Standing together: Honouring Asian heritage and identity through solidarity

The Asian American/Canadian identity is one rooted in activism, struggle, and solidarity. Lily Zheng and Dr. Vivienne Poy discuss what it means to be Asian in North America, how to belong, and what to advocate for during Asian Heritage Month and beyond.

Recently, I had a conversation with a friend who spent the same amount of time (about 10 years) in America as I had in Canada. What struck me as interesting was that despite our similar experiences, I felt an affiliation with my Asian Canadian identity, while she identified as Korean American.

That was when I first came to recognize a difference between identifying as Korean and Asian. It got me thinking, what does it mean to be Asian in Canada and the United States? What does it mean to identify as “Asian American” or “Asian Canadian”?

These questions were addressed in Standing Together, an online panel discussion hosted by the National Association of Asian American Professionals (NAAAP) Toronto. As Cold Tea Collective was a community partner of the event, I was luckily able to attend.

An image of Lily Zheng and Dr. Vivienne Poy against a patterned backdrop, used for the event page of Standing Together.

Photo Credit: NAAAP.

We heard from The Honourable Vivienne Poy (she/her), PhD, Canada’s first Asian senator, who also has a background as an author, historian, fashion designer, entrepreneur, and community volunteer. We also heard from Lily Zheng (they/them), a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion Consultant and Executive Coach based in the U.S.

The panel was moderated by Anime, an MC, DJ, and host based in Toronto.

The panel discussion covered what it means to be Asian in America and Canada in 2021. It also expanded upon the history of the Asian identity, going back to its origin in the 1960s.

Other topics included combating the perpetual foreigner syndrome, increased policing as a solution/non-solution to hate crimes against Asians, and how to cope when you’re exhausted from explaining racism and Asian American history.

Most importantly, the panel discussed the importance of solidarity, action, advocacy, and shaping our future through these means.

What it means to be Asian in North America

Zheng outlines the history of the term “Asian American” as an identity of self-affiliation that emerged in the 1960’s.

Before this point, people identified with narrower community definitions such as “Korean American”, “Chinese American”, or “Sikh American”. Then came the African American Civil Rights Movement, which inspired people to unify under “Asian American” for strategic political means.

At its root, to be Asian American or Asian Canadian is a matter of solidarity. It means taking part in a political movement against white supremacy and advocating for community rights.

Therefore, the Asian American/Canadian identity revolves around standing together, as the name of the event suggests. Zheng drives this point home in saying, “To be Asian is to stand together. [Standing] together is not aspirational — it’s definitional.”

Activists in a crowd holding up signs that read "MINORITIES MUST STAND TOGETHER" and ASIAN SILENCE = ASIAN CONSENT".

Photo Credit: Marcela McGreal.

The Asian American/Canadian identity is fundamentally rooted in solidarity with other Asians under the umbrella. Despite superficial differences, “it is to operate under a shared experience of discrimination and racism,” says Zheng.

This is because the problem that plagues all Asians in some way or another connects to a common root. The perpetual foreigner syndrome categorizes any visible minority, especially Asians, as outsiders. We are often told: “you don’t belong here”, “you shouldn’t be here” and “you are causing the problem.”

A shared history of struggle

The history of Asians in Canada is fraught, to say the least. Dr. Poy reminds us of all that Asians in Canada have endured: the Vancouver Anti-Asian Riots in 1907, the Komagata Maru incident of 1914, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, and Japanese Canadian incarceration camps beginning in 1942.

Since then, things may have gotten better. However, Dr. Poy adds that “there’s still a long way to go.” She refers to the continued existence of systemic racism in the “bamboo ceiling”. This phenomenon results in the exclusion of Asians from rising up into leadership positions.

Not only that, but as the pandemic has shown, explicit racism has also persisted. Once previously more underground, it now emerges at the first opportunity of an excuse. This manifests in hate crimes, name-calling, threats, and harassment.

As such, it is important that we continue this heritage of collective organization and resistance that characterizes the shared history of the Asian American community.

Read more: Why we must learn Asian American history

Solidarity: A necessary imperative 

“As a whole group we need to work together. That’s the only way we have strength.” Dr. Poy stresses the necessity of speaking up for one another to effectively deal with the root problem.

Using historical context to support Dr. Poy’s point, Zheng reminds us of Chinese Americans in World War II. When the U.S. was at war with Japan, they would wear pins that read “I hate the Japanese just as much as you”.

This was an attempt to differentiate themselves from the animosity directed to Japanese Americans, the then-targeted Asian group, pitting different ethnic groups against each other.

We see this same sentiment during the COVID-19 pandemic, as other Asians jump to differentiate themselves from any Chinese heritage, as though that were the issue. History tends to repeat itself, so to look away from racism and say “it’s not our problem” will only ensure that when we are the ones suffering, nobody will speak up.

This leads us to forget the solidarity so crucial to the Asian American/Canadian identity.

“Boba liberalism”, as Zheng highlights, is one form of such collective amnesia. The term satirizes those with little regard to the history of Asian American/Canadian struggle, and choose to instead ground their identities in superficial AAPI cultural traits and affiliations.

A hand holding a cup of bubble team, with "XING FU TANG" written on the side.

Photo credit: George Zheng on Unsplash.

It is, simply put, an identity that has been subsumed by white-aligned, consumerist, upper-middle class hallmarks such as boba, K-pop, and other performative AAPI-related purchases. It equates eating dim sum and watching Crazy Rich Asians with honouring one’s heritage.

Speaking from her experience in the Senate, Dr. Poy cautions against these hallmarks that generalize the experience of this privileged group to the whole of Asians in North America. These labels obscure the narratives of marginalized Asians “who need help or government support”.

A racial reckoning

With an understanding of where we come from, the next step is figuring out how to move forward while acknowledging our history. What does a racial reckoning in 2021 look like?

Zheng emphasizes how all our issues are inevitably connected. It goes without saying that we stand to gain so much more in solidarity than in division.

“We have to understand that we can’t be pushing for our justice without considering how it relates to everyone else,” says Zheng. “There’s such a rich legacy of resistance, struggle and community work of supporting each other that has always been our history.

“But when we reduce what it means to be Asian [American/Canadian] to these surface level sayings [of ‘boba liberalism’], we risk having our communities forget their heritage, forget their background, and even sometimes become part of the problem.”

How then, can we move towards this ideal of solidarity?

Zheng stresses the importance of doing something actionable. “Reach out to Asian organizers in your area, not limiting yourself to East Asian organizations. If you don’t know them — that’s on you. Start to get to know them.”

Dr. Poy highlights this importance of learning from one another within the Asian umbrella, including West Asians and Central Asians. “It’s not just [that] Asians learn from Asians,” she adds. The bigger task is to “let the mainstream learn from us.”

In celebration of Asian-ness

As we have come to learn, the Asian American/Canadian identity is one “not centered on food, not centered on exclusion, not isolated within our small communities — but [one] working together, centered on justice, [and] understanding that there are many experiences under the umbrella of Asian American’,” says Zheng.

To claim an Asian Canadian or Asian American identity, then, is about more than just appearance. It becomes an affirmation of solidarity and community in the collective struggle against white supremacy and prejudice.

Zheng’s concluding remarks are “We win together. That’s it.” Together — period. Whether within Asian American/Canadian communities, or even Black and Latinx communities in extension, we cannot go on passing the brunt of white supremacy-based violence from one group to the next, holding our breath as we pray that the next time around, the target won’t land on our backs.

Protestors at a gathering holding up signs, with visible sign reading "ASIANS IN SOLIDARITY WITH BLACK LIVES" and "BLACK LIVES MATTER".

Photo credit: Korantin Grall on Unsplash.

The issue of racism is surely one that we must fight together. The problem rests on the collective shoulders of every single last one of us. Whether Asian American, Korean Canadian, Sikh American, Black, Latinx, or allies from all backgrounds — we will win, standing together.

Listen to the full-length recap live stream archived on NAAAP’s Facebook page.

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