I was worth the love and that weight wasn’t the only thing that matters in life.
CHRISTINA’S FAMILY AND FRIENDS were the first to realize that she had developed symptoms of an eating disorder. They’re the ones who first convinced her to get help, even though she had yet to admit to herself that she had a problem.
“The first few steps of my recovery were very slow because I wasn’t convinced that I had a problem. So I basically went to the hospital for my eating disorder and got therapy for my mental health because my family pushed me to go, but since I didn’t think I had a problem I didn’t put any effort into my recovery,” Christina says.
Despite seeking help from a professional to work through her challenges, Christina’s reluctance to admit her problem meant that she spent the next few years going in and out of recovery. In the meantime, her mental and physical health continued to get worse, to the point that by the time she was in Grade 11, Christina found herself experiencing deep depression.
At that point recovery seemed distant, but a chance encounter with a particular nurse at a day treatment facility in Vancouver would radically change her life.
“It’s hard to say exactly what it was about her that was so special, but she was just completely different from the nurses I had encountered before. She just seemed to care so much and really knew how to talk to me and listen to what I had to say,” Christina says. “She just helped me like myself again, which made me want to get better.”
Working with that particular nurse gave Christina a boost of self-confidence and made her realize that she not only wanted to get better, but also wanted to become a nurse herself.
The next year Christina decided to leave Vancouver for Montreal, where she got a nursing degree from McGill University. During her time in University she continued working on her recovery, and while the process was not always straightforward, she eventually gained the tools necessary to find the stability she needed in her life.
“I really just had to do a lot of talking to myself and saying to myself that I was worth the love and that weight wasn’t the only thing that matters in life. The people around me helped too, because they showed me that people would love me no matter how small or how big I was.”
Today, Christina is a totally different person. While she still has to work hard to boost her self-esteem, she’s also confident in who she is and what she wants to do in life. She no longer feels like she needs to choose whether she is Asian or Caucasian, and feels quite happy navigating through both of her cultural identities.
On top of that, she has learned to focus on things that make her happy – such as rock climbing, playing with her dogs and helping others – as a way to maintain her recovery over time.
“The biggest lesson I learned from my challenges is that if I’m not happy, then I need to make changes in order to guarantee that I am,” Christina says. “This seems simple, but it’s actually quite radical: if I’m trying my best to be happy with who I am and what I’m doing, then I can really respect myself, which is all I can really ask for in life.”
This story is part of a series aimed at sharing the experiences of young people across BC. As part of Foundry’s goal to work alongside young people, create connections and promote mental health and wellness, we are creating a platform for young people’s stories to be heard.
Article by Peter Mothe. Photography by Connor McCracken.
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