I am a writer, you are a writer, and we are not alone

Jianna Faner talks about her experience and encounters of racism and multiculturalism as a Filipino Canadian in Canada and the importance of expressing herself through writing.

Late one afternoon on a clear spring day about a year ago, I was on the train and making my way home after interviewing to join the Cold Tea Collective team. As I leaned against the railing on the train, looking out the window, I felt buoyant.

I was so intoxicated by the ideas that I had just discussed with Cold Tea Collective’s co-founder, Natasha, about the philosophy and purpose of Cold Tea Collective.

When I was a kid, I wrote stories and read widely, but even at a young age, I would think: “But there are no famous Filipina writers, so I guess I will have to be the first.” I know now, of course, that that’s not the case. 

Photo credit: Ana Tavares

When I was preparing to write my undergraduate thesis, I discovered a wealth of Filipino artists working in a variety of mediums. They were all asking (and, to some degree, answering) the same questions that buzzed in my brain growing up as an immigrant. 

Like the discovery of Filipino artists, my conversation with Natasha filled me with a sense that I was not alone: there were so many other young, Asian creatives growing up in North America who, like me, craved stories that made us feel seen and heard. I couldn’t wait to think deeply about other personal stories, to provide people like me with a platform, to make voices heard.

Photo credit: Madeleine Ragsdale

The train pulled into Production Way-University, just one station away from my stop.

A large, stocky white man stepped onto the train. He was large enough that if he stood up properly, he would need to duck to get into the train.

He was gesticulating with his hands as he spoke, and his hands reminded me of how Hagrid’s hands are described in the Harry Potter books—like trash can lids.

As he stepped onto the train, he left behind a young Asian man standing on the platform of Production Way-University. 

The young man looked uncomfortable. He was holding stapled sheets of papers in his hands, which he was now wringing awkwardly, not knowing where to look, and in his eyes was a hint of fear.

“You’re not welcome in Canada,” announced the big man who was now standing next to me, looking out onto the platform. “We built this country.”

“You built the railroad,” he continued. “But what have you done since?”

The train doors closed, and I thought maybe he would stop. Maybe he was talking to the Asian gentleman on the platform?

“Now you’re just overpopulating the world.” He spoke in clear sentences, still gesticulating, taking long pauses. “Now, I’m Canadian. We need to take a stand against China.”

Photo credit: Mollie Sivaram

The train was mostly full—most seats were taken, which is why I was standing, but I was the person standing closest to him. Even as I write this now, I feel my heartrate accelerating, imagining my exit points on the train, my eyes stinging with tears.

Around me, I began to see people of all colours turn around in disgust, anger. 

I knew from years of daily commuting that it’s almost exactly two minutes between Production Way-University and Lougheed Town Centre. I stared at my phone determinedly, but even out of the corner of my eye I could see the big man’s hands gesticulating close to me. 

Was he trying to talk to me now?

“Not welcome in Canada,” he repeated. I tried to step forward towards the doors inconspicuously. I wanted to get out of here.

“Can you please keep your thoughts to yourself?” a voice piped up to my left. It was a young south Asian woman sitting next to the window two rows away.

He didn’t seem to hear her, so he kept going. “What have you done since?”

“Can you please keep your racist thoughts to yourself? Nobody wants to hear that,” she said more loudly.

“Okay,” he said, shrugging. There was silence for a moment, but then he kept going.

A woman got up out of her seat and stood at the door beside me. She was getting off the train too. She turned around. “Would you look around? This is Canada. It’s multicultural. You’re racist.”

Photo credit: Tim Mossholder

I took a look around. A black woman was starting to say in a clear, slow voice, “Canada is for everyone.” The train doors opened, and I rushed off as others on the train began to chime in angrily.

I weaved through the waiting travellers on the platform, looking at all these people, none of whom knew what had just happened on the train.

I held back tears as I speed-walked to the parking lot.

Just half an hour ago, I was talking about the diversity and beauty of the stories told by North American Asian millennials. How could this have happened?

My partner was waiting in the parking lot, and I stepped into the passenger’s seat of his family’s Honda Civic, and as soon as the door closed, I started sobbing.

Not too long later, I began onboarding to the Cold Tea Collective team. I wrote the beginnings of this story in a blog post, when the hurt felt fresh.

A couple of weeks later, I went to my first Cold Tea Collective team meeting, at a bubble tea place on Main and Broadway. This story never came up. 

As I got to know the bright, passionate, young crew behind Cold Tea Collective, the sting of the encounter I had a half hour after the first time I met Natasha seemed to fade. The stories I was editing felt more important: from the fun features of handsome Asian heartthrobs to the challenging personal stories of everyday people like me.

Now, that day is just a small piece of what forms my motivation for the work that we do here, kept silent and shameful (until now, I suppose). 

Photo credit: Hannah Grace

I sometimes stumble over the words when I explain what Cold Tea Collective is: “A storytelling platform for, by, and about North American Asian millennials.” It sounds so niche.

And maybe it is, but I think you—since you’re reading this—and I understand that this work, this platform, and this community are all so important. I didn’t need to feel scared and unsafe on public transit to know that, but my experience certainly erases any shadow of a possible doubt. 

It took a year of encouraging writers to dig deep and share their own stories to even consider that Cold Tea Collective was a place for me to share this experience. In hindsight, it seems almost silly, but I’m grateful that I’ve had this year to learn that my story is important, too. 

I know from my own experience that it’s not everyone’s cup of tea (pun intended) to talk about your own personal story. It can be challenging, maybe confusing or possibly even scary, to talk about yourself, your journey, your identity, or your lived experience as Asian Canadian, but storytelling is so powerful. I learn this truth again and again by working with Cold Tea Collective, and I invite you to do the same. 

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People chatting at the Making It documentary screening.

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