In spite of having lived in the Greater Toronto Area her entire life, St. Mike’s alumna Fiona Li told a panel audience Monday afternoon that anti-Asian sentiments sometimes makes her feel “like I don’t belong here.”
Li joined St. Mike’s undergrads Maya Martin-Spisak and Warren Liu for an online discussion on anti-Asian racism, moderated by student union president Cianna Choo.
“There’s a notion that we are perpetually a foreigner,” says Li, who is a graduate of St. Michael’s Christianity and Culture program, as well as holding two degrees from the Faculty of Theology. “No matter how Canadian I am, I am seen as a foreigner. It feels like I don’t belong here.”
She cited preconceptions on everything from what Asian students study through to stereotypes of Asian women as ultimately harmful to mental health.
“You doubt yourself. You ask yourself ‘Am I worthy?’” she said.
Liu noted that, while he lived in China for 10 years, he was born in Canada and has spent much of his life here, but sometimes people’s approach to him makes him think of “imposter syndrome. You feel like you’re not really Canadian.”
Martin-Spisak added that, over time, she was learned to push back at common micro-aggressions.
Born in China and adopted by a family in California, she lived in a community where she was the only Asian person in the neighbourhood.
“I didn’t see people like me. I ate the same peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as everyone else but when I would say I was American people would say, ‘But where are you really from?’”
She continued by saying she felt guilt because of choosing humanities over STEM courses, worried how people would respond. She then stressed there are dangers in society creating what she called “monolithic assumptions about Asians,” a reality that Li also addressed.
“It’s not helpful, because there are so many different ways of being Asian—or Canadian,” Li said. “To generalize is to do people an injustice because our experiences are particular. I speak Cantonese. I don’t speak Mandarin. To ignore details like that is to disregard people.”
Liu agreed, noting that sometimes people simply do not recognize the impact a casual comment can have.
“When people say, ‘You’re good at (a subject) because you’re Asian!’ you have a weird feeling of having your hard work boiled down to a stereotype,” he said.
Martin-Spisak agreed, noting, for example, that when people talk in stereotypes about wealth, it negates the experience of Asian people living in countries where opportunities are limited.
“It erases that difference and that struggle,” she said.
Any kind of assumption is dangerous, she added.
“People have notions of Asian women as quiet and submissive; I’m not!” she said. “To think of Asian women as submissive of ‘exotic’ creates a toxic train of thought.”
Liu mentioned the impact the pandemic has had on how Asian people are treated.
“The coronavirus was discovered in Wuhan and that had a negative effect on Asian people,” he said, noting that while what he labelled “soft racism” has long existed, “this has exposed a propensity to commit violence. We are seeing a more raw form of racism.”
Martin-Spisak told the panel that when COVID-19 first took hold, she would notice people move away from her in stores, a reaction Choo said she had also experienced.
While acknowledging the struggles and the challenges, panelist also offered ideas on how the broader community can help.
“The soul of Canada is a place where people of all races can come together and make miracles happen,” Liu said optimistically, suggesting kindly that people begin by exposing themselves to news things, including food.
“How can you hate someone when you try their food and find it delicious? Have an openness,” he said.
All panelists agreed that broadening exposure is key, that Asian people are more than kung fu, K-pop and anime.
The classroom is a key space in acknowledging and addressing racism, Martin-Spisak said, noting her appreciation for professors who acknowledge the trauma world events can cause and encourage students to care for their mental health.
As a Chinese woman studying theology, Li said her classes often feature the works of white men.
“How about trying an Asian scholar?” she said.
She also encouraged students to call out racism when they hear it.
“It helps to recognize that someone is on our side.”
Choo, as moderator, agreed on both points, saying that seeing Asian role models encourages students to see themselves in new ways, and that the support of friends and classmates sends a message of care. She also emphasized how important it is to provide opportunities for students to learn about each other’s cultures.
There are ongoing challenges to be faced, Liu stressed.
“Are the jokes okay? Are they productive?”
Dean of Students Duane Rendle closed the event by noting that anti-Asian violence is an issue that has been “below the radar” and he thanked students for their participation.
“We want to ensure that all students—including our international students—are welcome.”