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Asian, whatever that means

Ray Hsu

On November 9th, at the UBC Creative Writing program faculty reading, writer and post-doctoral faculty member Ray Hsu took the stage, a beer bottle in hand, and asked if anyone had heard of the phrase “Asian flush.”  After a stunned silence the audience murmured.  Three hands went up.  What followed was a question and answer period on the term “Asian flush,” and the definition of “white balance” in film.  Laughter and nervous shouts could be heard as he read out the Wikipedia and Urban Dictionary definitions, including examples of usage.  Meanwhile, he slugged back a beer, and turned red before our eyes.

In the last few moments he switched gears.  “I teach the Asian Canadian Writing class, and the most common question I get asked is 'So, is everyone in the class Asian?'  And I say 'No.  Whatever that means.'  And then they say, 'Is everyone in the class Canadian?' And I say 'No.  Whatever that means.'  Then they say, 'So, is everyone in the class a writer?'  And I say no.'”  The audience chimed in with him: “Whatever that means.”

The next day, the Maclean's article “Too Asian?” hit the internet.  People from the class began to send him the link.  “The latest media shitstorm,” one of his students wrote.  It was almost as though his performance was a response, before the article had even come out. 

I ask Ray about his thoughts on the article, as an artist, poet, a teacher of Asian Canadian Writing, and a board member of the Asian Canadian Writing Workshop.

It's been a couple weeks and many people have responded to the Maclean's article.  What are your thoughts about it? 

It's strange.  Not just because what's inside it, which is what it says and how it says it –  how the piece is organized and the fact that a huge chunk of the beginning is devoted to subjective claims of white people about so-called asianness of universities.  But also it was strange how it was marketed.  When you attempted to share it on social networking, it automatically pulled up the title “Too Asian” and the byline “some frosh don't want to study at an 'Asian' university.”  That byline shows how Maclean's wanted it to circulate.  They wanted it to circulate as a provocation.

Within that the only thing that's highlighted is “white” perception.  Which is more telling.  It's sort of like the journalistic inverted pyramid.  If you were to take that and impose it and impose that on the article, we would know that the stuff at the beginning is supposed to be most important and the stuff we get at the end is least important.  It's a strange article because Maclean's seems to have wanted to forward something, to make a name for itself and make something viral, so-called, on the backs of what is really a fiery jab.

It's also timed with a lot of fear mongering around China, and that's one of the reasons it's being circulated this way is that it focuses on the idea of “Asian” domination.  It has come out around the same time as this American political ad that has been circulating in China as it has been airing on American television.

 What is it about the idea of “Asian” domination that has teeth right now?

 It's the idea of the threat that China poses to US dominance of the global financial system.  China has recently become the world's second largest economy second to the US. 

 Did the circulation of this article complicate your experiences as a UBC faculty member?

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