On being Asian Canadian
May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, a time to reflect on and celebrate the contributions that Canadians of Asian heritage continue to make, to the growth and prosperity of Canada.
It’s Asian Heritage Month in Canada, so I decided to reflect on what it means to be a Canadian of Asian heritage. A quick visit to the Government of Canada’s “History of Canada” (accessed May 16, 2017) gave me this:
Centuries before Europeans began to settle in North America, explorers who came here found thriving First Nations and Inuit societies with their own beliefs, way of life and rich history….The arrival of European traders, missionaries, soldiers and colonists changed the native way of life forever. Large numbers of Aboriginals died of European diseases to which they lacked immunity. However, Aboriginals and Europeans formed strong economic, religious and military bonds in the first 200 years of coexistence which laid the foundations of Canada.
Further down the page, I found this:
- In 1871, British Columbia joined the union with the promise of a railway to link it to the rest of the country.
Finally, I had to go to Wikipedia to find what I was looking for: the fact that Chinese immigrants have been arriving in Canada since the late 1770s and that it was the employment of Chinese railway workers that helped secure the addition of British Columbia to the Confederation, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year.
It’s not that I was trying to associate myself with these early Chinese Canadians since my family actually didn’t arrive until the 1970s. Rather, I was trying to understand how and where, within the makeup of this country where I was born, someone like me might be able to justify being “Canadian”. Despite the evocation of Mavis Gallant‘s definition of a Canadian as “someone who has a logical reason to think he is one“, I could not help feel saddened by the lack of any mention of Asian Canadian contribution in the official narrative of Canadian identity. It made me feel like I will always be just a footnote.
This feeling was further exacerbated by a comment that someone made to me amidst the recent controversies over cultural appropriation. Referencing an aphorism which Steve Jobs mistakenly attributed to Pablo Picasso, “Good artists copy; great artists steal“, the commenter asserted that there is no such thing as true originality or ownership of ideas, so we should just move on and focus on the greater heritage of humanity as a whole.
I could not disagree entirely. Indeed, the same labels which define us also divide us along many artificial or “socially-constructed” lines but underneath it all, aren’t we all just human?
Yet every time I try and imagine what a “post-label” society would look like, I draw a blank. Imagine a world where there are no colours, no seasons, no flowers, no trees, no creatures: it’s just nothing.
“The Nothing is spreading,” groaned the first. “It’s growing and growing, there’s more of it every day, if it’s possible to speak of more nothing. All the others fled from Howling Forest in time, but we didn’t want to leave our home. The Nothing caught us in our sleep and this is what it did to us.”
“Is it very painful?” Atreyu asked.
“No,” said the second bark troll, the one with the hole in his chest. “You don’t feel a thing. There’s just something missing. And once it gets hold of you, something more is missing every day. Soon there won’t be anything left of us.”
I realized that the problem with my conversation partner’s view is a mistaken correlation between diversity and equality. It’s an unfortunate truth that our current systems are built on systemic bias and discrimination. Throughout history, many voices have been marginalized, silenced, dismissed, misunderstood and misappropriated. This is usually done in service of “operational efficiency” or justified with an appeal to “meritocracy”. However, it is important not to confuse equality of ability with equality of value.
Biological diversity is messy. It walks, it crawls, it swims, it swoops, it buzzes. But extinction is silent, and it has no voice other than our own.
You would not expect a lion to tell the story of a bear, nor a flower to tell the story of a bird. Even then, what scientist would pass up the opportunity to study original samples and content themselves with only indirect accounts?
Moreover, the celebration of diversity does not necessarily make for a more peaceful society. With all our differences, conflict is inevitable. If you want real peace, you would probably want less divergent opinions at the table. Yet, as many scientists are discovering, even the smallest creatures can contribute to significant macro phenomenon.
If we are to achieve a richer culture, rich in contrasting values, we must recognize the whole gamut of human potentialities, and so weave a less arbitrary social fabric, one in which each diverse human gift will find a fitting place.
In other words, our focus should not be on measuring the value of one ability over another, but rather on learning to appreciate how and where different perspectives might help us gain better understanding of the world as it really is. In order to do that, we need to recognize and be honest about our biases and listen and allow others to speak for themselves even when things get uncomfortable or awkward.
As for my “Canadian” identity, I guess it’s time I write my own story, eh?