There’s a moment early on in the COVID-19 pandemic that I’ll think back to whenever I decide to reflect on this black void of a time. It had been only a couple of days since the lockdowns were announced in March of 2020, and I found myself in a Shoppers picking up some items. As I made my way towards the cash, I stopped in my tracks. At the intersection of the aisles stood two white men who were also making their way to the cash. I was at an impasse. I stared at them, unsure if I had the right of way; the two of them staring back at me, then briefly at each other, but mostly at me.
In my mind, it seemed like an issue of etiquette. We were giving each other plenty of space, in keeping with physical distancing at the time. Or at least that was my reasoning. I had no idea what was going through their heads. Irritation was written across their faces, but I couldn’t tell if it was for the circumstances, or for me. After all, I was only Asian there, in the middle of a Shoppers, at the start of the pandemic that began in China. Guilty by several degrees of loose association.
Five seconds went by, and nothing came of it. I paid for my stuff and left. Five seconds seems absurd to obsess over, but it stuck with me. I didn’t tell anyone about it because I didn’t feel the need to make sense of it. I fully understand that there could be nothing to it at all, but I ask you to understand the concerns I was feeling.
Later on, reports would confirm that anti-Asian hate crimes were on the rise. Consider the fact that hate crimes are already under-reported. Many Asian-owned businesses saw their customer base shrink drastically. In the arena of politics, questions around China-Canada relations have been used as a cudgel on issues, and a dog whistle for bigots hiding their racism behind rhetoric.
Thankfully, I hadn’t had to deal with any outright hate, having stayed mostly inside, avoiding people, at the cost of several pairs of pants and an increasing waistline. But this issue of anti-Asian hate stuck with me. I literally had skin in the game. And Asian hate wasn’t going to disappear anytime soon, even when the pandemic subsides. I ended up having several conversations with some Asians in the community for this story.
Ying Shirley Guo
On March 16, 2021, a shooter went on a killing spree at three separate massage parlors in the Atlanta, Georgia area. Of the eight people killed that day, six were of Asian descent. The suspect was a white man from Woodstock, Georgia. He was charged with eight counts of murder, and one count of aggravated assault.
For many in the Asian communities, the attack was a clear example of anti-Asian hate. One that was wrapped up in racist misogynist views of Asian women. Various media outlets reported on the man’s interviews with police, where he described his actions as a result of a “sex addiction” and how it conflicted with his religious beliefs. During a press conference, a sterling example of the police force said that the suspect just had a “really bad day.” Internet sleuths and journalists later found he had Facebook posts promoting shirts that called the coronavirus an “IMPORTED VIRUS FROM CHY-NA,” echoing the racist rhetoric of the American president at the time.
Following the Atlanta shootings, the Waterloo Chinese-Canadian Association (WCCA) would go on to hold an online panel to discuss the issue and what could be done. CTV NEWS Kitchener was the only one to really report on it. The hour-long panel condensed down to just two quotes by the two mayors of Kitchener and Waterloo, both white. Not even a word from MP Bardish Chagger, who was part of the panel. Suffice it to say, but big oof there.
I ended up reaching out to the WCCA to chat and spoke with Ying Shirley Guo, a committee member. She was part of the early discussions about what they were going to do as a community about anti-Asian hate. She seemed very excited to be able to talk about this at length and in detail. It was a lot to take in, but then again, this was a first for them; the pandemic and the upswell of anti-Asian racism. She described the lead-up to the panel as being very worrisome, as some members were concerned that speaking up may cause more issues for the community.
“If we go to the town square and we hold up a sign that says stop anti-Asian hate, what if those people reading that are anti-Asian, they’re going to come and do something bad,” Ying told me over the phone. “And what if we do something and people use it against us.”
“We’re just speaking up about inequality. That’s just not fair on us,” I said. These were the concerns of a community that came to mind. That protecting ourselves could be seen as an imposition on others. Meanwhile, many of them were also dealing with the pandemic in their own lives, along with family living back in China.
“It’s hard to talk about in the first place. In Canada, a lot of people think that we’re the guests in somebody else’s home, and we should be quiet and we should be passive,” she said. Nevertheless, the WCCA reached the conclusion that something had to be done for the sake of their community, which led to the panel.
Professor Changboa Wu from the University of Waterloo was also involved. He had conducted a survey with the WCCA members about anti-Asian hate. While Wu noted the small sample size was small, it did line up with larger surveys conducted across Canada. Just over a hundred members participated in the survey. One-in-four (28.8%) had experienced or witnessed racism while living in Canada. Just 13.5 per cent haven’t experienced it personally, but knew friends or acquaintances who have. Over half (56.7%) of respondents said they didn’t experience any, but had heard stories through the media.
Here are some written responses were also submitted:
“It happened near Galt in Cambridge. Two bigger and taller boys blocked the way of an Asian girl and yelled, ‘Go back to China.’ She was able to get away after her friend’s mother intervened.”
“I was literally told by a hiring manager the reason my application was rejected is that ‘there are already too many Asians.’”
“At the beginning of the pandemic, when I was wearing a mask and shopping at the Costco, a mid-aged white woman looked at me and said, ‘You are sick, and go away.’”
According to a 2020 Angus Reid survey, 43 per cent of Canadians of Chinese ethnicity reported being threatened or intimidated as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Compare that to a 2021 Angus Reid survey, which collected the responses of Canadians of any Asian descent. In the last year, a majority (58%) of respondents said they experienced at least one incident of anti-Asian discrimination, while one-in-four (28%) reported that they faced discrimination “all the time” or “often”.
A Waterloo Collegiate Institute student was also featured during the panel, sharing her encounter with racism. A woman called her and her friends COVID during a trip to Killarney Park. Ying also works as a Waterloo Region District School Board teacher and told me she’d heard stories from Asian students who lost friends due to their race. The thought that Asian kids will be carrying these experiences with them, hurts me to no end. Ying told me about the worries she had for her own children.
“My kids, they don’t even speak Chinese that well. They are learning, but they’re definitely Canadian, and I told them, you walk on the street you are Chinese, Chinese Canadian or whatever. You look Asian. We still have to be careful. And I think it’s a struggle for people who have been here a long time, who were born here. They have to really find their identities. They don’t speak good Chinese. On the outside we look just like Asians, and then people walk by, they don’t know. They just see you as who you are on the surface,” she said.
Ying also shared that they had originally intended for some of their senior members to ask questions. However, they chose not to in the end. There’s a generational gap, according to Ying.
“My generation, a lot of people from China or have been living here tried to make things go away by ignoring it. You hear this ‘Oh don’t be too sensitive. It’s okay, it will go away. It will never happen again,’ but that’s not the reality,” she said. I told her about my own experience at the Shoppers.
“Whenever I was in stores, I got weird looks here and there. And I can never tell if that was because they’re trying to keep space, or because I was Asian,” I said.
“I remembered the time I had to take a bus to go to the teacher’s college. When I stepped on, the bus driver said, ‘no, I’m not selling you a ticket. The bus is full.’ So I went off, and then I saw the other girl, who was a white girl. She went up and he sold the ticket to her,” Ying said. Then there’s her substitute assistant friend whose been dealing with discrimination as well. Despite being more qualified than others, she’s not getting the same amount of work. It felt cathartic to share our experiences. On the other hand, it underscores the horrible fact that it happens so often.
In recent times, two homes owned by Asian families were vandalized. Rocks with hate-filled messages attached to it were hurled through their window. A Chinese realtor in the region saw a sign of hers vandalized. In Guelph, a man hurled racial epithets at an Asian woman. Police gave a stern warning, but did nothing until it came to their attention that it wasn’t a one-time incident. And these were just the incidents that made the news.
Ying said the WCCA were offering their members seminars and other panels on how to protect themselves. They were also in the process of developing some sort of app to help members file incident reports much easier. The biggest obstacle for members was the language barrier, so this app would help bridge that gap. Barring that, it comes down to the younger generation.
“We’re definitely counting on the younger ones because they speak better English, they are familiar with the Canadian culture, they know how to make a voice out. Even when the seniors, they certainly want to speak up, they need a representative, somebody can actually be able to get the words out because they don’t speak English. So that’s the challenge.”
I’m sitting in the empty parking lot of the Landmark Cinema with my friend one evening. Movie theatres were still shut down at this point in the pandemic, except for takeout popcorn and snacks. But that’s not why we’re here.
Ever since I mentioned to them that I was writing something on Stop Anti-Asian Hate, they were eager to lend their voice. It’s been a topic that’s been sitting heavy on their mind, ever since an incident just before the onset of the pandemic.
Kypp, 22, a friend I’ve known since college, who has come to accept me as a brother from another mother. In turn, I continue to acknowledge their existence about once a week and drive them around when they need a ride.
They lived alone with their cat and were fully vaccinated, while I had just gotten my first dose. We already considered each other as part of the same pandemic social circle, so we felt safe taking the car out for some air. After a quick stop for some Frappuccinos, we were sitting in the empty parking lot taking in the night air. I turn on my recorder.
“You’ve been bugging me for some time, ever since I told you I wanted to do this story in the first place,” I said.
“Big bugging,” they said, “there’s not many people in my group of people who want to talk about it or they just don’t understand because they’re not Asian themselves.”
“Yeah, sometimes it’s just hard to explain what it is,” I said.
“There’s so many people that stand up for other racial injustices, but for some reason people get really touchy and weirded out when you talk about Asian hate,” they said. In their circles, just broaching the topic was met with dismissive responses. I was one of the only Asian people they knew that they could speak to. This conversation was a chance to vent to someone who got it.
I would have felt honoured if it weren’t for the fact that even I felt a little out of my league talking about these issues. I lacked the academic language that I tend to hear people throw around in these types of conversations. Microaggressions, for example, I tend to refer to as being “low-key assholery.”
At the very least, I was about as versed as needed to be in the given situation. For Kypp, the past year or so got them to really reflect on what it meant to be Asian. You see, Kypp was adopted. Their parents, both white, had brought Kypp over to Canada at six-months-old. They’ve never really had a chance to connect with their background. In fact, 2020 was supposed to be the year I took them to their first Chinese New Year, which sadly was canceled on account of COVID (their first Pride too, also canceled).
What really pushed them to have this conversation with me was an earlier incident while they were getting their bus pass.
“And then someone called you out, just for talking about the virus,” I said.
“I was getting my bus pass and someone called me out, and was like, ‘there’s other problems in the world, why are you bitching about this one.’ They were comparing other racial injustices to Asians like, ‘We just had this one, so why are you complaining.’ Because I’m Asian and I don’t want any person of color to get beaten up.”
So that’s a different incident altogether that they never told me about before. It’s never a good thing when you have to start clarifying which racist incident you’re talking about.
“I remember the one where someone was walking past and they blamed you for the virus.”
“Yeah, someone brushed past me and was like, ‘Chinese people bringing the…’ I don’t know if I should say it, but like the ‘c***k virus.’ They said that.”
Nothing physical happened at the time, but I recalled them telling me how they just felt stunned and outed. The people in line with them showed concern, but the man went on with his day, and walked away. I knew that incident had weighed heavy on their mind because when it first happened, they vented to me several times whenever we hung out. That was in the early days of the pandemic, and now it’s become one of several incidents in Kypp’s mind.
When they rode the bus before, they mostly had to worry about the random whims of Grand River Transit and its schedule changes. Now if they so much as clear their throat, they’re met with comments about COVID and the Chinese.
“Going back, it’s like I’ve been facing racism at such a young age because I’m adopted. I don’t look like my parents and the kids at school would make that very obvious,” they said. “When I was a kid, I didn’t really understand racism, like I didn’t really know what it was but I knew I was a minority.”
“It made you feel bad, nevertheless,” I said.
“I remember how I got mad at this one girl when I was in school. I was young. I know this can probably be taken out of context, but um,” they said. “She was bullying me and making fun of me saying I should go back to my own country because my eyes were slanted. And I pulled on her scarf a little bit too hard,” they laughed.
For context, they were in grade four at the time. They told me this story before. Apparently, the school banned scarves afterwards.
“It wasn’t a Ted Bundy choke,” they laughed. “Sorry, been watching those serial killer crime docs.” Yes, I am very much aware that my friend is hot garbage. Hot garbage who wears slippers that look like fish; who unironically loves Cats the Musical the Movie; who recently wrote a comedy song called “Asian Persuasion” that touched on themes about racism. No, they had not displayed any musical talent before this.
Our conversation would ramble on for over half an hour, covering various topics and personal stories they wanted to get off their chest. One thing stuck out.
“Stop Asian hate has made me feel like I’m not Asian enough,” they said. “I’ve been teased by my white friends that I love white people things, like Starbucks and all that jazz.”
Well, there certainly is that stereotype of white women liking Starbucks, but I wouldn’t describe Kypp as being “basic.” Hot garbage for sure, but not basic. Nevertheless, I understood the sentiment. I had a certain level of hesitancy in pursuing this story. I was using my voice to represent the Asian community on some level, but I don’t feel as if I’m the best person for it. I speak – at best – an almost pigeon version of Vietnamese, and my Chinese is next to non-existent. I didn’t have the firmest grip on my culture. I wasn’t connected to any local Asian community organization. And like Kypp, I didn’t really have any Asian friends (outside of some Indians of course). What right did I have to speak out for my people?
“It’s like – connecting to Black Lives Matter movement – I was speaking with one of my Black friends who, when we were doing the Black Lives Matter march, said that they didn’t feel Black enough.”
What do I say in this moment? To be Black or Asian is not the totality of our identities, but they nevertheless represent such crucial aspects of ourselves. I can’t speak to the Black experience, which while it carries some similarities, also contains its own set of nuances.
“The thing you’ve described is much more common than you think. The two of us are part of that Asian diaspora,” I responded. Not the greatest answer, but it’s always nice to know you’re not alone. Hopefully, that question doesn’t come up again. Or at very least, I hope I have an answer by then.
“I remember back in high school, the joke was, you know, I wasn’t a good Asian because I didn’t get the best grades,” I said.
“Yeah, I wasn’t good at math. I was good at English.” they said.
“And you know it’s a bit of a joke,” I continued, “but it also kind of touches a bit of a sore spot of how we see ourselves. With you especially. You were never really given that opportunity to gain that culture that a lot of Asian parents would try to pass down. You were never forced into any language school, for example.”
“I was kind of envious how I wasn’t really forced into anything,” they said. “I feel like learning a different language or learning my cultural language would make me feel more Asian and more valid. Not saying I don’t feel valid now, but if I did know my own language or at least something like more about my culture that I would feel more Asian than what I do today.”
“It’s a hole that you need to fill,” I said.
“I used to have more Asian friends but we kind of lost touch because life goes on,” Kypp said. “But it’s the stop Asian hate movement, like I said, it’s made me so racially aware, more racially aware than I have ever been in my life span.
“Like, when it’s your own race you just feel so different. The amount of people that were quiet during stop Agent hate scared me though. No one was talking about it. I was the only one that was talking about it. Yeah, my Facebook wall has never been so empty.”
Jannell Lo is a local food blogger and chef whose name started making the rounds in April. She had started a fundraising campaign around making dumplings as a way to combat anti-Asian racism. Donations went directly to Asian organizations across the country to provide support. It was March 14 when she announced her “Dump the Hate” fundraiser on Instagram. Two days later, the Atlanta spa shootings occurred.
As the discourse around anti-Asian hate took over the new cycle, her fundraiser started to go viral. She had people from across Canada asking her how they can get involved. Eventually, word of her fundraiser reached newsrooms, and journalists started reaching out to her for the story.
Months later, I reached out to follow up on the campaign and her thoughts on what could be done about anti-Asian hate. She was open to talking about Dump the Hate, but wasn’t sure if she’d be good to talk about the latter. A weekend of tough conversations with the in-laws about racism had drained her energy.
That was a side of the conversation that wasn’t covered by the media, and I was interested in covering it. I wrote to her saying, often, stories like hers are treated as just a feel-good kicker story, and that I wanted to approach it with more nuance. It was a perspective that Jannell appreciated. About a week later, I called her on the phone.
Jannell described the early days of the fundraiser as being hectic with the media.
“They gave me maybe like two hours of notice, told me they needed a story for tomorrow,” she said. “It was overwhelming just being asked to dig through my experiences and dig through those traumas that have shaped me into who I am, that have shaped me and like – in a way – prompted me to start Dump the Hate.
“I feel like there’s a lot of pressure from these new sources. For example, there are other people reaching out to me asking like I know how the community can come together and fight racism. That in itself is such a loaded question, like you see so many books on that one topic, and it’s like, I don’t know how I can sum it all up in like one paragraph,” she said.
“Well, if we had an answer, we wouldn’t be in this situation,” I said. Admittedly, many white people do seem to be under the impression that repeating that one famous quote from Martin Luther King’s I Have A Dream speech would end racism if just enough people heard it.
“It was all just such an incredible whirlwind and also a very, a little bit overwhelming, but in a good way,” Jannell told me. The fundraiser ended up making over 38,000 dumplings while raising over $100,000 in the process. It’s also now running indefinitely, so if you’re interested in getting involved or donating to the cause, I’ll leave a link here. There’s also some Dump the Hate merch being sold for charity; in case you’re interested in a pair of dumpling earrings.
“I just didn’t expect that to become this voice, and even now I feel like I’m not the most qualified speaker,” she said.
“I feel the same way at times, and a friend of mine feels the exact same way,” I said. It felt good to hear that I wasn’t alone in feeling a bit inexperienced in this. “This is an interesting new conversation that we’re being flung into,” I said.
“I actually think what happened throughout all this – personally – was that there was a lot of internal work that was done,” Jannell said. “I ended up questioning a lot of the shame I put on myself in the past for being different.” That shame turned to empowerment for her. As Dump the Hate grew, and the community grew, she grew alongside it. Our conversation turned to her in-laws, and more broadly, the community. Her husband’s background is white Canadian, and has been very open and accepting of her Chinese background.
“But then like having all these situations and moments where they’re like, small microaggressions, or comments that – not just within the family – within their community that they don’t realize that they don’t necessarily know enough or they don’t necessarily know better,” she said. “In the past before. I feel like I would have just brushed off comments like internalized everything. It just added to my shame, but now I feel like I’ve gotten to a place where I can be more open share more about myself and not feel like I need to suppress who I am in order to conform to this new environment that I’ve been put into the last 10 years.”
You’re being asked to carry a lot of weight that they don’t even recognize in the first place,” I said.
“Exactly,” she said. Jannell was undertaking a lot of tough conversation lately, but it was the first step to trying to address racism.
“Even with your loved one about how they can give you space. Or how some comments end up affecting how you feel about yourself. Just being more open, allowing yourself to not hide anymore, is a big part of it, but that does take a lot of work and mental capacity to be able to step into that role,” she said. Jannel also noted that it can’t just be people of colour having these tough conversations. It’s not our job. White people have to be able to have these conversations themselves.
In my mind, it’s always this weird back-and-forth. It’s a sentiment that has popped up a number of times when speaking to different minority groups. I have my doubts a person could just easily Google something and there isn’t a chance of ending up completely misinformed. Social media has shown how easily misinformation spreads. Then again, I don’t doubt it when people say they are tired of educating white people about their issues. I have lost sleep just thinking about this article. Someone has to do something. Someone has to speak up. The hope is someone smarter and more capable stands up, but for now you get to settle me.
“It’s a lot to take on your own. By fighting for who you are. You can sometimes end up isolating yourself from the people you’re surrounded by and it’s about finding the balance and understanding of where you’re coming from. Having a bit more compassion for them not knowing any better, but also that doesn’t excuse the comments, and they can’t be ignorant forever.”
Compare that to her conversations with other Asians.
“Lately, essentially. Anyone who’s Asian who I’m very close with, I feel super connected. I feel like we’re all going through this huge growing pain, that once we figure out how we want to step forward. We’ll all feel more empowered to just be ourselves, be more of who we are. Sharing that beauty with the world essentially and feeling that all together at the moment, is just really powerful.
Do we have a bit too optimistic view of young people? I’m not saying we should condescend and assume the worst of the latest generation. Inexperience and incompetence exist at any age. But with all the ills of the world, I can’t help but feel we’re placing some high expectations on them. Not only are they entering a world of wealth inequalities to correct, they also have to solve the question of climate change, emerging technologies that may or may not threaten our existence, and the ongoing issue of racism. As a millennial, those issues are still on my plate. On the other hand, we millennials were the ones who introduced the word adulting, so we may still be well over our heads at this time.
Connor Chin-Quee is a third-year psychology student at the University of Waterloo. At 19-years-old, he is considered a zoomer, a fact that he didn’t take too well once I pointed it out. His generation has never known a time before the internet and his generation are the ones to inherit the earth, picking up from where us millennials left it.
“I think we have a nihilistic outlook. From every one of my friends that I’ve talked to, it’s just kind of like, well, the world is shit,” Connor said on the phone. “Sorry, can I swear?”
Connor had actually written for insideWaterloo earlier this year, which led me to chatting with him about it and more. I found myself somewhat hoping for a more optimistic outlook from him. Admittedly, I was no better at his age. In fact, he was probably doing better than I was. Connor was already writing self-reflective essays and thinking critically about the world. At his age, I had overly strong opinions on movies and a crappy attitude to go with it.
“I mean I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood. I went to a predominantly white elementary school for eight years. I went to a Catholic school. So, I was surrounded by no one who looked like me because I lived in the Upper East Bridge area, so it’s a bunch of upper-class white kids,” he said.
“You didn’t even have any Christian Asian groups to hang out with either?” I asked.
“No, I didn’t even know that those were a thing until university,” he said.
We briefly chatted about how he felt as an Asian person living through the pandemic and the new swell of anti-Asian sentiment. With the pandemic, it was easy for him to avoid going out. But not everyone can do that.
“Like my mom the other day said that she was afraid to go outside sometimes and when she goes outside, she’s on guard,” he said. “That’s never something that you ever want to hear your mom say, because your parents are like superheroes, you know?”
The news of the Atlanta spa shootings led us to reaching out to Connor for a written piece. He had previously written for Textile about his personal experience as a mixed-race person.
“What went through your mind when you wrote it?” I asked.
“I remember, for the first little bit, I was pretty conflicted. That would be the right word,” Connor said. “I remember talking to my one friend, Paul, about how I don’t really have any stories to tell. No one’s ever come up to me on the street and beat the shit out of me because I’m Asian.”
“It shouldn’t really come to that point,” I said.
“I just always feel like – this sounds horrible to say, but I always feel disingenuous writing about it. Like I get that there’s so many other people that have it worse, like if you look at the Indigenous community especially, it’s like they’ve faced so much worse racism that. It’s like, why am I focusing on myself.”
I’m struggling to figure out how to respond at this point. Ironically, if the roles were reversed, Connor might have known what to say given his background in psychology. He continued.
“I was talking about this with my family a little bit ago because I wanted to get their perspective for the article, and talking about how it almost feels like the type of racism that Asians face is very unique. In some respects, envious, like we’re seen as the smart group or the overachievers, the rich people. But at the same time, we’re hated; we’re envied to the point where we’re outsiders.”
Canada has a long history with anti-Asian racism. For example, construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway saw thousands of Chinese workers immigrate over, then once it was done, the head tax was introduced. That was in 1885 before it was then replaced by the Chinese Immigration Act of 1923, which outlawed Chinese immigration altogether, outside of specific circumstances. That was repealed in 1948, but we would have to wait until 2006 for the federal government to apologize, when only a handful of people who paid the head tax were still alive. I’m sure that made compensation much easier for the feds that way, after making millions off the original tax.
Another example, the internment of Japanese Canadians in World War II. Their loyalties were questioned and their property was promptly confiscated and sold to help fund their own internment. A formal apology would only come years later in 1988.
“A person I talked to about [anti-Asian hate] compared it to being treated as a guest in someone’s house. Even though we live here too,” I said.
“That’s actually a very poignant way to put it. That’s pretty much putting everything that I feel into words,” Connor said. He still felt satisfied about writing the piece. It led to a lot of interesting conversation between friends and family. We ended up talking about his and brother’s upbringing as a mixed-race family. They came from a background of Jamaican, Chinese and Vietnamese ancestry.
“We were never shown any other kind of culture in school, we were never shown it in our media. So, when our mom tried to introduce us to [Vietnamese] culture, we rejected it because it wasn’t a part of us, or we didn’t feel like it was a part of us,” he told me. The first time he went to a Lunar New Year Festival was around four years ago, and Connor told me about how out of place he felt. Another time, he recalled speaking with an older Vietnamese man while at karate, who sounded disappointed when Connor couldn’t speak Vietnamese back. “That happens a lot actually. It happens even sometimes with my grandparents on my mom’s side,” he said. I sympathized with him.
“How do you reconcile that yourself?” he asked. “You can’t go back in time; you can’t fix it.”
But I didn’t have an answer. This was one of those moments where I’m reminded that I had been legally an adult for several years. At the age of 27, I was at the latter end of “young adult,” and fast approaching “adult.” Perhaps I should start expecting to hear these questions more often.
“On a personal level, I say I connect more with the Asian diaspora, by all means we typically have some level of claim to that culture but we are several steps separate from it,” I said, filling up space while I think. “I just do the best I can. I’m definitely just going to keep on trying.” What the hell am I saying? “Every time I do connect with my culture even a bit. It does bring me a bit of peace.” Well, I suppose that was an answer.
“Yeah. I mean – I guess – how do you get past that initial feeling of, do I deserve to even connect with this culture?” Connor asked.
“I think it’s the fact that so many other people feel that way. At some point, I guess you just have to start somewhere. You just kind of have to do it,” I said. I might as well tell a person with depression to try smiling more.
I don’t think Connor was satisfied with my answer, not that he would hold it against me. I kept thinking back to our conversation, trying to think of an answer that could have meant something. One of my favourite movies in recent years comes to mind, which I would recommend to anyone trying to put to words what it means to be part of the Asian diaspora.
During the “before times,” in the long-forgotten era of 2019, The Farewell was released in theatres. It’s based on a personal story from the director Lulu Wang. She and the rest of her extended family went back to China to visit her grandmother Nai-Nai, under the guise of a last-minute wedding. The real reason was to see Nai-Nai one last time, after she was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. And she doesn’t know. They don’t tell her. Apparently, this is much more common in China than you would think. It’s cultural. The belief is that it isn’t the illness that kills you, but the stress in knowing that does.
In the film, Awkwafina plays Billi Wang, who has a very close relationship with Nai-Nai, and struggles with the decision not to tell her. She’s more American than she is Chinese in that way. The film is ultimately about what it means to be part of that Asian diaspora. It’s a farewell to a home you can never truly go back to. The idea that for people like Lulu Wang, myself or Connor, there really isn’t any way for us to return “home.” It’s difficult, even painful at times, but those cultural ties, just like Billi’s relationship with her grandmother, mean the world to us. To be part of the Asian diaspora is to hold onto any bit of culture you can. Each bit, a red thread tied to your fingers that stretches back east, to a home I will never truly know. It’s not perfect, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s different. And there won’t be a big moment that brings it together, but eventually it heals.
I’ve struggled to write the final part of this article. I went into this not knowing what my conversations would lead to, but it just felt good to talk to other Asians about it. I think questions around Asian identity are almost a given in this headspace. To create a narrative for ourselves that answers that question. But with the rise in anti-Asian racism, it feels less like growing pains, and more a declaration of our own humanity. I wish there was something I could do. Something that could make racism just disappear in one fell swoop. But there isn’t. And that’s what is so frustrating. It’s so easy to feel helpless in this situation.
But the one thing I took away from all my conversations was that it’s worth it to try. To shout something into the ether, as a declaration of your own existence, if only to find each other. To struggle openly, rather than be confined to the realms of others’ imagination. It is never too late to speak up, and it is always good to start early. We owe it to ourselves.