Belonging or not belonging, that’s a question.

Liting Liu

Having been in Montreal for exact four months, now I feel no much difference from the day I landed at the Pierre Elliott Trudeau Airport. Since I don’t speak French at all and my English is limited as well, the awkwardness I felt at the beginning still haunts me. I live in the community but I doubt if I belong to it.

In the evening of August 12th, I arrived at Montreal. I got a number, waiting to be called by the customs officer. Beyond my expectation, they don’t use any bilingual broadcasting machine to announce numbers. Instead, they shouted out numbers themselves in French, and in the hundred-digit-omitted form (e.g. 230 is read as “trente”). It is only after learning some basic French that I got to understand their omission by that time. As you would have guessed it right, I didn’t know the officer was announcing my number until she called several times and asked my number in English. I heard people in the room snickering. At last, the officer kindly offered me a tip – “If you plan to find a job and stay here, you must learn French.” After passing numerous “ARRET” road signs, I got to the apartment, posted “Welcome to the world of being blind and deaf” on Facebook.

During the four months living in Montreal, I took courses at school, shopped at supermarkets and malls, ordered at restaurants, visited scenic spots, tutored youths, accompanied elders, negotiated over the phone and read books in English on the bed. All above mentioned evidenced that I have been living in the community for real. Efforts has been made to engage myself with social activities to make up me not being outgoing enough to initiate conversations with foreigners. Even though people I’ve met here, either at volunteer organizations or schools, are mostly quite friendly, it is still difficult for me to take many turns in a conversation. Being worried about making grammar mistakes and being laughed at confined me to listening without much talking. I deduct that is also part of the reasons for most Chinese students being inactive in group discussions too.

Upon reading Norton and McKinney’s chapter about identity (2011, p.73), I started wondering what my identity is and which community I belong to. The student group at McGill used to be my imagined community. They used to be “the group of people, not immediately tangible and accessible, with whom I connect through the power of imagination”( Norton & McKinney, 2011). Now I am one of the “McGillers”, but I cannot feel that I have integrated into the community. Let alone the Montreal community, with which I certainly have had engagement with. According to Wenger (1998), engagement refers to direct involvement in community practices and concrete relationships. Does engagement ensure belonging? I don’t think so. Perhaps when my language skills are good enough to understand the French supervisor’s words at the meeting and to avoid making mistakes like mixing leeks and green onions, I would have a stronger sense of  belonging with the help of communities of practice including networks (Valerie et al., 2016). Hopefully my completion of building a sense of belonging to McGill and Montreal comes soon in the near future.



Norton, B. & McKinney, C. An Identity Approach to Second Language Acquisition. In Atkinson, D. (2011). Alternative approaches to second language acquisition. London: Routledge.

Valerie, F., Irene, K., & Etienne, W.-T. (April 02, 2016). Communities of Practice as a Social Theory of Learning: a Conversation with Etienne Wenger. British Journal of Educational Studies, 64, 2, 139-160.

Wenger, E. (1998). Communities of practice: Learning, meaning, and identity. Cambridge, U.K: Cambridge University Press.

10 thoughts on “Belonging or not belonging, that’s a question.”

  1. Cynota
    Liting Liu,
    I see that you are feeling like an alien and it makes me sad. This is a form of violence that is not necessary.
    I once had to take a boy to the hospital, and stay with him to explain his case to the nurse. I did this because he was supposed to come live at my place, he was a student. But, when I saw he had bug bites on his neck and arms, I had to tell him that he must get treatment. I could not leave him with his problem. My husband and I went to the hospital and spent the day making sure that he gets medication, we took him to the pharmacy. I would only hope that if my son were in this situation, somebody will take care of him. We are all human beings who should be treated with respect and care despite language differences.
    People sometimes don’t see the big picture, or choose not to, perhaps it is because they are not sure where they will fit in. Many people are threatened by outsiders, are small minded and only care about small inconveniences that they suffer to accommodate others.
    I just hope that you will not take one person’s bad attitude and think that everyone is like that. There are good people here, and you must keep an open mind. It takes time to feel part of a culture, and to find the group you can fit in with. There are good people, Canada is a wonderful place to live, so keep up your excellent efforts.


    1. Hi Cynota,

      Thanks for your understanding. I am actually a quite calm “alien” most of the time. xD

      You are definitely right about kindness. Language can be a barrier for communication, but it never keeps a person from being nice to others. That’s what I feel about people here. They may disagree with you on something, but most people are good deep down.

      I really appreciate your encouragement and will continue trying to be a part of the society.

      All the best!



  2. Dear Liting,
    I would like to make a couple of points.

    1) I am so sorry that you had a bad experience at the airport. It is true that all the public functions in Quebec operate in French, and only French is the official language in Quebec. However, the attitude of the border service agent is not appropriate. The next time you have a similar experience, ask their full name and record the situation in details and file a formal complaint. As all the federal government employees do, border service agents must provide service in either English or French. If the agent is unable to provide the service with English, he or she must refer to another agent instead of sneering. It is neither professional nor acceptable.

    2) As you described, the language sometimes excludes you from social interaction, and I can relate the fear of making grammatical mistakes and being laughed at. However, I believe the sense of exclusion you feel is not solely due to your shyness or proficiency. Also, the structures of social, academic discourses make you feel excluded. For example, when we talked about Bill 101, many students from China remained silent not because they are shy or unable to convey their thoughts without making grammatical mistakes, but because the very topic means nothing to them.



    1. Hi Babble,

      Thanks to your advice, now I know what I should do when I face the situation again.

      It is also true that lack of cultural background certainly is one of the reasons that separate international apart. We may have learned about certain history or read something about another culture, but more often than not, it is far from enough. So both language skills and cultural knowledge need to be improved for people who want to integrate themselves into another society.

      All the best!



  3. Hi Liting,

    I feel you. As another Chinese student in Montreal for only three months, I totally understand almost every problem you met with. But you see, coming into another culture is always hard, despite the language. Engagement doesn’t ensure belonging, which is what I realized from my experience too. However, I also realized that engagement might FACILITATE belonging. As you attempt once and once again to get involved or reach out, you might feel yourself more confident in communicating and understanding the “rules”, like how to deal with the customs officer, etc. As the old saying we have in Chinese, “Difficult the first time, easy the second.” The next time you’re meeting with the same situation/anxiety, you would know how to cope with it. Just be patient and don’t worry, as time goes by, a lot of problems will be readily solved.



    1. Hi Jamie,

      Thanks for your answer. I agree with you. Since engagement facilitates belonging, why don’t we try finding more opportunities to engage ourselves with others? We could let each other know when there is any cultural festival or other social activities like that and participate together!

      Happy holidays!



  4. Hey good post Liting,

    I agree with Jamie, “engagement might facilitate belonging”. It’s interesting how dramatically the way we think about others can change the way they react to us. For example, you say “Efforts has been made to engage myself with social activities to make up me not being outgoing enough to initiate conversations with foreigners”. I assume that by “with foreigners” you mean “Canadians/Non-Chinese”? By thinking of Canadians as foreigners you are already separating yourself from them in your mind. They are ‘other’, (not to mention you are in Canada, so technically you are the foreigner–a person not from here).

    Now, I am in no way saying Quebec is an easy culture to become a part of, and sometimes other people may look at us, or hear our accents and think that we are ‘foreigners’. But if we make Quebec our ‘imagined community’, we should try to see ourselves as ‘of’ this place. We are the foreigners, and we want to ‘become Quebecois’. Then it’s up to them, and their attitudes whether they accept us or not.


    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for your enlightening comment!

      You are absolutely right about who is the foreigner here. It is also true that I have automatically segregated myself from other non-Chinese people unconsciously from the first sight… It is after reading your comment that I realized that I will count how many Chinese were in the placement test, how many Chinese were at the party and we did went over to each other during the mingle part… The problem lies in myself to a large extent…

      I really appreciate your “enlightment”.

      Have a good holiday.



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