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.

Clang & clash: Unravelling memory, untangling emotion

My stomach growls as my feet shuffle through the streets adorned with red lampposts, on the hunt for a warm bowl of congee to soothe my stuffy sinuses and aching throat. Normally, my dad would cook a batch at our family restaurant, located on the familiar corner of Fraser and 49th in Vancouver but things are different now. No longer can I expect to have freshly made congee from Golden House after my family decided sell the restaurant a couple months ago. Ten years of hustling and bustling left my parents feeling weary to the bone, so it was finally time to pack up for good. And along with it stowed away the entangled layers of memory and emotion. Easier than being reminded of what was lost, I suppose.

Eventually, I make my way to the front counter of Goldstone Restaurant, situated in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown. It can’t possibly compare to my parents’ restaurant, but clearing my scratchy throat, I ask with great hope, can I order a bowl of congee?

The waitress is apologetic in her response. Sorry, we don’t serve congee after 11amHow about something else?

The emptiness of my stomach wins over, so I sigh in defeat and pick an item from the yellowed menu. Plopping down on the weathered vinyl booths, I scan the restaurant without purpose. Forks scrape eagerly across ceramic dishes and dirty chopsticks clatter inside the bins of rickety carts. Waitresses hover at the pass as they wait to bring dishes out to tables of gong-gongs and poh-pohs. My eyes fixate on the backs of the chefs, whose kitchen I observe from a distance. Slowly, my vision blurs and goes out of focus.

The clanging of metal against mental transports me to a completely different place and time. I feel a prickle inside but it’s too late: I’m caught in the web of memories that I’ve been dancing too carefully around.

The heat of the stove fans across my sweaty face as I watch a familiar set of hands work swiftly against time. I wait anxiously to the side, ready to whisk the dish out to bellies growing hungrier by the second. Here in the comfort of the kitchen, I get a glimpse of my dad, gracefully practicing the art that has sustained his family for decades.

Oil hisses and pops as a golden crust forms around the bite-sized strips of beef. Firm hands reach over to whack the strainer a couple of times and excess drops of oil plunge back into the hot abyss. The wok sizzles as the contents of the strainer tumble and become coated in a thin layer of sticky pay-pa sauce. A couple more tosses and the beef is scooped out, plated on a bed of translucent green celery and handed over to me. Standing on my tiptoes, I grab the jar of toasted sesame seeds from the shelf above and sprinkle delicate specks over the fragrant dish. My mouth waters but I grit my teeth and ignore the hungry growl like how my parents have taught me. Ringing the bell, my mom appears and quickly takes the dish out to the guests, leaving a trail of steam wafting behind her. We work well as a team, my parents and I.

After the sale, I still visited the restaurant from time to time. I watched as the red and green patterned carpet became replaced by sleek wooden floorboards. New lights were put in, glittering in anticipation for the grand opening. Yet, even though I stood amidst the renovations in a place that was formerly ours, the restaurant felt bare, devoid of the years of memories, of working and learning alongside my parents.

But here in my cushioned seat, the clashing of spatula against wok has knocked down my defenses and breathed my carefully bundled memories back to life. Here, I’m forced to embrace a simple truth: that Golden House really is gone, and that this place will never be the same as it once was. Now, I sit from the outside looking in.

Your takeout is ready, a waitress says as she bursts through my bubble of thoughts, fishing me out from the murky waters between past and present. Blinking, I mumble my thanks and wrap a tight grip around my takeout, hands warming from the heat of the soup noodles.

The cool fall breeze envelopes me, and the weight of what I’ve been avoiding settles in. A dull ache welcomes itself and spreads across my chest, heavy inside. A painful admission of all that has changed, but also a gentle reminder of what mustn’t be lost.

written for ubc creative writing 213 with jackie wong

Sound Mapping Workshop Announcement

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So this is finally happening! Take part in the Chinatown sound mapping project by participating in one of the two workshops, happening on October 1st and 8th. Audio equipment and snacks will be provided. No experience is required.

To RSVP, please email me at angelakmho@gmail.com and indicate your desired workshop date. Looking forward to collaborating with you!

Sound mapping update!

I can’t believe how quickly the last several months have gone by! Working in Chinatown over the summer was incredible, and I feel so lucky and privileged to have had this experience. I’m waiting to hop onto a plane tonight, but thought I’d share some quick updates before I head out East.

  1. I’m really thankful for all the positivity that I’ve received thus far. Over the last several months, I’ve been able to meet and connect with folks who were genuinely interested in supporting this project, which encouraged me to explore how my initial plans can be expanded to create a more community-based project. This leads me to the second point…
  2. Through the generous support of the ACAM Community Projects Fund, I’m really excited to announce that I will be hosting several sound mapping workshops in the fall! These workshops will provide an opportunity for folks to attend a sound walk in Chinatown, learn how to use an audio recorder, and contribute to the Chinatown sound map. So far, this project has been fairly individually driven, so I’m looking forward to collaborating with others. More details TBA!
  3. I’ve had a lot of fun exploring and recording sounds in Chinatown, and the sound map is slowly (but surely) coming together. Some sounds are fleeting and difficult to capture, so this project is challenging me how to balance my project interests with being present and enjoying the moment. (This is also why progress a bit slower, as I’m choosing to take my time rather than rushing to “finish” this project). All that being said, the sound map will (hopefully) be public by September or October!

More updates coming soon! (Soon = not three months, haha.)

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Sound mapping in Chinatown

Ever since completing UBC’s Asian Canadian Film Production class this past semester, I’ve been itching to start a new digital media project. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been brainstorming ideas for different projects that I can pursue. It was only yesterday when I finally figured out what I wanted to do: a sound mapping project of Vancouver Chinatown.

I drew inspiration from a couple of people. First, from my friend Cassandra, who recently created a podcast on the changing landscape of food in Chinatown. In her podcast, sound played a significant role in conveying different feelings, such as the “hot and noisy” (熱鬧) atmosphere in Chinatown. Second, I drew inspiration from Max Ritts, a graduate student from the UBC Geography department. Max co-taught my Environment & Sustainability class, where I was able to learn more about his acoustic mapping research. Using recording devices called Song Meters, Max assisted the Gitga’at Nation in mapping out the acoustic profile of their territory, in order to better understand the influence of the growing tanker traffic on the local ecology.

Sound can be easily taken for granted. How does sound shape the way we experience and navigate through different places? What kinds of sounds can be discovered that we didn’t pay attention to before? These are the questions I hope to explore in undertaking this project.

There are several reasons why I am grounding this project in the context of Chinatown. First, I’m working with hua foundation (whose office is located in Chinatown) this summer, meaning that I’ll be spending a large part of my week in the area. Second, with all the activities (e.g., condo development, community organizing, etc.) that are happening in this area, I’m curious to hear what the sound profile is like/how that may be changing. Third, I hope that this project will encourage others to engage with what’s going on in Chinatown, such as by going for a sound walk of their own.

What would this project look like? Basically, I want to capture short clips of different sounds in Chinatown, be it the bubbling of water in fishmongers, or the wooden clacking of sounds of an abacus in a dry herbal store. These clips will be embedded into an online map, where you can click different points to see what sounds can be found in that location. Hopefully, others will share clips of their own and contribute to the sound mapping of Chinatown. Thinking further down the line, perhaps a new sound map can be made on a yearly basis, to facilitate a comparison of how the soundscape of Chinatown may be changing.

I’m excited to start this project! If you have any comments or suggestions, please feel free to share them down below. Stay tuned for more updates!