Brain-Cell Banter: Subjects of Asian-Canadian Identity

By Stephanie Hai & Katrina Sun ’22

Another month, another brain-cell banter article; this time, a little more serious. Identity-exploration has been a theme we have persistently addressed, and rightly so, with high school being a time permeated by identity crises. In light of the recent rise of anti-Asian hate crime in North America, we hope to broach the intricate, and often sensitive, topic of Asian identity. Having faced the impacts of the model minority myth, been subject to microaggressions, and overcome internalized racism, we draw largely from our own personal anecdotes. 

Last year, Asian hate crimes increased by 717% in Vancouver, from 12 cases in 2019 to 98 cases in 2020—a direct repercussion of COVID-19. This increase has created an immense psychological impact on the Asian community. It’s clear that racism exists; in Vancouver, this is often overshadowed by privilege or ignorance, further catalyzed by a lack of media attention. In turn, this has spurred us to look further into the systemic barriers that we face as minorities, and how these impacts transcend into our everyday life. 

Of course, we can’t speak for all Asians, as these are merely our own experiences as Chinese-Canadians. However, we hope this article brings informative context into the Asian experience, prompting effective dialogue and awareness (read more about how we aim to tackle this issue in our school community at the end!).

The Model Minority Myth:

In essence, the model minority myth is the perpetuation of stereotypes deeming Asians to be innately smart, hard-working, and rule-abiding. On the surface-level, it seems like an extremely positive label to be confined to. Yet, this stereotype is exactly what it seems, a generalization of millions of immigrants, serving as an impossible standard. If you are high-achieving, your success is undervalued, and if you fall below expectations, you’re perceived as a much larger failure than someone of another ethnicity. In some ways, this can make the model minority myth a self-fulfilling prophecy, with many Asians believing that success is the bare minimum. 

The model minority myth has stemmed largely from the discriminatory recruitment of highly educated immigrants, and has resulted in the unfair comparison of minorities. Not negative, but not positive either, the label put on Asians as being quiet immigrants and diligent workers has created an illusion that hard work and strong family values will allow minorities to overcome systemic barriers and achieve the American dream. This standard is highly problematic, as it equates the types of prejudice that Asians experience with those of other minorities. In doing this, we overlook the distinct ways that oppression and racial injustice have impacted different races. The systematic dehumanization of black people, for example, is incomparable to the discrimination that Asians face. Because of the model minority myth, Asians have become used as a racial wedge, deepening the divide between various ethnic minorities. The myth ultimately minimizes racism and is a denial of racial reality. It allows Asians to be similar to the white majority, but only when it’s politically convenient. 

On White-Washing – Stephanie 

I think my childhood applies to a lot of Chinese-Canadians who grew up with East and West values frequently clashing. Often, my identity is portrayed as surface-level “whitewashed”, where my inability to play piano or speak fluent Cantonese hindered me from feeling a sense of belonging in the Chinese community. My own experience with my cultural acceptance was a prolonged period of intense curiosity, constant justification of my lifestyle, and questioning the reasoning behind my westernized upbringing. I remember asking my mom once, “Why don’t you force me to get better grades?” and “Why did you let me quit piano?” at an early age. Despite these questions continuing to linger today, I’ve been able to navigate myself out of these stereotypes associated with being Chinese. As I battle the tricky ups and downs of adolescence, I continue to question what actually constitutes as being “whitewashed”, and why this label continually portrayed a semblance of validation in my childhood. 

Interestingly, those who associated my “Westernized” upbringing were often Chinese themselves. In junior school, I never met the standard of what it was like to be a “real Asian.” I only spoke English and continued to feel separated from conversations regarding relatability to the Asian-Canadian culture. I thought I did not have anything of value to add when my peers proudly emphasized their Chinese-style lunch boxes or the difficulty of conveying a Chinese saying in English. I was often referred to as the “banana” of my grade, colourized through being yellow on the outside and white on the inside. Almost always, I hid my disappointment when hearing this. On the surface, I felt satisfied, believing my upbringing in a non-traditional Chinese family was the ultimate achievement. When the labels “banana” or “white-washed” were tossed around and I laughed, a small part of me felt disappointed. 

Behind stereotypes in internalized racism, lie countless structural errors in our status quo, such as the Model Minority Myth. These stereotypes force you to classify your ethnicity as a hierarchical system, with those considered “less Asian” positioned at the bottom, and those who fully meet the stereotypes of “a real Asian” placed at the top. Although this is certainly not the case of many individuals, my own experience with my culture was underpinned by this rank of “Asian-ness”. Thus, the discrediting of the culture I had grown up with, and had celebrated, led me down a road of intense isolation from my peers. In our modern era of never-ending division, let’s address how internalized racism can propel stereotypes and harmful racial notions. Instead, we should focus on the unity and acceptance of all cultural upbringings—not subject to playing the piano or getting 100s. This is especially crucial right now, where we must collectively advocate for a community who has long been suppressed and overlooked. 

Microaggressions in the Asian Community: 

In 2020, an endless rise of academic language had emerged across our social media platforms—a direct result of the Black Lives Matter movement and increasing media awareness. One of those terms, “microaggressions”, was frequently thrown around —both in academic dialogue and in everyday conversations. As defined here, microaggressions are the “verbal, behavioral, and environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults that potentially have harmful or unpleasant psychological impact on the target person or group.” It’s a challenge POC all face, be it through accelerating stereotypes or in simplest terms, communicating tone-deaf comments. With regards to microaggressions the Asian community is faced with, the normalization of these comments has plagued the very valid emotions of every Asian individual. 

Perhaps the most frequent microaggressions associated with the Asian-Canadian experience falls into two categories: the standard of achievement and degrading of cultural communication styles. 

  1. The Asian-Canadian Standard of Achievement 

In the degree of intelligence associated with Asian individuals, the meritocracy and hard-working capabilities of these individuals are blatantly overshadowed. Growing up in contrasting versions of the typical Asian-Canadian experience, we have both endured the harmful emotional impacts of “Stop complaining about your 100”, or “If I see lots of Asian students in my class, I know it’s going to be hard.” The model minority myth has perpetuated these adverse comments in how Asians hold themselves to a higher academic standard compared to their white counterparts. In truth, some of us have given into this flawed structural model. We’ve celebrated being known as the “smartest minority”, but in reality, it’s barricaded Asians from admitting the possibilities of underperformance. Not only has this verbal microaggression stirred inter-ethnic pressures, but it’s also fostered tensions between the Asian community and other POC, commonly associating intelligence with the Asian individual. These comments don’t vouch enjoyability, they’re simply uncomfortable. 

To touch on our own experiences, my math abilities—compared to a large majority of Chinese students in my grade—are far below average. In junior school, I struggled throughout math and science, feeling an uneasy tension while contemplating asking for help. In particular, I remember, when math questions would be hurled at me, and I didn’t know how to do them. In grade five, I got a math tutor, following a conversation with my mom, which prompted me to feel a sense of distant isolation from my peers. This feeling, associated with fragments of disappointment, confined me into challenging racial stereotypes and unrealistic expectations for my learning. It’s interesting to see how the model minority myth affected the ways I perceived myself as a “less-intelligent Asian student”, but it’s also shaped my ability to express my discomfort. After I better grasped my academic capabilities, I standardized my own metric of achievement. Instead of holding myself to this academic standard associated with Asian students—a standard produced by white people— I recognized the meritocracy of my extremely hard-working Asian friends, and strove to not compare intelligence. 

  1. The Invalidity of Cultural Communication Styles 

While researching and drawing from our own experiences with microaggressions, an underlying component is the invalidity of cultural communication styles. Through the common association of Asians being labelled as “quiet”, “focused”, or “introverted”, a dichotomy between Western and Asian values is formed. There’s a reason for these adjectives to spring to mind while thinking of a few of our Asian peers: Confucianism. In particular, filial piety is the “attitude of obedience, devotion, and care toward one’s parents and elder family members that is the basis of individual moral conduct and social harmony.” Fittingly, the upbringing of Asian individuals has instilled strong ethical values of social harmony and peace. Instead of engaging in loud classroom banter, the ethics of Confucianism emphasize silence and hard-work. An example of this would be a noisy Grade 4 classroom, with Asian students typically disengaging themselves from the conversation at hand. The characterization of noisiness is heavily disliked in Asian culture, where the importance of one’s self performance is better valued. Again, we do want to emphasize the generalization we’re making here. However, it’s important to discuss why some Asian students are quieter than others, and it has a lot to do with their family morals and values, rather than a generalized racial personality trait. 

Conclusion

Like many other Asian-Canadians, we have struggled to find a sense of belonging within our culture. Only in high school did we have our “cultural awakening,” inspired by Asian activists, and recent Asian representation in Hollywood. With this in mind, we prompt our fellow Asian-Canadians to recognize your feelings about your identity and get informed about the discrimination that we face today. 

It has taken many years of reflection, frustration, and inner conflict for us to realize why we want to embrace our cultural heritage and racial identity. Despite this, we still occasionally face feelings of isolation and otherness from the majority. However, it is a sense of otherness that makes our identities as Asian-Canadians, specifically Chinese-Canadians, so utterly distinct and exceptional. Our “Asianness” isn’t defined by people’s judgement of the food we eat, our hobbies, or how well we personify stereotypes. Rather, it’s our ability to strike the finite balance between perfectly Asian, and perfectly Canadian, ultimately discovering our identities straddled between two cultures. 

Perhaps after reading this article, you’ll wonder what you can do to support the Asian community during these tumultuous times. We hope you’ll be interested in participating in our donation drive to the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation’s May Wah Hotel. This initiative focuses on helping the vulnerable population of Asian seniors who have been psychologically distressed by COVID-19 and influx of anti-Asian hate crime. We will be collaborating with the service council to collect and donate personal hygiene equipment, toiletries, and books to the residents of the May Wah Hotel, a safe home housing low-income residents and seniors in Chinatown. More information about this will be provided after spring break. 

In hopes that you’ve stimulated your education on racial microaggressions, harmful stereotypes, and the experiences of Asian-Canadians, we’ve listed a few resources below that cover our topics more professionally and accurately. Even though this was long, we implore you to continue reading up on the current assaults of Asians. And always remember, check up on your friends too!

How to help:

To read up on the latest Asian news: http://www.nextshark.com

Instagram Accounts: @stopaapihate @asiansformentalhealth @amandangocnguyen 

Visit Chinatown to help support local businesses and establishments!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑

<span>%d</span> bloggers like this: