For the Culture
The first conversation I ever had about race was during a parent-teacher interview when I was in the first grade. Growing up in the 90’s as many other kids, I idolized Michael Jordan. The only problem was I grew up in Calgary, Alberta and no one else in my school cared about basketball. Since there were not any Asian players in the NBA and the most prominent players were Black, my six-year-old self, wanting to play in the NBA thought I would have a better chance at making if I was Black. I remember not only telling people I wish was Black but that I wished I was Michael Jordan’s son. I understand how this is problematic now and how skin colour and race is not something to put on and take off. My first-grade teacher, Ms. Repay, recognized a problem or at least an uncomfortable situation. Now that I am older and able to process this conversation and my feelings around it, while I appreciate her intention, her impact was the wrong one and one that was quite damaging to me as a child. I understand the difficult position she was in, a white elementary school teacher talking about race in a white dominant school, and I do not think she’s had to have a conversation about race ever with her students before. My most vivid memory from this parent teacher interview was that Ms. Repay and my parents thought when I said I wanted to be Black that meant I was ashamed to be Asian and by extension I was ashamed of myself. This was the wrong interpretation, I wanted to be Black because most NBA players are Black, and I wanted to play in the NBA. If Jeremy Lin was around at the time, I would have told people I would want to be Jeremy Lin’s son instead of Michael Jordan’s. That representation was not there for me, so I worked with what I had. Of course, I did not say anything or stand up to myself when Ms. Repay presented this wrong diagnosis to my parents, I was five or six. She put the onus on my parents, she told them that they needed to show me why I should be proud to be Chinese and I do not remember what was said afterwards but the discussion about race was over. Ms. Repay never told my parents how to accomplish this or give suggestions on how I could be proud to be Chinese she just mandated it. It was something I had to figure out on my own and this interaction defined how I viewed myself in relation to being an Asian person born in Canada. To be honest, it put me on a path of internalized racism for the first twenty years of my life all because I did not have the language to explain the experience I went through. This was the late 90’s, the internet was not what it was now, the only Asian people in movies and television were Jackie Chan and Jet Li but I did not know Kung Fu or Martial Arts and I did not have an accent, and there were no books I could read about the Asian North American experience. My parents are wonderful, but they came to this continent for university and met in Edmonton at the University of Alberta and moved to Calgary to start a family. They did not know what to do with me and this perceived notion that I was not proud to be Chinese or Asian, I remember thinking that they were sad because I said I wanted to be Michael Jordan’s son. During this time, I had friends that were Asian Canadian, but they did not care about basketball, or loved Batman: The Animated Series like I did. They had toys and video games that I would never have but above everything they felt comfortable in their own skin. Truth to be told, I hated hanging out with them and their family if only because I never felt like I belonged and that they never knew what to do with me. To be fair to them, their family is lovely, and I took all this frustration and confusion out on them, I was a brat. I desperately wanted to fit in, I still do. The only difference now is I have the power to set those terms for myself and define what fitting in means for me.
For as early as I can remember my Asian-ness has clashed with what it means to be Canadian. No matter how hard I tried to assimilate to whiteness it was never going to happen and I was never truly Asian because of my want to assimilate so I was white washed and add to the fact that I played basketball and listen to rap and hip-hop, people called me a Rotten Banana, for some reason this disqualifies me from being truly Asian. So, if I am not white enough to be Canadian and not Asian enough to be Asian, where does that leave me? Societal limbo and I am just supposed to accept this? I refuse because to fragment myself in order to fit in another person’s definition or idea of identity is an act of violence. I have done that enough growing up and the only person to suffer the consequences of this fragmentation is me. One of the only good things from this is that it has led me to this project and the desire to figure out what exactly is Asian Canadian culture and illuminate the connective tissue that I was blind to and that I needed when I was younger. From this project and my conversations with my interview participants, I find that I am not the only person wading through the ocean that is identity, both personal and collective, without a blueprint to guide us. I do believe that Millennial Asian Canadians are something new. We can break the mutual exclusivity between Asian and Canadian. It is our job to define what our culture is for not only us but our parents and the generations before them and the generations directly after us and beyond. My conversations touched on themes and feelings of: being caught between two worlds, the idea that the being Asian Canadian is something new entirely, the difficulty of finding connective tissue in what it means to be Asian Canadian, and the lack of a real sense of Asian Canadian culture in general, and the idea that culture may be less about where a person is from and more about where they feel like they belong.
I conducted four one-on-one, face-to-face interviews that lasted between half an hour to hour long. I asked each participant the same questions: When I say “Asian-Canadian” what comes to mind? How do you feel about the term “Asian-Canadian”? How can it change, evolve, and grow to be more intersectional and inclusive of people’s identities? Did you have any Asian people to look up to in mainstream media growing up? Why is our narrative excluded from Canadian canon? When was the first time you realized you weren’t white? What is really said when you get asked, “No, where are you really from?” What do you gain and what do you lose when assimilating? Is there any way to get these things back? How does our generation differ from our parent’s generation in terms of what they want in their lives on this continent? Are there things that are the same? And what will we leave future generations?
I interviewed four Asian Canadian Millennial women for this project. All of them are in the creative field and/or entrepreneurs/free lancers. Two out of the four of them were born in Vancouver and the Lower Mainland area. One was born in Korea and immigrated to Canada with her family when she was very young. And the last was born in Saskatchewan before moving to Vancouver. I picked these participants because the project guidelines stated that we had to choose participants from known networks. We are all in a group chat and they were all gracious enough to lend me their time to talk and help me out. For the purposes of this project they will be referred to as AC1, AC2, AC3, and AC4. I do not feel like I lose that much from not interviewing a male participant, obviously in larger future projects people on the entire gender spectrum would be vital to include but for this I am happy with what I got because I feel like in the limitations of a paper my thoughts and perspective as a male perspective is sufficient. Since this project focuses on the Millennial Asian Canadian experience it was less of a priority for me to have older generations included but in a wider project with a more in-depth examination of Asian Canadian culture of course other generations will be included.
The word “Asian-Canadian” does a lot of work. It ties together two continents and makes a new identity. I am interested in exploring what is the state of Asian Canadian Culture in 2019 and where does it go in the future. Asia is a massive continent without a language, culture, government, or religion tying all the different countries that make it up. To help me make sense of the culture clash of two continents I looked at Xiaoping Li’s Voices Rising: Asian Canadian Cultural Activism. What drew me to it was one of the blurbs on the back of the book from Anthony Chan, author of Perpetually Cool: The Many Lives of Anna May Wong, 1905–1961, Chan writes, “As the first in-depth analysis of Asian Canadian artistic and cultural life.” This is noteworthy to me because Voices Rising was published in 2007. I know Asian Canadians are a footnote in Canadian canon, but I did not think it would take so long for a collection to be made. In the first half of the book Li focuses on the makings of Asian Canadian culture. For example, she credits Terry Watada’s song “New Denver” which was published in the Japanese community newspaper New Canadian as the first Asian Canadian song. Li cites an essay by Asian American professor Ron Tanaka, “The Sansei Artist and Community Culture” which he writes about the Canadian social structure and its direct impact on the lack of Asian Canadian cultural discourse. Tanaka believes that the only reason Asian people are allowed in Canada is to be “useful.” Tanaka argues that the survival of the Asian community is based on being content with their place in the world. A struggle for identity and self growth through the development of Asian Canadian historians, philosophers, sociologists, political scientists, economists, poets, and musicians would go against this idea of “being useful” thus the continuum of being submissive. This is a clear example of being forced to play the role defined by another community’s lens and the want to break away from someone else’s idea of self. This struggle to discover and explore identity reminds of one of the points from the Black Panther Party’s Ten-Point Program: “If a man does not have knowledge of himself and his position in society and the world, then he has little chance to relate to anything else.” This point resonates with me because until recently, I have never thought about my place in the world or at least in how I am connected to it, specifically the systems and institutions that make up our world. As I’ve shared in this project, I’m trying to find my footing in the world and trying to make sense of my place in it. It’s hard to figure out an identity without knowing a path to follow. Being “useful” isn’t a path, it’s an order. I talked to my participants about why our canon is excluded from the canon of Confederation and Canada. And when I say canon, I mean how come I did not learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act in high school or learn about Japanese Internment during my social studies class during World War II, or about how Chinese labour was exploited to build the railroad? All the participants cited racism and the structure of white supremacy that founded this country and is still present in different and evolved ways. AC2 brought up the point that it is not talked about because, “It makes people uncomfortable. White people aren’t ready to grapple with the traumas or the dark side of Canada. Until they do, it’ll be our job to keep talking about these things.” It is exhausting if all the history to push forward is traumatic and dark. Not to mention the trauma and darkness is caused by an outside force, it is not something we create but something we respond to. If all we do is respond to actions inflicted upon us it keeps us preoccupied and prevents us from creating our own things independent of those outside forces. Therefore, Voices Rising is so important, it is proof that Asian Canadian culture has always existed even if it has never been mainstream but it does not need the mainstream to survive. While the contributions discussed and explored in Voices Rising is not as prominent as say chop suey Asian Canadian dishes, it does not make it any less Canadian. It is art produced in Canada by Asians and I believe it does not belong to either continent, it is something entirely new.
I asked my participants what comes to mind when I say, “Asian Canadian” and their feelings towards the term in general. After seeing their answers again, I can confirm that it falls short when encapsulating a single person’s identity. If it falls short for the individual, how can it be expected to capture a multitude of communities across the continent? As AC1 states,
“I think [the] hyphen is very important, but I’ve also thought about just calling myself Canadian and that doesn’t feel right either. So Asian Canadian being whoever comes from the ethnic background of Asia who love and consider home as Canada, but we’re never separated from the ethnic background or ancestral background of Asia, culturally but also racially [regarding] what we see or what other people see. It’s like identifying but it’s also limiting at the same time.”
AC4 adds, “I think it’s interesting. It helps carve out a sense of identity because if someone were to say, I don’t know I never felt comfortable saying I’m Chinese so Chinese Canadian fits more comfortably or better. I don’t identify with anything that’s happening in China. My family is so far removed from China, no one has been in China for three generations.” Another important point is that everyone asked who gets to decide who is considered Asian, in some form or another. We acknowledged how when someone says “Asian” in the West people automatically assume the person is talking about East Asia, in particular: China, Japan, and Korea. As AC4 tried to explain, “I have to check myself because South Asian and Southeast Asian are so different and then there’s West Asia…oh yeah, someone was just saying that Middle East is just West Asia, and I mean kind of, but I don’t know, it’s not wrong. But who is West Asian? Some look like what some people would consider white…I don’t know I’m just guessing.” Identity is complicated and is tied to world history and often it is a history we do not fully grasp. It was illuminating to talk through our preconceived notions of Asia and how much we did not know ourselves.
What is interesting is that every person I asked what does, “Asian Canadian” mean to them they thought of Asian Canadian as a term for identity. I wonder, should it be? I would argue that it should be a term that defines ethnicity more so than identity. While, ethnicity and identity are intertwined they are still different things. You can ask me from I am from or where my parents are from, but you would get a better sense of my identity if you asked me what podcasts do I listen to or what YouTube channels I watch. My participants all answered the question believing that the term, “Asian-Canadian” was at best a placeholder, at worst something that was obsolete, but all agreed that we need something new, but if we thought about it through the frame of ethnicity instead of identity would we need anything new? Even if there is not something new coming soon, that does not mean our relationship or the meaning of the phrase and how we relate and use it stays stagnant. As with all aspects of identity it is fluid. As AC3 describes it, “I think my definition of Asian Canadian has definitely changed over time. I think if you had said that to me before it would have just meant who we are as living in Canada, but I think now it has transformed into this whole other form of identity which is [separate] from just being Asian in Canada. It’s what does it mean to be a part of the Asia diaspora and to be someone who is away from their “homeland” but not really because we’re born here. I don’t know because it’s a weird place to be.” There is more power in knowing that being Asian Canadian is a part of me along with everything else that goes into my identity instead of thinking that I am just Asian Canadian, and no further investigation is necessary. The fact is if we do want a new phrase or a shift in how Asian Canadian is thought of, we are the ones to make that happen. A new term is not going fall out of the sky, we must work to discover it and the works starts from within.
Last year the Asian American Feminist Collective (AAFC) launched out of New York City along with their first zine. They lay out their values, commitments, and acknowledge the work done by feminist groups and movements that have come before them: Black feminist thought, Third World feminist movements in the late 60’s and 70’s, and Women of Color feminism. They describe their first commitment as, “committing to a politics that turns away from whiteness. Being cast as ‘perpetual foreigners’ may have fueled a desire for some Asian immigrants to survive by seeking ways to assimilate in order to have access to the same resources and privileges as those with the most economic and political power — wealthy, white Americans.” Reading their commitments and comparing it to past readings and goals I talked about earlier it shows the difference between distance and progress: “This present moment is not exceptional, but rather an extension of a longer national history built on Native dispossession, Black enslavement, and racialized exclusion and segregation.” Activism is not stamped with a job well done; it is a constantly evolving process. The AAFC brings their histories to feminism, and a feminism centered on an Asian American movement allows them to draw upon their own lived experiences, material conditions, and historical contexts to move beyond narrow bids for national political and economic inclusion and instead is a push towards other pathways for justice. This is how they weave their experiences with a greater history.
Six-year-old me would not have gravitated to an Asian American Feminist Movement or even known how to access one that was from New York City from Calgary but maybe it will help other Asians in North America who are not yet equipped with the language to work through or describe the experiences they have had. I know that this collective has helped the four participants of this project and would have been useful to them growing up because the role models available to them were limited to non-existent. AC2 gave examples that none of the other participants thought of when I was talking with them. AC2 brought up anime characters such as Hello Kitty and the show Sailor Moon. While she is not Japanese there was something familiar there. She knew that Hello Kitty was an Asian creation and that was enough. AC3 brought up a reality show and it was the first time she saw a Filipino girl on TV for the first time,
“I remember there was one really shitty show in high school which was the search for the next Pussycat Doll and there was one Filipino girl on it. And I remember oh my god there’s the first Filipino girl I’ve seen who’s on TV that wasn’t half, she was full Filipino. She was the first I’ve ever seen. And I didn’t look like her at all, but people would tell me that I did but I thought oh my god that’s so amazing and I was flattered.”
While she does not approve of the comparison today, there was power in that representation, she adds,
“It made me feel proud though because I knew there was someone there. And it wasn’t until I think I started being more involved in the creative industry and seeing more people become more visible with the rise of the internet and Instagram and things like that where I first started to see more creatives. There’s a lot of Filipinos in creatives and other Asians.”
Seeing or hearing yourself reflected in media opens doors for you because how can you imagine something that you never knew existed before? That person for me is Eddie Huang. I read Eddie’s memoir Fresh Off the Boat two summers ago. It was the first time I had seen someone in media refer to themselves as a rotten banana. He talked about growing up in a predominantly white neighbourhood, his favourite players in the NBA were the same as mine, and it was the first time someone with my face spoke about their experience in my language. I mentioned earlier that Jackie Chan and Jet Li were around when I was growing up, but I never connected with them because of their accent. They clearly were not born on this continent. I would never be a bad ass fighter like Jet Li and would never be the stunt man like Jackie Chan. Forget about them being Asian, they might as well have been from Mars and part of that feeling was my internalized racism. Jet Li and Jackie Chan were not considered cool and carrying that internalized racism it is impossible to look to your parents for that or your community, you only want distance. As AC1 told me about her frustration with seeing representation of Asians in Western media,
“I hated whenever I saw representations of Asians in Canadian and American Media it was like the stereotype of the sidekick or the nerd or the band geek and I actually was those things. I was the band geek, academic nerd, and the teacher’s pet. My friend, my pretty white girlfriend was the teacher’s pet and I was her like sidekick and so I hated it [because we are never the center of the story.]”
Nothing is more frustrating than wanting to escape but having no where to go. Thank goodness I found Eddie, I just wish I had sooner.
Eddie had a speech in 2016 at the National Immigrant Integration Conference titled “No Coupons” and it ties everything I have discussed here together. In “No Coupons” Eddie wonders why does he have to run three football fields to the white man’s one to get to the same spot. How he, as a natural born American, should have every right as any other white person born on the same land and asks why his face is such a threat to what it means to be American. The white immigrant story should not be the only immigrant story considered to be worthy. However, he refuses to be discouraged, he will keep working and when the time comes he will be celebrated as a yellow blooded American but he will not be content, he will demand to know why it has taken him so long to be accepted. Because once you have walked through the door you must hold it open for others to walk through it. Eddie ends his speech by saying that when he looks in the mirror he does not see anything wrong; it has taken him three decades, two memoirs and six television shows to finally not run from his face. He is content with how his face represents himself and he understands his face can be as American as it wants to be. Just because I found my Eddie before I got too old, I am sure many people do not find theirs. A reoccurring joke throughout the four interviews was about all this supposed diversity appearing in Hollywood and between Canada and the US there’s still only two TV shows that centers Asians: Fresh off the Boat and Kim’s Convenience, and only one major movie: Crazy Rich Asians. We discussed who gets access to these forms of representation and who is considered a worthy star and it is still dependent on Western beauty standards. Whiteness is still the gate keeper. AC4 brought up Sandra Oh and how she did not fit beauty standards in the West or the East,
“Sandra Oh maybe? She’s the first Asian Woman I remember seeing or hearing about and even then, I remember thinking she’s not attractive or not conventionally attractive. Or even by Eastern standards of beauty because you see in those Chinese TV shows, they’re terrible, they’re garbage and trash, but in the shows it’s all, I don’t know if they’re Western beauty ideals put onto Asian people or maybe those are their ideals already, is the idea of light skin, high bridged nose, and big eyes, is that Western influence or is that truly what Eastern people find beautiful.”
I wondered if it was a blend of both? AC4 pointed out, “Yeah, so that’s what you see in these Chinese soap operas and then in Western society the first person to come out was Sandra Oh and you were kind of like eh but now it’s interesting how the more we see more faces or see other ideals that changes our perception.” She has a great point; our perception of beauty can only change when we are exposed to more variety and diversity that challenges our preconceptions of what beauty is and those standards and who decides those standards. Beauty standards are a vital part to acceptance because if you fit the standard it is easier to fit in. AC3 went in depth about her struggle with this and how her family contributed to this conditioning of beauty standards,
“I finally started seeing more [representation] but when I was younger there wasn’t much of it and so that definitely played into a lot of my insecurities in terms of physical appearance, in terms of physical traits, in terms of so many different things and it was just a weird space to be in as a child and it’s something you don’t realize affects you until you get older. And then it’s like oh shit, everything I was doing at the time, becoming more Westernized.”
I used the word brainwashing to describe what she shared with me and she agreed, “Yeah and you don’t even realize. Like my mom she’s so brainwashed and it’s no shade to her, she just didn’t know. She’s so, Westernized and she came here when she was nine or ten so she grew up in a white space as opposed to a lot of her older sisters who came here when they were a little bit older and they’re more informed when it comes to Filipino culture but her, herself is not so all of that was ingrained into me.” What does it mean to live in a society where no matter what you do you cannot reach the ideal because it is something completely out of your control? You sometimes attack or scrutinize the things you can and if they are directed back towards yourself that is an act of violence. Jia Ling echoes a similar sentiment in her piece, “Am I Beautiful Now?” Ling speaks candidly about her pain living as an Asian woman inside the confines of whiteness and its standards of beauty. Feelings of unworthiness or that you are ugly because of standards that are designed to put down anyone who is not white is something very real and something I and countless others struggle with but since it is not physical violence, it must be less important right? Ling argues against this idea. She writes,
“Some people believe that people like me ought to step aside and let the ‘real’ victims speak. That set next to ‘real’ concerns — from war, to genocide, to slavery, to rape — my experiences are not worthy because they are not newsworthy. That if I never have been beaten up, mugged, raped, strung up on a tree limb, or nearly gassed in a chamber, then I have nothing else to add.”
We cannot quantify pain, ours or anyone else’s. We should never have to count the ways we shut ourselves out or off for someone else’s benefit or for our pain to be compared to other people’s abuses. The only winners in oppression Olympics are the oppressors. Arguing who has it worse is a zero-sum game. It is possible to help more than one person or community at a time.
It is time to talk about my least favourite set of questions I get asked when meeting new people, “Where are you from? No, where are you really from?” If you do not get asked this question it might seem harmless but the subtext to this question is anything but. I felt it was important to ask my participants this question because I know they are frustrated by it as well. AC4 sums up the subtext well, “What’s being said is why do you look the way you look, and I don’t believe you when you give me your answer that you’re giving me. It doesn’t fit into my world view understanding.”
AC3 adds, “It’s like where did you originate from and it’s like well, I originate from here, I’m sorry? Excuse me, what are you asking me? And it’s something completely or a lot of people who ask that are, just, oblivious to what that question encompasses. If you’re asking that and you don’t really know what it means to a person like us and what that experience is like and [just] how invasive that question is because it is and it’s something none of us must or be obliged to explain that story, especially to white people.”
AC2’s reading of the question is proof of just another thing people of colour have to get through on this continent, “They’re asking you to justify why you’re in that space and trying to figure out how you got there as if you don’t have the same right to be there as the person asking you the question.”
AC1 describes a situation where she was fed up with the question so she forced the person asking her if they understood what they were really asking, I gave him the whole pep talk, wow that’s a shitty question, I don’t understand what you’re trying to ask me, are you trying to ask me about my cultural like values, are you trying to ask me about my ethnic background, are you asking me because you want to get a sense of what my values are or what kind of food I eat.”
All these examples support my idea presented earlier that the phrase Asian Canadian is tied more to identity than ethnicity. Ethnicity is not a stand in for identity but that is what the question, “No, where are you really from?” is trying to reinforce. And for people who ask me if people are just trying to know me better, what I say to them is there are better questions to ask me to get to know me. If a person wanted to truly get to know me, they would not interrogate me asking where I am really from because if a person was genuinely trying to get to know they would not have to. I say this because if you truly are curious about someone and want to get to know them and build a relationship this type of stuff will come up naturally. It will not be a question someone asks me before they even ask me what my name is.
In Hasan Minhaj’s Homecoming King, Hasan talks about the generational differences between his father and himself. One story I will always remember is, Hasan shares a story of how a group of kids smashed their family car’s windows after 9/11. Hasan remembers his dad did not say anything he just swept the glass away and Hasan did not understand and his father told him that this is the price they pay to live in America. Hasan refers to this as an “immigrant tax,” experience some day-to-day racism but have the opportunity to have a better life. Hasan calls his dad out on this idea because he points out he was born in America and it should not matter if he’s Indian or Muslim, he gets all the same rights as any other American. This is one difference between generations illustrated in media but when I asked my participants they also focused on the differences more so than the similarities. AC1 talks about her experience of finding herself when that is a foreign idea in Korean culture which is more communal, “My parents’ generation, the idea of discovering yourself is not a thing. So certainty and conformity and structure and steps are very strong in my parents’ generation but in my generation I’m seeing a little more, honestly not as much as I would like to see, but we’re the first generation especially for Koreans cause they’re so new to globalization, in my generation that is starting to be a little bit of that flexibility of who do you want to be?” She continues to describe what it is like discovering that you have a voice for the first time, “Yeah and trusting the child to figure their shit out while taking risks. I think my generation [there’s] definitely a lot more risk taking, and less survival focused. Honestly, my mom would call me crazy, but I would literally rather die than live a life that I hate. Whereas for my parents, death is not even an option. You live and you [must] have children and whatever. There’s a lot more choice for our generation.” Survival as the focus of the previous generation was a theme that all the participants brought up.
AC2 pointed out in our conversation that our situations and the context around our lives differed so much from our parents. She was kind enough to share her family’s story of immigrating to Canada with me,
“Their whole motive was just to survive and provide for their potential children. Where my mom and my mom’s family, twelve of them came over at once, she’s one of fifteen so when they came over it was either between the US and Canada and Canada [granted] citizenship first. My aunt took everyone who was under eighteen and not married to Canada with her parents, and that’s how they all came over here. My aunt was the first one who left, and she left because she didn’t want to be with her husband at the time because they were living at his parent’s house and they were wealthy Chinese Filipino living in the Philippines, and she told him that if he didn’t leave his parent’s house she’s leaving him. She left him and went to California by herself, didn’t know anyone, she didn’t even have a place to stay. She left and then she knocked on doors and randomly found a Filipino family and lived with them while she applied for jobs and lied that she had citizenship. She ended up finding a good job at a factory and ended up making a bunch of money and she thought that she needed to move her family here because the opportunity’s better here because my uncle who was providing for my family in the Philippines, [he] died in Saudi. and my family became poor in the Philippines. My aunt [decided] she needed to move everyone out of there. Canada accepted first so she took all [my family] on one flight. They all moved into a house in Surrey where my aunt still lives in. There’s twelve of them in a four-bedroom house. they had to make it work. They all lived there but I talked to my aunts or my mom and their lives when they got here was about survival. They didn’t know anyone. Our family friends now are people my Grandpa looked in the phone book for anyone with a Filipino last name. He looked for people with my mom’s last name and there was one family with the same last name. He called them, they happened to be Filipino and they became friends. So that’s how he started to build their community was literally through the phone book. They came here to build a better life for their family. All my aunts and uncles, they’ve been working since they were young. And that was just the way life was.” AC2 admits that she is not sure if she could have survived her mom’s life, but she is unsure if her mom would be able to survive her life. It is a completely different world.
AC2 and AC4 both brought up the privileges we are born into because of the work our parents did. AC2 described it as, “Our parents worked hard so we would not have to worry about the things they did. They don’t want us to suffer in the same ways they had to.” Because of this there is a disconnect between generations because we are in a more privileged starting point and for us to just reach the same level as our parents does not seem like a goal because we start with what they worked towards. Stability is the privilege I am gifted because of my parents.
AC4 argues that to our parents, “Stability is the max. Once you’ve reached it, you’re good.” She argues that since we have that stability it is our responsibility to go further for the next generation. “And then the hope is the next generation will have stability, but they don’t have to deal with the weird trauma shit their parents put them through which is what we [are going] through and then they can unlock another level.” She continues, “I think the more questions each generation asks and more answers that they find puts the next generation at a better starting point. Which I mean is what anybody wants for the future generation. Right? The ideal is you leave everything better off than it was. The more we ask questions the more we are breaking new ground [which means the less work they have do]. Then they can go even further to reach things we don’t even think about or could even comprehend right now because we’re so deep in our stuff.” Recognizing the differences between generations without comparison should be the goal. I have already stated that comparing pain and hardship is a lose-lose situation. Everyone has their difficulties that they face they just manifest themselves in different ways. My parents’ struggles do not invalidate my struggles or vice versa. I think people forget this because when we are going through it that is the only thing we can see. I did not articulate this idea during the interviews because I was too caught up in my own thoughts about the ways we can push our collective goals further, it is only now when I take a step back and reflect that I can see the whole picture. That picture tells a truth and that truth is, I am a part of my family’s struggle. My struggles are my parents’ struggle because they want to help me with mine and my parents’ struggles are my struggles because when they need help, I do want to help them as well. Generations are not divided by walls, they are not chapters that are turned over on top of each other, they exist at the same time and they bleed into one another. No one is tabula rasa, we inherit things from our entire family history and we mix that with our surroundings and we become a product of the world, this more than anything shapes our identity, forget a single phrase or a place of origin, we all move through the world and it becomes a part of us and we make it into whatever we want.
This project is about finding acceptance, not just in a country but also within myself. This project is about finding the connective tissue that is Asian Canadian culture and history. This project is about finding authenticity because as much as the six-year-old me sat in silence as Ms. Repay and my parents discussed what it meant to be Asian Canadian all those years ago, if I had spoke up I would have asked, “Why does me loving basketball a contradiction to being Asian Canadian?” Are Asian Canadians not supposed to love basketball, is there a reason why they are mutually exclusive because there is nothing more genuine to my being than basketball. I realize now that Ms. Repay and my parents were not sure how to handle me because this was entirely new to them. I did not fit the late 90’s idea or version of what it meant to be Asian Canadian. The good news is that as the years have passed that idea does not exist anymore. It did not go away just because time has passed, there is an important distinction to be made between distance and progress, distance is just the passing of time, progress takes work. I am here now, two decades later, I still love basketball, I have a better understanding of Asian Canadian history, and the ball is in my hands now. I would like to believe that at some point during this never-ending process of identity, there’s an acceptance that you do not have to choose between one or the other, both are true, valid, and there’s more than enough space for both because while identity and ethnicity are intertwined, they are not the same thing. I get to decide what Asian Canadian means for me because it is only a part of my identity, it does not define me. When this is true for all Asian Canadians, and they have the agency to decide what the label means without strings and only then will the phrase finally cover everyone who is of Asian descent and lives on this continent.
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