Becoming “Asian Canadian?”

Being amongst a diverse group of students in a class whose focus is to collaborate with Asian Canadian communities, last week’s discussion on identity was useful for establishing a baseline for which we use to understand and engage across difference. Xiaoping Li’s analysis on the history of Asian Canadian identity highlights how identity can be experienced in multiple, sometimes conflicting ways: identity can be inherited through one’s cultural background, imposed by external forces, or (re)claimed as an assertion of one’s agency and autonomy. As such, our identities can bring forth a sense of pride and belonging, lead us to conflict and tension, coax us to feel somewhere in between, or perhaps even nowhere at all. Regardless, the identities that we carry are fluid, shifting as we navigate and respond to different cultural, temporal, and socio-political contexts. 

It is the political nature of (re)claimed identities that I find the most intriguing. Li suggests that “historically, to become Asian Canadian…signified a political awakening.” These identities can hold immense potential in shifting power, disrupting hegemonic narratives and fostering inclusion in broader communities that transect national boundaries. 

Personally, it has only been in recent years that I’ve actively claimed the identity of being Chinese Canadian. (Note the lack of hyphen, – while I previously hyphenated out of desire to adhere to what was “grammatically correct,” a hyphen-less identity resonates with me the most because it signifies a blended identity, one that is not exclusively Chinese or Canadian, but rather an amalgamation of the two.) Although I am fairly comfortable with identifying as a Chinese Canadian, our readings and discussion about Asian Canadian-ness left me wondering to what extent I connect with this identity category. 

To be honest, Asian Canadian identity is something I have still yet to interrogate. I’ve never identified myself as being Asian Canadian, though I see myself as belonging to a broader Asian Canadian/Asian diasporic community. Despite my interest in Asian Canadian studies, I realize that I’ve tended to focus on Chinese Canadian issues and topics (thus far). Understandably so, – it seems natural to gravitate towards things that we are personally interested/implicated in. Yet, I’m becoming increasingly careful to not equate Chinese Canadian identity with Asian Canadian identity. It can be easy to lose sight of the broader picture when the faces, stories and perspectives of those from your community tend to be reflected in spaces of learning and engagement. Maybe this is why I feel more comfortable with viewing myself as belonging to an Asian Canadian community, as opposed to possessing an Asian Canadian identity. Chinese Canadian-ness is one of the many pieces that make up what it means to be Asian Canadian, but it certainly is not the only one. With that understanding, perhaps it’s more productive to think of Asian Canadian-ness as a collective identity, – one that we cannot embody on our own, but rather one that is constantly created through the active learning and inclusion of diverse perspectives and experiences.

So maybe we do not necessarily need to become Asian Canadian in order to experience what Li describes as a “political awakening.” After all, identity is an incredibly subjective experience. But perhaps by understanding our positionality and by locating ourselves in relation to the myraid of subjectivities that we may encounter, we can be better equipped to engage in critical discourse and navigate across differences.

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