I think a lot of them (stories at the Profiling Black Excellence exhibit) either resonated with me personally or I’ve heard from friends who have had similar experiences. The whole experience of racialization means that different people are racialized in different ways. So, that has taken me a long time to fully grasp. There were moments when I was younger and thought, “Oh, I am not being profiled by police, so that means I don’t experience racism as much.” But, then as I grew older and read more, and talked to more people, I realized that it’s not that I don’t experience it as much, I just experience it differently. I don’t really drive much, so I don’t get stopped by police, but I imagine if I did, they would see me as non-threatening. Why? I could be a maniac behind the wheel, I could be a terrible driver, but just by the way that I am gendered and racialized they would say, “Oh, that’s a nice Asian girl.” I am maybe not as mortally in danger, and I think that is an important distinction, but it is all part of this white supremacy mentality or ideology that different people fit into different kinds of stereotypes. In terms of being in Victoria, there are two experiences, Chris already mentioned the thing at the Lunar New Year, the friend was me. That’s fine; there are so many others to choose from. One experience that came to mind, was this author of Chinese descent came to Victoria to do a reading from her new book and a friend of mine who worked at this one place in town invited me to go to dinner beforehand because I was going to the event anyway. And then the question and answer period was going to be moderated by this woman who is white and I think she has some kind of literary background, I wasn't sure. But at the dinner this author's mom was also there and her mom was born in Hong Kong and speaks Cantonese. I can understand Cantonese but I can't speak it. I can speak Mandarin and understand it. So, I was seated next to her mom and was chatting with her, and she really wanted me to help her do this voice-to-text thing on her phone. She said, “Oh you are young person, you can help me figure this out,” and that is how I knew she spoke Cantonese. But then the moderator person was trying really hard to be like, “I know a lot about Chinese culture.” She introduced herself to the mom in Mandarin and said, “I speak Mandarin, I speak Chinese,” and then spoke in Mandarin. It's very politicized because Mandarin is like a state enforced language in China. There are so many different languages, Cantonese being one of them, and the government in the ‘40s or ‘50s decided that we're all going to speak the same language. So, there are still a lot of people who don't speak Mandarin. Anyway, it was just this really tone-deaf thing, and the mom of the author was like, “Oh, I don't actually speak that language but okay.” The author did the reading and it was really awesome, and then the question answer period started and it was pretty obvious that this white woman was basically just trying to show off everything she knew about Chinese culture, and talking about how she used to work in China for x number of years, and it became much more about her than about the author or even really about the content of the book. I wasn't really sure that she had read the book. It was just really uncomfortable, and I kind of disassociated from the experience because I was sitting right at the front and thought, “this is a huge disaster and is so embarrassing.” I felt really bad for the author, even though she was very gracious and answered all of the questions. My friend who had organized the event, they’re also Asian, and so I was texting with them and said, “This is terrible.” They were like, “Yeah, I agree. We didn't think that this moderator would be like this.” It just left a really sour taste in my mouth, and is kind of a microcosm of a lot of other people I met who are like, “I'm really worldly, I used to work in x country as an expat for x number of years, and picked up the basics of the language, therefore, I’m really with it.”
That was a literary event, but in the last couple of years, I’ve only been in Victoria for 2 years, I was living in Vancouver before, I really like movies, so I have been going to a lot of films that have come in the last couple of years that are much more centering experiences of people of colour, which is great, but it has been really weird seeing it in Victoria, as in the audience is generally white, and then watching these films like, BlacKkKlansman, Black Panther, Crazy Rich Asians, Sorry to Bother You, like all of the films that are landmark films, in a way. But, seeing it in Victoria has been a different experience than maybe people who are watching these films in Chicago, or New York, or even Vancouver and Toronto. Because I was so new to Victoria, I didn’t really have any community initially, it takes a while to make friends, but definitely not a community of people who share either the same or similar experiences. So, seeing these films either by myself, or with someone who is white, I just couldn’t get into those kinds of conversations, but I had so many feelings after seeing those films, usually good feelings, or like I just had a lot to say, and felt like I couldn’t really share that with anybody in the city. So, I went online, and ended up writing an article about it for a Canadian feminist magazine. It was mostly for me. It was a cathartic experience to be like, “I watched all of these films and this is what I thought and this who I would like to watch with in Victoria,” and certain parts that were supposed to be funny, the audience weren’t laughing or certain parts that were not funny, the audience laughed. I was usually not synced up with the rest of the audience, and it is hard when you are in the theatre, and you are supposed to be in this immersive experience, to then be pulled out of it, and look around and realize, “I’m still feeling kind of othered in the audience.” So, I wrote about that, and talked to different people online about it, and basically at that point started to try and be more intentional about the friends I was making in town. I have been really lucky, especially in the last 6 months to a year, and maybe that is just how long it takes to meet people in a new city, to start meeting other Asians, and also just being in groups of people with different backgrounds that are not just me as the only person of colour. Usually through arts related stuff in town. It has been really healing, and that has been the cool thing that has come out of these somewhat frustrating or negative experiences, is that when I do meet people who get it, I appreciate them so much more. Whereas, I think if I was in Vancouver, I might have taken people more for granted. There are so many people, potentially, but here it is like every friend I make where I feel like we understand each other on this level, I put more effort in to maintain that friendship. And also check to make sure that we are really on the same page, because I have also learned the hard way with some people who I’m putting certain assumptions on them, like you are also racialized, therefore you must understand oppression and colonialism, and that is not a guarantee. There’s a phrase that I learned, I forget from where, but it is, “skin-folk is not always kinfolk.” I wish I could credit it, I definitely didn’t make it up, but I can’t remember where I read it. But, it’s true because I have also had experiences where I’ll meet someone else who is Asian and be like, “Oh, this and that,” and they will be like, “No, I can’t engage with you on this level.” Or there is a lot of internalized racism where they will not want to be friends with me or to date me, or whatever, because they don’t date Asians, or other Asians, things like that. It is almost even more hurtful because where do I really belong if these people, who I think I share similarities with, don’t see that. I think that is where the nuance really plays in. In a smaller city where there are not as many racialized people, it can be hard to find that balance sometimes.
With Crazy Rich Asians, it is a film that I have complicated feelings around, I won’t go there, but I watched it here, and then I watched it in Vancouver. Obviously, in Vancouver, there are a lot of different Asian-Canadians, there’s a distinction between people who grew up in a country where they are the majority. So, let’s say if you are an exchange student from China or Korea or anywhere else where they are the majority, they wouldn’t get it in the same way as kids who grew up here. Even in Vancouver there are pockets of kids who get it, it’s the culture. So, watching it in Vancouver, where there were a lot more Asian-Canadians, it was very different. It felt better. I can’t articulate why exactly, but I just felt nicer. When I was watching it here, I noticed that in the theatre there were a lot of teenagers, and a lot of middle to older white women, and in that film the Asian male characters are very much sexually objectified, to counter the usual Hollywood narrative that Asian men are not sexy, which I support and I think that is fine. Everyone on that screen, it is a romantic comedy, are sexually objectified anyway, but it felt kind of creepy to see a group of white women there to ogle over…I don’t know…there’s nothing wrong with that, but ten years ago would they have done this? But, now they are doing it, now it’s trendy. Personally, I would rather not even think about it, which is what happened in Vancouver. I didn’t have to think about it, I could just enjoy this film and not worry. I could turn off that analytical side.
Another thing that a friend brought up, she was visiting for a few months doing an exchange thing at UVIC, she is a student in Ontario, and she brought up this point of, “everywhere I go I hear rap music and music made by people of colour in restaurants, but you don’t actually see many people of colour.” So, it is like this background soundtrack, whether it is hip-hop, or rap, or Latin music, but then the people in the restaurant are all white, and there is almost this dissonance between the music that is being played and it being a “hip” place. It is very decorative.
Victoria, the pockets where people are doing cool things, and resisting and fighting back, are really inspiring, from your project to other things that are happening in the city. The nice thing is that is small enough that you can gather people relatively easily. But, the reason that people need to gather to talk about these things is so ubiquitous. The very fibre of the city is so colonial. As different kinds of racialized people come together, they have all been impacted by that white colonialism in different ways. In terms of the history of Jamaica, there is a whole history there, and in terms of my experience being born in China, and the history of the European domination at certain points in China, still kind of trickles through. And then growing up in Alberta, everyone is impacted in different ways.
I went to this talk a couple of years ago, she is a multi-talented artist/creator, she doesn’t just do one thing, her name is Vivek Shraya, and she is a musician, writer, everything. She was talking about writing, “about being a person of colour, about being trans, about being all of these identities, but sometimes I wish I could just write a poem about a lawn mower. What if I got really inspired by a lawn mower, and just wanted to write about grass, and cutting grass? But, that won’t sell; people won't be drawn to that, because they see me as a trans musician, or a brown artist, and it always comes with this qualifier.” That just gets old sometimes, whereas a lot of the white artists, you won’t say, “Oh, have you gone to this white indie show? That artist, they are like really white, and they happen to play the banjo and the guitar, but they are white, it’s amazing, you never see that! A white indie band, how unique.” You just don’t here that, they just play their Mumford & Sons, or whatever music, and it just is, and they sing about the usual topics, but you never hear, “this indie band, they are always singing about the same things, it is so stereotypically white.” Some people will say that, but the mainstream people won’t. You won’t see that in a review, you know, “latest album by Fleet Foxes, it’s great but it is just a little too similar to all of the other topics that white musicians sing about.” I’m not saying anything terribly radical, but I imagine it would really weigh on people to be constantly fitted to this box.
I’ve been really curious about the history of not just Chinese migrants, but also trying to dig into the history of other racialized people that first came here. So, in one of my diggings I found out that on the Gulf Islands there used to be really vibrant communities of Black people, Asian people, people from India. They left, I think because of racism mostly, but also opportunities. I think, in the States, once it was a bit better for Black people, then people went there. And the Japanese families, not just on Salt Spring, but a lot of the other islands, were kind of driven out over time. It is so interesting how recent it all is, because the families who own property on Salt Spring, for example, haven’t been there for that long, but now the properties are worth crazy amounts. They probably bought it for $10000, but now you add 5 more zeros behind that. In terms of the first pioneers, if you will, even though that term is extremely loaded, working the land is extremely hard to build that infrastructure. It’s the hardest for the first few generations, the people who come after it is relatively easier, but because they were not able to really fully experience the fruits of their labour…And now, these islands are known to be getaways for wealthy people. Mayne Island, for example, had a ton of different Japanese families that grew different vegetables.
I lived in Vancouver for about 4.5-5 years, and I think part of it was that I didn't have a lot of time, I was working and in school, so I didn’t make a lot of time to learn more about these things, but I think also part of it is, in Vancouver especially, it is pretty segregated in a way. There is some more mixing than here, but people are still in their own ethnic groups, and part of that is just that it takes time to create a POC culture, because a lot of people still think of themselves as Chinese or Indian or whatever, and looking at the States, even the kind of Asian-American identity or African-American identity, has taken a long time to coalesce. And it just takes a certain amount of time, or unfortunately hardship, to unite together in that way. I think in Canada, the immigration patterns have just not leant themselves in a way…I think it is slowly growing, and the solidarity movements, and with Indigenous people as well. Non-Indigenous people of colour building solidarity with Indigenous people, you do see that, but it is one of those things that just takes time.
The struggle for a vision of a world we can get behind is a continuous effort. What we are seeing in Ontario and Alberta, it is so easy to loose ground if people are not constantly holding that space. Ontario, at least in the GTA area, is one of the most diverse places, but then you still have the Fords gaining ground. So, you know, it’s not like those spaces don’t exist, because they definitely do, especially in Toronto, but do they actually still have that structural power? If you look at political power, then no. I am both interested, and utterly terrified to see what will happen in Canada with this rise in right-wing white supremacy. It might just be the kind of push that people need. After Trump was elected, you see a lot more of people banding together and saying, “We need to talk about this.” In Canada too, for a long time, the post-multi-culturalism of the ‘80s, and all of the actual terrible racist stuff that had happened in Canada’s past, and continues to happen, kind of got sugarcoated. But now it is slowly being peeled back, and people are realizing. I read the book by Robyn Maynard, “Policing Black Lives,” it is a heavy read, I actually haven’t finished it, I am taking a year break from it. It is a lot, but it is a beautifully written text about the history of anti-blackness in Canada. I learned stuff that was never taught in school, and would not have had any way of knowing because it was hundreds of years ago, unless you are looking for that history. She ties in the history of slavery in Canada, which most people either don’t know, or know and don’t talk about. They think, “Oh, it wasn’t as bad as the US.” How can you ever compare experiences of slavery? It talks about the 200-year history of Black and First Nations slavery in Canada, and tying it to police brutality and violence. So, it is a really hard-hitting book, but that kind of stuff is getting more attention now because I think people realize it’s more urgent. She was on a book tour, and I think she was in Vancouver for a little bit promoting the book, it came out a year or two ago, it is pretty new.
I got really into reading more theory about afro-futurism than the actual books about a year or so ago, and also tying that in with Indigenous futurism, and it is really cool. And then I started reading newer Asian sci-fi, some from China, but some that are more Asian-American science fiction, where there are actual people of colour. In some of the books at least there are characters who are Black or Indigenous, and not just a trope or less of a trope, at least. It is good to balance, especially if you decide to read, “Policing Black Lives,” I would say, go into in gently. I was very angry when reading it, and there were parts where I cried, because they would mention places in Canada that I visited, and I had no idea. There were parts of Ontario where there were tons of Black families, who again were the people who dug the hard earth, threw the initial crops, and then were driven away, and the white farmers came in. I don’t know enough about farming, but I imagine at first you have to clear the land, and that part is probably the hardest, and just the injustice in that history, you need to have some sort of other thing to balance it, otherwise it can really get tough. In terms of literary hopefulness, there are definitely way more authors now who are writing books where the central characters are different people of colour, and children’s books, too. I think that is a really key piece too, for kids of see themselves. It is really great and people are spending the time to write those books. I watched Beyonce’s, “Homecoming,” last night; it was spectacular. I was so tired and thought, “I can’t do anything but watch something mindlessly.” She is a visionary; it is really hard to compare anyone to her, but throughout the whole film, she was really trying to celebrate African-American culture, especially the big thinkers. She had quotes from all of the prominent Black thinkers of the last 100 years or so. Obviously, she needs to promote herself, and kind of places herself in that canon of, “I am doing my own thing to try to insure that our culture survives.” I think that is so cool, and I think when I talk to other people of colour, when they watch things that are not necessarily of their own culture they can feel not threatened, and appreciative. For me to watch that, it’s not my exact culture, but I think it’s great, I think there should be more of this. I don’t feel threatened by, “If there are more Beyonces, then that means there are less Asian artists.” I think there is enough space for everyone, whereas, I find that that is not necessarily the case with some white folks. “Oh, if Beyonce is great, that means Katy Perry can’t do the same thing,” or something. I think that is just so narrow-minded. I couldn’t even imagine what it would be like to be there live, they have these certain shots of the audience, and they look like they are losing their mind. They actually look insane because they are just freaking out. The way she connects with the audience, you can tell that she has been doing this since she was 15. It’s so natural to her, I know it is still a performance and all that, but the way she talks to her audience is just so easy. I didn’t want it to end, but it had to, of course.
Rihanna hasn’t been in the spotlight as much recently, but I was really excited about her make-up line. I was really following all of that, and how she was so intentional about developing the different kinds of…I don’t buy a lot of make-up, but I am trying to be intentional about the make-up I buy too. I think especially for women, because women have been socialized to wear make-up, but also for men who are wearing make-up, it can be hard to find that skin-tone. But also, in terms of colours that complement the skin-tone. As a photographer, I’m sure you understand that certain colours complement certain peoples skin tone more, and I was reading some article about the show, Insecure, and how they were saying that the people who are in charge of lighting, they know how to light back people, whereas for some black actors in certain TV shows or films, the lighting is not optimal because they are trying to match it to the mostly white cast. I don’t know enough about lighting, but it must be hard to do that, whereas the crew that’s part of Insecure, most of the cast is black. Since I read that, I started noticing that, and the way that the light shines, and it is really nice and it takes an intentional, creative choice. It is in some ways similar to Rihanna’s make-up line, in thinking, what shade of lipstick would actually complement people who have a darker skin tone, and actually having lipsticks that complement the darkest shade. Having a concealer that can actually conceal to the darkest shade, as opposed to, I don’t even know what people did. Not that anyone needs to conceal anything, but sometimes you just want to have a certain look. I noticed this about artists of colour, they have to be deliberate, and nothing is going to happen by accident. There was this one image from some award show, of Ed Sheeren standing next to a woman, I forget who the woman was, but she was dressed up in this super fancy ball gown, and he was in jeans and sneakers, and there were all these memes about white man shows up to a meeting, and then woman in the meeting has to be professional. I think a lot of artists who have various kinds of privilege, white or otherwise, things might just happen easier whether it is their family connections, like, “Oh, accidentally I am a model now.” But, for the artist who has to come up in harder ways, whether it is from the way they look, or they came out of poverty, nothing comes by accident, everything has to be intentional, and you get used to that. That becomes your work ethic, and everything is now going to be intentional and maybe they have some perfectionist tendencies, but then their product is flawless. Going back to the Beyonce, “Homecoming,” documentary, it is just so seamless. You know it took hundreds of hours, not just preparing for Beychella, but the editing process too was so intentional, and she is famous for being really tight about what she shares and doesn’t share, which I totally respect. As a celebrity you have to be mindful, otherwise you will lose your sense of self. Nothing happens without intention, and I think bringing it down to a non-celebrity level, I find that when I work with colleagues of colour, the ways they go about doing the work, is much more intentional as well, especially in Victoria. At UVIC, maybe this is because I work there, maybe not, they try really hard to be a place of diversity, and I think in some ways it is maybe more diverse than in other work places, but there’s still institutional barriers to who has power. But, of the colleagues that I have had who are racialized, I always enjoy working with them because I feel a sense of I can relax. There were one or two instances where we were in a meeting, and were all people of colour, and it felt kind of nice. It doesn’t happen that often. Again, I have to be intentional about certain standards I have in terms of where people are at, and what they can engage with. But, it’s relaxed a little bit when it happens at work.
The parade that Chris and I went to was two years, and this most recent Lunar New Year I invited all of the East Asian friends I knew in town, which was, I think, about six. I haven’t been in Victoria that long, so I am working on it. Chris was one of them. I had hung up these red lanterns on my balcony, and I friend was biking by and thought, “Oh, I wonder if that is Sally’s house?” And it was, because no one else is going to put a red lantern up at that time of year. I was very intentional about doing that because at Christmas, everyone else is putting up those stupid inflatable snowmen, and ugly, gaudy stuff, and so this is what you do for Lunar New Year. As she was locking up her bike, she saw two other Asian people walking into a building, and thought, “I wonder if those are Sally’s friends?” And they were, just because it doesn’t happen that often. I had everyone in my apartment, and they were all either Vietnamese or Chinese descent, but Asian-Canadian. I had my one friend who was white, but had grown up in Vancouver, but she was my neighbour and she gets these things, and she felt so privileged to be in this space where everybody was eating all of this food that she had also grown up with. That is the interesting thing, especially in Vancouver, there’s some people who could be of Indian descent, but then they grew up eating dim sum, and are betting at picking up dim sum than I am, because they have been in Vancouver long enough, and all of their friends, and girlfriend is Chinese, and the cultures really do mix in beautiful ways, and so, she really was appreciative of being in this space. It was also so emotional for me to have been able to host this, and for the different people, most of them didn’t know each other. Slowly through the course of the night you could see them shedding off those layers. We talked a little about racist stuff, but a lot of it was not. We didn’t center the white racist experience, we just talked. We were playing mah-jong, and some people knew how to play, and some people didn’t. People who knew taught the others, and it was just a really special night. I sent people home with food, with is the most important tradition, and everyone left feeling just a little bit more full, in every sense. We were all definitely stomach full. Our souls were really fed. It was just nice to be able to do that. And, there was a baby there too because one of my friends from UVIC, her and her husband work at UVIC and they just had a son recently. It felt really good for me to have been able to provide a space for that child who is going to be growing up in Victoria. For babies, being around these cultural events is so important. They might not seem like they understand, but they do, they are absorbing everything, and the smells. All of the foods that bring me comfort, I lived in China until I was eight, all of the foods and the smells that bring me comfort, come from that time in my life. I think it imprints for a certain amount of time, and that is what you get. I think a lot about that with children, in terms of exposing them to the sound and smells and the colours. To them, they won’t make sense of it, but when they are older, hopefully. Even for me, being in humid places, I am from South China, any time I go to a humid place, it doesn’t have to be in China, when I was in India the same thing happened, you feel the humidity and my skin just breathes. I don’t know if it is a genetic thing, in terms of adaptation, but I think it is more of a physical memory. Your body remembers what nourishes you, and even if I have spent a lot of my life here, those early memories of the certain smells, even the bad smells, even when I smell certain kinds of cow dung reminds me of parts of my childhood. It’s not necessarily a positive. Whenever people think about early childhood, it’s food and happy things. But, sometimes even the unhappy things can make us feel a sense of belonging.