BY: CINDY WANG
Before last year, I never really talked about the Asian Canadian experience. To me, it was only a label, no big deal.
I grew up in an apartment complex in a large city neighbouring Toronto, Ontario. It was the perfect balance of comfort and familiarity and vibrant, city life. Having been raised there before the influx of East Asian immigrants in the area several years later, I grew up largely without seeing many East Asians. However, this city was still culturally diverse and remains so today. Of course, I got to see some fellow Chinese Canadians on weekends when I went further into the city for my usual round of Chinese school, math classes, and piano lessons.
Even so, I never had a reason to explore my Chinese side beyond the language and the food, and even with what I knew, I never truly felt in touch with being “Asian.” I speak English with friends, classmates, teammates, teachers, and sometimes, even with my parents. My proficiency in the Chinese language lags behind my cousins and most of my Chinese school friends. I probably can’t even name half of the Chinese food that I eat at restaurants or home. Every time I spoke with my relatives, I felt more and more like an outsider. I was pushed to get in touch with my roots, but outside of having those roots, I had almost nothing in common with my relatives.
However, in Canada, it’s clear that I didn’t belong as well. When I moved to a smaller, neighbouring town and began attending a predominately white school, my ethnic features became the punch lines of jokes and I was assumed to be non-proficient in my first language. It wasn’t only unfortunately apparent that I was not truly Canadian, but even more apparent that I was not truly Chinese. Many of the few Chinese international students gravitated towards me because they thought I was like them. However, they were soon disappointed by how I was not in-tune with my Chinese side.
Regardless, I never thought about it too much. To eight-year-old me, my background had nothing to with anything. I was optimistically naive, and I never knew that my culture, ethnicity, or race could impact my life in any way. Maybe at the back of my mind, I felt something was missing. But nothing happened until I moved to a school with a large East Asian population two years later.
Middle school was, for the lack of a better word, surreal. For the first time, there were large numbers of Asian Canadians like myself. I never told anyone, but I was secretly happy about it on the night of my first day of school.
As I met new people and became friends with those who had similar backgrounds to me, I realized something had been missing, and this was my opportunity to make amends. It was here that I realized my race and culture were the sources of several struggles I had difficulty putting a finger on. But it was also here that I realized my race and culture could also be a source of pride and celebration, a collection of shared experiences that we could laugh and bond over. At the same time, I noticed the line that existed between my white friends and me. Most of them had never and will never experience having their parents looked down upon for being first-generation Chinese immigrants, for giving up on finding products and tutorials made for their features, and for always being assumed to come from a foreign country. The stories that I couldn’t tell my non-Asian friends were the ones that brought me closer to my Asian friends.
These interactions inspired me to finally begin realizing that “Asian Canadian” meant more than just a label. I began discovering Asian American/Canadian YouTube channels whose niche circled Asian culture and the experience, exploring stories through the Asian American lens. As most YouTube binges go, I would watch one video and then click on another. And then another. And another. These videos made me laugh and discover new feelings surrounding my cultural identity.
Whether I even knew it or not, I started branching out and discovering more Asian creatives. I began expanding my playlist to include more Asian artists such as those from 88rising and within the K-pop genre, and watching films with Asian actors such as Gemma Chan. As a young teen who loved music and filmmaking, I finally felt visible. Eventually, one morning, I felt closer to and more immersed with my Asian identity than I had ever been in my entire life (which, to be honest, is a little sad given how surface level this all is).
And then (cue the cliches), the pandemic occurred.
Despite my awakening that I am not only Canadian but Asian Canadian, I still didn’t care to dive deeper beyond this. I held prejudiced thoughts against my motherland country driven by Western media, I didn’t care for the history of my homeland nor the history of being Asian Canadian, and I never acknowledged the many issues that impact and otherize my community every day. My understanding of Asian identity was limited to surface-level struggles and tied to commodity products; I only cared for Asian representation in the movies I watched and music I listened to, watching YouTube videos that displayed our common experiences and keeping up with popular Asian foods and trends. To me, these were what made up Asian identity.
But when quarantine began and I had more time on my hands than ever before, I discovered the rapidly increasing rise in anti-Asian violence and hate crimes driven by COVID-19 and political rhetoric. As I read more and more about incidents of racial slurs being hurled around, Asians being threatened, and elders being violently assaulted and attacked, I was quarantined at home not knowing what to do. With every passing day, I felt more lost and exhausted. Was this really what my community faced? Were my struggles not just limited to media representation and the model minority myth?
And there I was -- back at square one.
I didn’t know what I was searching for anymore. Did I just want friends who would understand my jokes and share relatable experiences? Did I just want to be associated with a community? Or is it more than that?
I was stuck. But the questions kept me up late at night.
One morning, that itchy feeling of having to do something began taking over me. I began diving deeper into Asian identity beyond Western representation and the effects of the model minority myth. I discovered how imperialism still wrecks my homeland to this day, the lack of South Asian visibility, how deportations and ICE affect my community, the wealth disparity, colorism, the fetishization of Asian women due to sexual imperialism, how Western propaganda created sinophobic views that contribute to the rise in the anti-Asian violence today, and much, much more. It’s also had the side effect of making me more conscious of my identity and its place in society, how my race, my ethnicity, and my culture have impacted my own life beyond the slant-eye jokes and the lunchbox moment.
The more I discovered and unveiled, the more that yearning for solidarity and conversation began to grow. One summer morning, while being bored out of my mind due to quarantine, an idea popped into my head - what if I created a platform that could get more Asian voices and stories out there? A platform where the next generation of Asians, whoever they are and wherever they may be, can talk about their struggles and advocate for issues. A place where we can showcase the creative works tied to identity and spotlight the leaders of today to inspire more Asian youth to go after what they want. A community where we encourage people to speak out while celebrating all things Asian.
My story began with surface-level solidarity and moved on to diving into something more. We need to begin fighting for more than just representation and breaking stereotypes, and not basing our advocacy on validation from Western society. We need to recognize the importance of standing in solidarity with our homelands, of exploring our history, of the many issues that affect less privileged people within our community, and the need for BIPOC solidarity as we advocate for these issues. However, recognizing more surface-level experiences such as the lunchbox moment and stereotypes are still just as important, because, for many, it was the catalyst for recognizing the role that racial and cultural identity plays in our lives. All of these nuanced stories must be shared.
My story is familiar on the surface and shared by many, which I am thankful for because it reminds us we are never alone. But I also know that my story is uniquely mine: it is a reflection of my journey from naiveness to shame to reconciliation, and eventually, pride, a lifelong trip filled with the internal struggles only I will understand.
Everyone has a story to tell, but not everyone says it. Some stop themselves because of the feeling of the story not being unique enough, some have no place to share it, and others don’t think it’s significant enough that they do. But when we show up to share our stories, we create a space for others to share theirs with us. By sharing some of the most vulnerable parts of our lives, there is a space for growth, learning, and forgiveness. It allows others in our community to identify with us and motivates them to share what they must say as well. We must tell our experiences to make our voice heard and create change.
I want to remind the Asian community, particularly youth like myself, that there’s always room for more perspectives and that we need your voices out there. Your story is individual, and no matter what, others need to hear it. I want to create a platform that allows people to do so, a space I wish I had a few years ago.
And so, I created.
Since July 17, 2020, I have been working on Next GenerAsian with the help of two of my friends, which we launched a week later. I hoped that by dedicating this platform to the next generation of Asians everywhere, I can inspire youth with stories of their own to find the courage to speak up. By no means are any of us the perfect voice for the Asian community, but nothing will happen if we continue to stay silent about our experiences and go on with our day. If they refuse to listen, we must make our voices heard.
For the first time, I consider my Asian Canadian identity not just a label, but a statement to others, one to be loud and proud about. I’m not content to simply be a bystander, but an active voice in the community.
This is my story surrounding Asian identity, one that will continuously remain to be written.
And I hope one day, you’ll get to share yours as well.