The Asian Canadian
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The Asian Canadian

“Where Are You Really From?” A Project by Anita Cheung

“It was something that both acted as a point of connection and solidarity, as well as a point of exclusion”

I remember the first time I was able to identify myself as anything other than just Chinese was in Grade 4 when I took my first trip with my family to Malaysia and Hong Kong. Growing up until that point people assumed I was just Chinese, I didn’t question it. My family went for Dim Sum most weekends, I went to Chinese school on Saturdays, and my grandma who lived with us at the time only spoke Cantonese. I never knew that my dad was Chinese Malaysian or that my mom was Pakistani Chinese. It’s not something that was ever discussed or corrected. My feeling about it now is that it’s easier for people to assume that I’m just Chinese. I wouldn’t even know how to explain what or where Malaysia or Pakistan was to kids in my elementary school much less how it tied into my identity. People are confused by it now when I’m asked, “Where am I really from?” or “What are you?” To this day I don’t think I’ve met another person who is Chinese-Malay-Pakistani-Canadian.

This is one of the privileges of being white, they don’t have to explain who they are. Any mix of European countries is accepted and understood immediately. Growing up in Calgary and hanging out with predominantly white people I would be the only one out of my friends who were ever asked the follow up question, “But where are you really from?” or sometimes, “What are you?” It didn’t bother me as much back then as it does now.

It took me a long time to realize the question “Where are you really from?” is as much as personal question as it is systemic and institutional. The question isn’t ever the first question, it is a follow up to the question, “Where are you from?” Being a person of colour I don’t have the privilege of having an answer that is considered good enough for non-POC. When I answer white people, “I’m from Calgary,” the conversation never ends there. I’ve always been asked, “But where are you really from?” as if my skin colour prevents me from actually being from there. The subtext to “Where are you really from?” is you don’t belong wherever your first answer is. The truth of this country we call Canada, historically, is Asian Canadians, particularly Chinese Canadians are not welcomed here from Head taxes on Chinese immigrants, to the Chinese Exclusion Act, and even back to the first Prime Minister Sir John A. Macdonald’s Electoral Franchise Act that took the voting rights of Mongolian and Chinese. These things matter because it shapes the framework, the systems, and ideas that shape our institutions and how we think about Canada today. How does this change?

I’m proud and jealous of Anita Cheung’s project where are you really from? where she photographs 21 women of colour living in the greater vancouver area. Each woman shares their experience of being a visible minority in a supposed multicultural space. They talk about their insecurities, the moment they realized they are a person of colour, and stories and experiences growing up and how that has impacted their lives today. After spending this week listening, reflecting, and digesting I realized that there are similar beats and stories shared between all these women but their experiences are not the same. The stories are funny, insightful, and uncomfortable. I’m grateful to Anita for giving these women a platform to share their experiences, frustrations, and a place in a context that is exclusionary by design. My biggest takeaway from it is that we must be careful to throw assumptions of a shared experience onto communities of colour just because people ate the same dish growing up doesn’t mean the circumstances for those dishes are the same. Anita’s project gives WOC a story beyond the simple question of “Where are you really from?” The story behind the answer is the most important thing.

Go check the project out for yourself and take your time with it. If you want to know more about it and hear what inspired it listen to a podcast Anita did with Kayley Reed on the Self-Care Sunday Podcast below.

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