(Calgary Herald)Feeling like 'others,' Asian-Canadians struggle to find identity
“Open your eyes,” a man told John Iglesias, then a teenager just hanging out around a 7-11 in Sarnia, Ont. with his best friend. The man, with his buddies, repeated: “Open your f—ing eyes — why can’t you open your eyes?”
The harassment continued by the white men who then pounced on Iglesias and his friend, Colin Marcoux, who was also white yet guilty by association. Iglesias, now 37, remembers being curled up on the ground, laughing in shock as he tried to protect his head while being beaten.
At the time, Iglesias and his family were among the few Asian-Canadians in his community, and although there were past instances where discrimination was evident, this was the first occurrence where Iglesias had experienced such blatant racism.
According to the 2011 National Household survey, Iglesias represents one of roughly five million Asian-Canadians — which is 15.3 per cent of the Canadian population. The remaining 74.9 per cent are of European descent and the remaining 9.8 per cent represent other visible minorities.
“Growing up all through public school, people would ask why my nose was flat,” he says chuckling. “I remember that I used to have this inferiority complex and I (would wonder) what was wrong with my face.”
In a report released in July by the Hong Fook Mental Health Association, some of the challenges faced by Asian immigrant youth were social exclusion from peers and teachers; lack of positive coping skills; and substance abuse, tied to stress.
While the report mainly featured Asian immigrants, people of Asian descent born in Canada also had similar experiences — especially with the challenge of cultural identity.
Ryan De Guzman, 25, an emcee and artist, was born and raised in Calgary. Like Iglesias, he is of Filipino descent. He says growing up and going through school was initially hard for him because he wanted to fit in, to be “white”— or at least treated as an equal.
“Racism has always been part of our history,” says Dr. Amal Madibbo, an associate professor of Sociology at U. of C.
“After colonization, western Europeans constructed themselves as the genuine Canadians, while the others are constructed as ‘others.’ ”
She says people who are not perceived to be founding people (such as the British), even until now, are not considered to be Canadians.
“When Canada opened its doors to immigrants, historically, even its policies first preferred the western Europeans and white Americans … on the bottom of the scale were the Asians and the blacks, who were considered as undesired future citizens,” she says.
“You don’t want to be singled out because of being a certain colour — and it would happen all the time,” De Guzman says. His way of coping was to withdraw but that didn’t work.
“I would shut myself out. I would take it — there was nothing else to do, and if I’d run away they would make fun of me because of (that).
“I didn’t know what to do, at the time I was afraid. I didn’t have a voice.”
Annum Shah, 22, is of Pakistani descent. Currently, she studies communications at the University of Calgary as well as journalism at SAIT Polytechnic as part of a joint program. She says after the events of 9/11, the bullying she had experienced became worse.
“All of a sudden I had this sense that there was a kind of wrongness that you feel,” she says.
“It’s not necessarily that you feel that your culture is wrong or that your religion is wrong, but more that you feel in a sense that you’re scared of who you are because it’s been so misconstrued because of the way mainstream media portrays you.
“You grow up being afraid of your identity.”
Though Canada’s cultural policies have changed positively and society has become much more diverse, she says these ideas and ideologies about who is or isn’t a true Canadian still exists.
“They are still considered as ‘others,’ and these perceptions still continue to exist because people are still using these ideas,” Madibbo says.
“For second-generation Canadians, there’s this sense of limbo that you feel, and I don’t know if it ever goes away,” Shah says. “You do feel a sense of isolation that comes from it because don’t feel like you fit in anywhere.
“I feel it when someone asks me where I’m from and when they (don’t recognize that) I’m born and raised here, that this is where my loyalties lie but I’m not really given a chance to express it because I’m different.”
And while efforts have been made to make Canadians more culturally aware, Madibbo says this perception of “others” is ingrained throughout society — through the education system, television, and other media outlets, where stereotypes continue to persist.
“Maybe the (school’s) curriculum is not racist, but you have to look at what is taught and who (teaches it) and whose history is taught and whose history isn’t.
“Only then do you realize what the Canadian curriculum is about and who it’s about after all. You realize who is excluded,” says Madibbo.
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