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‘The Longer I Stay Here, The More I Belong’

Chinese Canadians seek greater solidarity as a means to combat colonial stereotypes and build community connections

Deanna Cheng

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Water trickles over a craggy rock structure in a tiny pond outside. Tiles are cool to the touch as incense smoke curls into the air. Colourful yoga mats form a circle as participants fill cups of jasmine tea and file in.

Yoga instructor Irene Lo hosted a workshop series, “Radical Rest: Asian Solidarity,” at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden this past May, during Asian Heritage Month.

Her aim was to provide a space to lead conversations addressing issues within the Chinese diaspora, and for participants to share knowledge and lived experiences. “Diaspora” means the spread of a people from their original homeland to other countries.

“I’m really interested in diasporic conversations,” Lo said. “Talking about what it means to be in solidarity with each other and with peers, including Black and Indigenous communities.”

In her experiences growing up, Lo recalls examples of anti-Blackness within her community that are obvious to her now — tied to how much people, as a community, stick to “whiteness” out of a survival mindset. She believes it doesn’t have to be like that.

Lo said, for her, it’s about breaking free of the model minority myth, which is rooted in white supremacy.

The model minority stereotype divides Asian Canadian communities by pitting them against one another or other communities to compete for who is more “deserving” of rights and opportunities based on their positive behaviour in school, the workplace or society. The standards are set by the dominant white culture in Canada.

“It’s important to have these conversations about what people we’re supporting,” Lo said.

She gives guidance and space on how one can ask community members to do better, and also ask oneself on how to be better as well. Born in Taiwan, Lo came to Canada when she was five years old and grew up in Richmond, Burnaby and Vancouver. She assimilated to Canada quickly, though she is still rooted in her culture and visits Taiwan every so often.

Growing up, she found her mentality and life experiences different from those who immigrated to Canada as teenagers or as adults. That difference captures her attention and curiosity. Within her conversation circles, Lo said participants show up as they are.

While specifics of what’s said is kept private within her workshops, Lo encourages participants to take their learnings outside the circle and apply them to their daily lives.

In addition to her Radical Rest series, Lo is part of a popular chair yoga class that has been going on for a year at the Carnegie Community Centre in Chinatown. It’s available in both Mandarin and English. Thanks to a Give Yoga Back Foundation grant, she is also working with community programmers and organizers in the neighbourhood to bring additional affordable and accessible yoga classes to all, no matter the age.

Chinese diaspora diverse

Two workshop participants recently spoke with Megaphone about what they’d like to see within the Chinese Canadian community. Ryan Iu used to work at the Chinatown Storytelling Centre as a research and program assistant. The 26-year-old historian moved to Canada about 11 years ago. Every summer, he travels back to Hong Kong to visit family.

“Hong Kong is still home,” he said. “Now, I see Canada as my second home.” As a political identity, he recognizes himself as Canadian. “The longer I stay here, the more I belong.”When asked what he would like to see from the Chinese Canadian community, Iu said he wants more support and tolerance from those established here. Immigrant communities already have to learn the culture and language.

One way the diasporic community can help is to involve immigrants in local activities and share knowledge, because immigrants tend to segregate themselves, he said, sticking with what they feel comfortable with in
an unfamiliar environment.

For example, when Iu was in high school, he didn’t know about the history of Indigenous Peoples in Canada— only what was written in textbooks. He didn’t meet any Indigenous Peoples until he started university.

Mindfully, Iu understands that some Chinese Canadians may still feel “alien” in their own country. As a teenager, Iu was fluent in Cantonese but he was put in a transition class where he worked on improving his English. He is proud of his Chinese heritage and is comfortable speaking Cantonese out loud.

Chinese Canadian diaspora evolving

When his classmates called him a “fob,” an acronym short for “fresh off the boat” and typically reserved for new immigrants, Iu thought nothing of it because, on the surface, the definition made sense. Eventually, Iu figured out the term is derogatory, and that bothered him.

“Fob” is a slang term that possibly stems from the Vietnamese refugee boat crisis in the 1970s and ’80s, when people fled Vietnam after the Southern Vietnamese government collapsed. Today, the term has changed to mean someone who recently moved to a new country and hasn’t adjusted to the local culture or customs. They are often identified by how they dress and their English language skills.

Torn between two cultures

While Ariel Zhang understands what Iu means, she also sees diversity as a strength, especially in its richness.

“Being Asian is not a monolith. There are so many histories and journeys.”

This means different possible approaches to any one particular issue. But from what she’s seen and experienced in Metro Vancouver, the community members still share the same values and it’s more about working together. “How we each are part of the community is up to us. It’s all we can really do or ask of each other.”

Born in Vancouver, 26-year-old Zhang is a child of immigrants. She lived in East Vancouver when she was six, but her family always went to Chinatown to get groceries and baked goods. “I remember it being a really great community.” When she turned eight, they moved to Surrey and didn’t visit Chinatown anymore.

When Zhang started university, she reconnected with the community. Today, she volunteers with the youth-led Yarrow Intergenerational Society for Justice, which offers services in Chinatown such as translating documents and going with seniors to medical appointments. Her main duty now is chatting with seniors on the phone to foster connection and combat any sense of loneliness.

Zhang grew up with diaspora angst, which she defines as questioning one’s identity a lot and juggling complicated thoughts: “Where do we fit in society?” This angst includes dealing with pressure her parents put on her and managing their expectations. Sometimes, it’s pressure she puts on herself.

“‘Oh my gosh, my parents sacrificed so much for me so we could come here. I need to do some XYZ to repay them.’ There’s so many complicated feelings, complicated sides.”

For Zhang, growing up, she felt she never really knew who she was and believes others also go through the feeling of wanting to be “Canadian” or “white.”

At the same time, when she called her grandparents, Zhang remembers feeling sad or almost ashamed to be losing her Chinese.

“I couldn’t speak to them in Mandarin anymore,” she said.

As a person of colour and child of immigrants, Zhang felt like she was pulled in many different directions. What Zhang would like to see within the community is more space and opportunities to talk to like-minded people about these feelings and diaspora angst.

She has seen some such gathering in recent years due to the rise in anti-Asian racism but Zhang said this would have been awesome to have been offered in elementary and high school.

Additionally, she brought up Disney’s Turning Red, a movie about a Chinese Canadian teenager navigating puberty and hormonal changes, as an example for a gateway to have conversations about the “taboo” topic of menstruation.

“That was such an amazing movie to start the conversation about what it means to be Asian and living in Canada, and dealing with those topics,” Zhang said.

“As a kid, if I had a movie like that, it would almost make me feel more seen and it would give me the courage to bring it up, either with friends or my parents.”

In these conversations, Zhang said she can witness others and, in turn, be witnessed.

“It just feels so validating and that’s where the healing can really happen.” Ideally, there would also be Asian facilitators, mentors, counsellors and therapists on hand for youth. “It would be someone with similar shared experiences or understanding of these cultural nuances, someone who looks like you,” she said.

When asked about potential barriers, Zhang mentioned two things. The first one is that community members have to be ready to unearth old traumas and feelings.

“The work is hard,” Zhang said, and everyone has to decide for themselves whether they are ready or not. Some people have trouble facing pain, even with support.

The second challenge is funding.

During the pandemic, with the height of anti-Asian racism, she saw a lot of free mental health programs such as group counselling for Asian folks or the Asian community.

Now that COVID-19 is “over,” she has seen fewer resources, despite the fact that racism will always be here and continue into the future.

Zhang feels the government doesn’t give priority to non-profits anymore. For example, the Yarrow organization has to fundraise on its own to support the programs it provides. The conversation about how the Chinese Canadian diaspora is evolving is ongoing. Zhang said it’s complicated and there is no one right answer.

In this day and age, we’re often disconnected and in our own bubbles, Zhang said. She suggests doing what Asian ancestors did, which was share resources and live communally.

Our differences are only a barrier if we let them be, she said.

“It’s more about how we move through our community.”

Depending on tone and context, the term ranges from insulting, to mocking, to dismissive.

Lu points out that other people’s ancestors all started as newcomers who had to face multiple similar hardships. He would like the diasporic community to have more patience and communication when it comes to these interactions, and to slow down and be willing to learn from each other.

For example, “I don’t consume the same media or pop culture so it was hard to understand slang or certain topics,” lu said.

Lu observed how people were treated based on how well they spoke English, and anyone with an accent seemed almost second class compared to native speakers, even within the Chinese Canadian community.

Granted, Iu said, one main barrier to better relations is that the Chinese diaspora is extremely diverse, with personal histories that stem from places such as Taiwan, Hong Kong and China.

“There’s different kinds of Chinese,” he acknowledged. Lu would love to see different identities within the Chinese Canadian community come together to support and grow together.

Today, Lu speaks English fluently but continues to see how people treat native English speakers versus someone with accented English.

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Deanna Cheng


Deanna Cheng (she/her) is a first-generation born Chinese Canadian and freelance journalist who is often trying to figure out the power gaps between her and the next person. She is based in the unceded territory of the Squamish, Musqueam and Tsleil-Waututh Nations — "unceded" meaning the land was never signed away by the Indigenous Peoples inhabiting them. To Deanna, this means she exists in four nations simultaneously and she is part of the settler society.

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