This past year I’ve become more intentional about taking myself beyond my comfort zone, into new art communities and new types of experiences.
As a Chinese South East Asian, I have always felt the pressures of being a clear minority in the English department. When I first went to university I began to feel incredibly disconnected from the reading lists, and at the same time, so hungry to be proficient in the language, and knowledge that my fellow classmates seemed to have. Reading Eurocentric history and philosophy alongside the sprawling literatures of what we often call ‘canon’, I was confused, disengaged, and extremely insecure.
My academia took a different route as I added an East Asian Studies minor to my course load, and hunted down every possible class in the English department that featured literature outside of European and North American Settler ‘history’. My journey took me through Indigenous, South Asian, East Asian, Australian/New Zealand Aboriginal, Post-colonial, Feminist literatures and more. It was liberating. There is much critical discussion happening in these classes.
Except (and this is a big ‘except’), I still experience a sad lack of Chinese names in my reading lists. I continue to see the Chinese communities I’m a part of, wrestle with the implicit, unsaid problems of the value of the arts within larger contexts. Furthermore, as a Singaporean, I have not seen Singaporean literature, or mention of Singapore even in post-colonial classes. Singapore remains interesting, at most, as a political or economic example to look at, or an exotic tropical (and wealthy) country to travel to.
There are many possible reasons for all of this, and those have been hashed out in various ways again and again, and could be addressed further. But for now what is important, is that as I’ve come to find my own voice and perspective as a student, as a writer and poet, and a social member of a city, I realize there are many others like me, feeling alone in their journey, fighting lack of representation and diversity, dealing with internalized or explicit pressures and damaging narratives in various ways. Among my circles of friends, people choosing to study the arts, to endorse and be proactive in the arts are few and far between. Yet, in my conversations with the Asian students I do cross paths with, the topic of tension eventually emerges, and we often find multiple points of intersection in our experiences.
At the same time, I have gained exposure to many grassroots collectives and organizations in Toronto that are tackling a range of issues in their own ways. It’s been years of sitting at the feet of others, and learning from them. From Black collectives and Indigenous organizations, to LGBTQ, Street-Involved and Indie Art initiatives, the groups are vibrant and dynamic. They are healing and safe. And yet, it is rare, even then, for me to find other East Asians, (and the Chinese population in South East Asia).
- What does it mean for diasporic Chinese to be in the arts, when we face the pressures of cultural expectations of success, the narrative of being a model minority, and a lack of overt colonial narrative to contend with?
- What happens when the art, and literature of the places our families came from, remain in languages we no longer read in?
- What happens when the places we ARE from, don’t consider us theirs?
- What happens when we continue to insulate ourselves in communities physically, religiously, and culturally, but not artistically?
I have been thinking of these things for a long time, and I don’t want to answer them alone.
My art-ing has become much more than a personal journey, and I feel that art in all its forms, done within the context of community takes on meaning and power that could never be achieved alone.
So I’ve begun the process of building purposeful community.
I believe this is art too.