The process of understanding my racial identity has been a process of relearning. Relearning Mandarin, something that I never bothered studying seriously, opting instead for French, German, Spanish. Relearning words, understanding how descriptors like ‘high-achieving’, ‘model minority’ and ‘success story’ serve to ignore and thus erase real experiences of oppression and disadvantage. Most of all it has meant relearning a history, or rather discovering a new one: being made aware of gaps I never knew existed and then filling those gaps with new names, new events, new struggles. It has meant looking for stories less frequently told, finding interwoven threads of exclusion and internment, of ethnic enclaves and landownership rights, of being called over and then pushed out. It has been a process equal parts frustrating and fulfilling, as I’ve begun to understand and now to claim a history and identity as my own.
However, what has complicated that relearning is the ever-present question of whether that history is mine to claim. Though much of my understanding of my racial identity has happened while I was an undergraduate in the US, I consider myself more Canadian than American. I grew up in Toronto to Chinese immigrant parents, and particularly in the four years at university where I found myself surrounded by the United States’ unique and aggressive brand of nationalism, I was proud to affirm myself as Canadian, quick to differentiate and define my own national identity. And so at every instance that I identify myself as ‘Asian American’, whether it is on a survey asking my race, or discussions of racial politics, I always feel like a bit of an imposter, and hope that my solidarity with the first half of the term will override any misgivings about the second. Still, Asian American is the term I use, in large part because I haven’t found a suitable alternative, a label that captures both my racial and national identities.
In thinking about why that is, I have found it important to understand the differences in the ways that the US and Canada understand race and ethnicity. While the US defines racial relations largely in terms of Blackness and Whiteness, and ascribes to broad racial categories like Asian American (which in full also includes Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders), Canada since the 1970s has formally embraced and celebrated a policy of multiculturalism that centres on ethnic-cultural identities and often specific national identities. ‘Race’ as a category simply isn’t used or discussed in Canada as it is in the US, and there is much more emphasis on individual ethnic groups preserving and maintaining their cultural identities. Put overly simply, while I could be Asian American in the US, I was Chinese Canadian in Canada.
There is value in this perspective, certainly. One could argue that it is more specific and thus more accurate: given the broad range of histories and experiences that are included in the term ‘Asian American,’ there is a real danger of it being overly homogenizing, and of certain dominant perspectives driving the way the group as a whole is viewed and understood. Still, there is something about identifying as ‘Asian’ that draws me in, reflects my experiences more fully than I believe the term ‘Chinese Canadian’ can. I think that comes from the particular boundaries of the term. While the danger of being overly general is certainly real, the term ‘Asian American’ also emphasizes points of commonality across different Asian ethnic groups, and allows for solidarity and partnerships to be built across communities that can all consider themselves Asian. Indeed, what drew me most to identifying as Asian American in the first place was a connection to a political community that had a history, that had traditions of organizing and participation in a struggle for liberation and justice. Moreover, it was a history and an identity that explicitly saw race – not just ethnicity and national origin – as an important factor in shaping a person’s experience. Ideas of hypersexualized Asian women and desexualized Asian men, of perpetual foreignness and threats to American (or Canadian) values, are not specific to Chinese, Korean, or Indian ethnic groups; these are ideas that come out of the ways that these groups are racialized. It’s not only important that I am Chinese and Canadian, but also that I am Asian. Unfortunately, Canada’s adherence to multiculturalism makes confronting that reality difficult, as it chooses to not even see race as a category with which its residents can align themselves, and which shapes the Canada that they live in.
My acceptance of the term ‘Asian American’ is thus driven by a desire to connect with a political identity that specifically mobilizes around issues of race and racial inequality. That was something that I saw happening in the US and not in Canada, and so I latched myself onto it and claimed it as my struggle. What I’m seeing now, however, is that I may have been a little too hasty. Having to reconcile my identification as ‘Asian American’ with my identification as ‘Canadian’ has meant that I am starting to learn about similar traditions of racial organizing within Asian communities in Canada. The term Asian Canadian, for instance, has gained some traction in recent decades, coming from the formation of the Asian Canadian Coalition and the Asian Canadian Experience photography exhibition in the University of British Columbia in the 1970s. As Xiaoping Li describes in her book Voices Rising, it was then taken on by various cultural groups and projects, including the magazine Asianadian, who sought to develop an Asian-Canadian consciousness among its readership. At the local level there are also numerous examples of Asian Canadian communities organizing for their own rights in the face of racism and marginalization: in my own hometown, residents organized to prevent the demolishing of a large portion of Toronto’s Chinatown, and workers’ rights movements in Vancouver heavily engage Asian Canadian communities there.
And so, I undergo a second stage of relearning, understanding my ‘Asian-ness’ in Canada, I once again find myself encountering histories and stories of ongoing struggle that I haven’t seen, that have been left out of my understanding of both my Asian and Canadian identity. These stories have been particularly difficult to uncover as a result of Canada’s unwillingness to confront race as a defining identity category, focusing instead on ethnicity and culture, but these stories are there. Not only that, but they can be drawn together to illuminate the ways that race – both in the US and Canada – draws lines of inequality and disadvantage across groups of people, and allows for those experiencing that to come together. That is the power of the term Asian American that so attracted me, and the power that the Asian Canadian identity, if it grows, can have. For while all this discussion of terminology and labels may seem purely semantic, what ‘Asian American’ and now ‘Asian Canadian’ mean is that I and others like me can connect to a growing body of voices, diverse in origin but unified in struggle, calling for change.
Writing: Marc Shi
Illustration: Elizabeth Matus
Marc is a Toronto-born grad student interested in working at the intersections of race and health.