Aaron Chan on navigating Vancouver as a young, gay Asian creative

In an exclusive interview, Aaron Chan, author of This City is a Minefield, reflects on what it means to be Asian and queer in the modern world.

Win a copy of Aaron Chan’s new book, This City is a Minefield! See our Instagram post for giveaway details!

In his debut novel, This City is a Minefield, Aaron Chan reflects on the complex realities of finding love as a young, gay Asian man. Chan, a multidisciplinary creative with a history in filmmaking, poetry, and music, adds creative nonfiction to his arsenal with his newest collection of personal essays and memoirs.

From sexual racism in gay communities to homophobia in Chinese families, Chan’s reflections on dating, identity, and love dive into what it means to be Asian and queer in the modern world.

Growing up in Vancouver

In the first chapter of his book, Chan tells the story of his adolescence through the spots of Vancouver he grew up in, from the affluent west side neighbourhood of his childhood to the immigrant East Vancouver area that he moved to. 

To Chan, Vancouver was both a supportive presence and a collection of fond places throughout his adolescence. 

From makeshift garden lattices to Chinese medicinal stores, Chan’s identity as a Chinese-Canadian was largely influenced by his east side neighbourhood’s “unpretentious, modest and down-to-earth” vibe. His musical and creative interests were satiated during weekend trips to downtown Vancouver and Commercial Drive. He describes Vancouver as “a place where you could find everything you could find elsewhere, yet nowhere else.”

When he decided to pursue music and film after high school, he was met with disapproval from his parents who nudged him towards applying for university. Unlike them, Chan writes, Vancouver “seemed to understand [him].” He played live gigs at small venues, went to film school, and had a number of his shorts screened at queer film festivals, eventually going on to study creative writing at University of British Columbia. 

“I owed Vancouver for being the supportive parents I never had,” wrote Chan. 

Coming out as an Asian

Beyond negotiating his creative career with his parents, Chan faced another major challenge during his teenage years: talking about his sexual identity. From telling him that he was “sick” to saying being gay “is not right,” Chan’s parents often tried to convince him that his sexuality was unnatural by pointing out that no one in their extended family was gay. 

After coming out to his mom when he was 15, the two rarely revisited the topic of his sexuality afterwards. Chan believes that people have the common misconception that once someone comes out to their family, talking about dating and sexuality becomes easy.

“Sometimes, it’s not as smooth sailing for queer people of colour,” said Chan. As he explained, the cultural and generational gap was too wide to bridge, and bringing up his dating life would only make both of them extremely uncomfortable.  

In one of the book’s chapters, “All the Ways to Say I’m Gay,” Chan describes various ways he has come out to people in his life. From emailing his aunt to sharing a memoir to his creative nonfiction class, Chan says there was a mixture of “good coming outs, bad coming outs, and not coming out at all.”

“Just because you come out doesn’t mean you come out to everyone. It doesn’t mean you can come out all the time,” said Chan.

Navigating the gay dating scene

Chan writes extensively about the toxic, yet prevalent, sexual racism against Asians he faced while using dating apps. Profiles with “no Asian” preferences or older males’ fetishization of young Asian men as “feminine” or “bottom” were some Chan’s most common experiences with dating in his early 20’s. 

Those experience, says Chan, are not only sexually frustrating but also indicative of a larger issue of white hegemony in the gay community. 

“It’s not just sexual politics in terms of what people determine as a preference or not,” said Chan. Things like the types of voices queer publications include in their stories and what people envision Pride as all contribute to the subtle racism faced by queer Asians.

On a personal level, sexual preferences and discrimination took a toll on Chan’s self-esteem. 

“It definitely gets into your head,” said Chan. “You start wondering if you were white, would you be getting replies? You question your attractiveness and start second-guessing yourself.”

Now, Chan says he is more confident and self-aware, but he is still vocal about the damaging effects of sexual racism on people’s mental health. In one of his chapters, “Cold War”, he cites a University of Washington dissertation, on how gay Asian men are “devalued” both in their own ethnic communities due to their orientation and in the gay community due to their race. Long term effects include lower sense of self worth and “impaired psychological function.”

“If you are exposed to this kind of behaviour long term, this is what will happen,” said Chan. “It’s really harmful.”

Vancouver as a minefield 

As a title, This City is a Minefield refers to the emotional minefield Chan saw Vancouver as when going through a particularly rough patch after trying and failing to win back an ex. He experienced anxiety attacks when he saw his ex on campus or even visited places that they had went while dating. 

“It got to the point where I felt like Vancouver had changed, that if I went to certain places or stepped onto the wrong block, I would become incapacitated and I couldn’t function properly,” said Chan.

The minefield, coupled with other feelings like wanting to get out of Vancouver, feeling jaded from the dating scene, and not seeing much progress with his creative endeavours “left a bad taste in [Chan’s] mouth” in terms of how he felt about Vancouver.

But, Vancouver still has some redeeming spots for Chan. He’s fond of down-to-earth areas like Strathcona and Commercial Drive. One of his favourite spots is Kensington Park on Knight and East 33rd. “At the top of the hill, overseeing the city and mountains in the back; I’ll always appreciate that,” said Chan.

Writing the book

Chan both wrote new pieces and compiled old ones for the book, with many of his previous essays having been published in literary magazines. One of his oldest pieces, The Birth and Death of You and Me, was written for his creative nonfiction class back at UBC. When asked to write a memoir for the class, Chan decided to write his in second-person, as if addressing someone. The piece reads like a conversation between two conflicting characters within Chan, describing a bad experience he had while in the dating scene. 

There were other difficult chapters for Chan. When putting his book together, Chan says re-reading and editing one of the earlier pieces he wrote for the book,  ‘A Case of Jeff’, was very painful. “There was a lot of heartbreak there; it always made me really sad,” said Chan.

Looking back on his years of writing, Chan says he has “seen how far he’s come.” He describes his earlier works as “reading simply and easily” and a good reflection of his writing style at that time. “I like to think my writing has become more ‘literary,’ whatever that means,” said Chan. “If I were to write those stories now, they would be told completely differently.”

For now, Chan is proud of his book the way it is. “It’s certainly not a perfect book by any means, and yet I genuinely feel like I wouldn’t have this book any other way,” said Chan.

After reading This City is a Minefield, readers will become intimate with the musings and endeavours of a lonely soul figuring out love in Vancouver and navigating the ups and downs of being both Asian and queer in today’s world.

You can follow Aaron Chan on Instagram @aaronchanvan and visit his website to learn more about This City is a Minefield and his other works.

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