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UBC symposium on anti-Asian racism finds Maclean's "Too Asian?" too insensitive

Two weeks ago, I wrote a commentary in response to Maclean’s “Too Asian?” Since then, many voices have chimed in from left, right, and centre to offer their two cents. Aside from a brief non-apology released yesterday, minimal effort has been done by Maclean’s or Rogers to remedy the offense that “Too Asian?” has caused readers.

On November 25th, the University of British Columbia held a campus dialogue organized in response to an overwhelming interest from students in wake of the focus on Asian students after the publication of “Too Asian?” Not even the generous snowfall from the night before prevented the large room from filling up to capacity. The forum featured a panel made up of a mix of distinguished faculty and administration members as well as two undergraduate students. It was refreshing to be in an environment where the objective was to engage in a safe constructive dialogue about stereotyping in media.

Brian Sullivan, Vice-President, Students at UBC opened the dialogue by addressing the issue as one “not about admissions” nor was it about “unhappiness over the way that students choose to associate or to be engaged.” Sullivan added, “(students) are experts of their own experience” and that this episode is fundamentally about “people” and “about learning.”

Panelist Dr. Kerry Jang, Professor, UBC Psychiatry and Vancouver City Councilor, shared a story about his own upbringing; of how his grandfather arrived in British Columbia and paid the Chinese head tax and how emphasizing his Canadian citizenship was more important than identifying with his Chinese heritage. “You had to be as non-Chinese as possible,” Jang said, “so I kind of grew up being kind of non-Chinese but being reminded that I was Chinese every so often. We went back and forth with this kind of thing. So quite frankly, I didn’t know how to react when I read the article.” Jang’s sentiments echo with many Canadian-born and naturalized Asians who read the Maclean’s article but were caught in-between cultural worlds and thus, did not know how to react.

“This article harkens back to an older Canada,” explains panelist Dr. Henry Yu, Associate Professor, Department of History and Principle pro tem at St. Johns College, UBC. “It’s also a hurtful article for a lot of people. And in fact, the irony is if you just arrived from Asia, if someone says, ‘You’re so Asian’ – well of course, I was born in Asia.” Yu doesn’t fail to recognize the distinction between Asian international students and domestic Asian-Canadian students, an acknowledgment that Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler did not care to make nor did the Maclean’s editorial team care to include.  

However, the international student is “not the person who’s actually going to feel hurt the most,” Yu continues,  “You know who’s going to hurt the most? The person who tried really hard in elementary school and high school to fit in. The person who, like me, thought ‘maybe if I’m captain of the basketball team, it’ll be okay. Maybe if I really work hard to fit in.’ But then every once in a while someone calls you ‘rice’.”

“It’s the feeling of ‘what else do you want me to do?’ You say I don’t fit in – I do everything to fit in- and then you say I don’t fit in. And that’s the hurt.”

Canadian universities have changed significantly in the past four decades. It is should be of no surprise that the children of Asian immigrants and first-generation Asian-Canadians are entering university. It was a surprise for me to see a national magazine adhere to a dangerous discourse to choose not recognize their Canadian identities, but as Asian and as “others.”

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