A rare and serious reflection here. Topic might be sensitive for some readers, so readers’ discretion is advised.
I grew up as a city girl and while I have met some occasional jerks, I’ve never felt anyone was being racist towards me. So, when I started attending university and taking up Asia-Canada courses at Simon Fraser University (that’s my extended Minor), I couldn’t really sympathized with some of my Asian-Canadian professors and lecturers who have grew up in the city or suburb during the 60s, 70s, 80s, and early 90s (some even earlier as they are 4th or 5th generation of Asian-Canadians) and experiencing racism and recalling painful memories. I honestly, in the back of my mind, thought they were just exaggerating.
Then, I moved to a smaller town due to family reasons. Living in a province made up mainly of small towns and with a strongly distinctive small town vibe even in the “cities”, I was definitely having an interesting time adjusting my city-girl perspective. For a large part, people are definitely “less cold” than those who live in the big cities. However, being one of the few Asian families in the area, we definitely stand out. Conversations with others are usually full of interesting perspectives and I feel that I am learning a lot from others who didn’t grow up in the big city like I did. But…then, sometimes, I would start catching some comments (which I’m sure were well-intended and weren’t meant to be racist at all from the other party’s perspective) like:
“Speak Canadian.” – Because I’m multilingual, and sometimes when I speak Chinese for an extended period of time (or been practising other languages in my spare time such as Japanese and French), I would end up with a strange accent when I switch the gear back to English. And it doesn’t help that to top it off, I actually have a speech problem that affect even my native tongue (Cantonese) of which I’ve been trying to fix all my life (there are words that I just can’t pronounced properly). I know the person who said this meant well, but it does make me wonder “what defines Canadian?” Our country strongly values multiculturalism and despite my accent for not sounding “white” enough, there has never been a doubt in my mind that I AM Canadian.
“No. Where are you from?” – The most common response (if not the ONLY response) I would get whenever I have answered initially that I’m from Vancouver. Then, I would politely (as politely as I could) answer that I grew up in Vancouver. At this point, they would then ask “what’s your background?/where are your parents from?” I would then answer “China.” Only then, would they stop asking as if they’re finally satisfied with the response. Now, I’m a 1.5 generation Asian-Canadian, so my conversation can still be kept rather short after I responded with “China.” I can only imagine what it must feel like for those Asian-Canadians (like some of my professors and lecturers) whose family history here in Canada can be traced back to at least five generations ago. I’m almost betting that they would get asked, “where are your ancestors from?” My white counterparts rarely get cornered by this question like this.
“How’s your vacation back from China?/ Going back to China?” – Whenever we’re announcing our vacation plans, these are definitely the questions we would get asked. Then, when we tell them that we’re not, but just visiting other provinces in Canada, they would be surprised as if they thought that we can’t possibly have other relatives who live in other parts of Canada other than ourselves. Even though I know they mean well, it does make me feel as if they’re not considering Asians as legit Canadians just because we don’t look like “the mainstream”.
“Wow! Your English is so good!/ You sound so Canadian.” – Often, my brother (who’s lucky not to be plagued by a speech problem like mine) would get this as a compliment. Honestly though, it does sound more like a backhanded compliment. Then, my brother would either say thank you or tell them in a friendly tone that he grew up here (in Canada).
Reaction: *suddenly dumbfounded*/*suddenly can’t comprehend your words* – This is the reaction that sometimes I would see in slightly bigger towns after I talked to the person over the phone before meeting them in person. While over the phone it seems like they can understand me perfectly, then when they see me in person it would seem as though they thought I was suddenly speaking in alien to them.
Now, I definitely think most of the above individuals are nice, mean well, and would not consider themselves as racist, but the unconscious racism is undeniably there based on my experience.