‘Too Asian?’ Why I don’t accept the apology by Maclean’s

Vivian LukIts editors clearly don’t get what everyone is upset about. As a child of Hong Kong immigrants, let me explain. By Vivian Luk.

After more than two weeks of uproar about its controversial and provocative article titled, “‘Too Asian?'”, Maclean’s published an apology.

If that piece, “Merit: the best and only way to decide who gets into university; We find the trend toward race-based admissions policies in some U.S. schools to be deplorable,” published on Nov. 25 is a complete and accurate reflection of the editorial staff’s sentiments, then it is obvious that they don’t actually understand what everyone is upset about, and they don’t know why they are apologizing.

In a forum that discussed “Too Asian?”, hosted by the University of British Columbia last week, history professor and panelist Henry Yu stressed that the Asian-Canadians who are hurt the most by this article are not necessarily the people who just recently immigrated from China, India, the Philippines and so on. The people who are most insulted and saddened are the ones who tried all their lives to fit in and be accepted by Canadian society, he said.

People like me.

My family and I moved here from Hong Kong 20 years ago, but unlike me, my parents never fully embraced Canada. My mother never learned to speak English beyond the basics that would get her through Save-on-Foods or the mall, and she most certainly would not understand a word I wrote here. Like most satellite families, my parents saw their time in Vancouver as a transition phase. They were going to stay here for as long as it takes their children to grow up and graduate from university. Then they would return to their home country, where they would once again be around people who talked, walked and looked like them.

I was different. I wanted only to be considered Canadian, for reasons
I’m not quite sure I understand. It is also a decision whose wisdom can
be disputed. But when asked, “Where are you really from?”, I always
answer, “Vancouver.” I speak perfect, unaccented English. I grew up
listening to the Backstreet Boys and Spice Girls on Z95.3 (now Virgin
Radio), and watching Friends on TV. You know, things that “white” kids do.

No way to avoid being slotted

Most of my choices had to do with where I grew up and the people I hung out with. My high school was composed almost entirely of students from Asian origins — Chinese (from mainland China and Hong Kong), Taiwanese, Indian, Vietnamese. Many were quite proud of where they came from (there was a lot of “Asian pride” and rivalry between the different “Asians” going on — more about that later). But it wasn’t like they always went around deliberately asserting their various Asian-ness. Everyone spoke English. They studied all subjects (including math and science, yes), and they participated in sports teams and dances and did volunteer work. And for those who wanted to go to university, they studied hard to get in. Just like everyone else, regardless of skin colour.

But what the Maclean’s article did was tell people who are labeled “Too Asian” that despite their hard work, and their desire to fit in at Canadian schools and in Canadian society, they have never been accepted. Instead, they have been slotted into the usual racial stereotypes. The article tells them they have been grudgingly tolerated at best, and openly resented at worst.

That is what the angry outbursts are about, and the more than 2,000 comments by readers left on the Maclean’s website reflect this. They are not angry because, as Maclean’s believes, the magazine implied that Canadian universities have “abandoned merit as the basis for admission for more racially significant — and racist — criteria” like their American counterparts. No. They are outraged because the authors’ use of (anonymous) sources, quotes and a condescending tone implied that Asian students are a threat to white students, that they don’t belong because they have not assimilated to Canadian culture (and by that, the authors meant the culture of drinking and partying) and that the only image they will ever be associated with is the one of a black hair, yellow-skinned kid who studies too hard, is socially awkward and only hangs out with other Asian kids.

Condescension and anonymous racism

Speaking as a Chinese-Canadian, a student from UBC (a school that was mentioned in the article) and a journalist, there are so many things wrong with this article, it took me some time to figure out what I was really upset about.

First, the framing of the story was condescending and racist. Maclean’s wrote on Thursday, “through hard work, talent and ambition, Asian students have been highly successful in earning places in Canada’s institutions of higher learning. They, like all of our high achievers, deserve respect and admiration. Every one of them is a source of pride to their fellow Canadians.” But if the intent was to commend Asian students for their hard work and to praise merit-based admissions in Canadian universities, their article, “Too Asian?” indicated otherwise.

Authors Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler quoted two sources who were evidently too afraid to disclose their surnames (and using anonymous sources who are not in life-threatening danger is already unprofessional). The two girls said that Asians tend to go to universities such as the University of Toronto, “a school with an academic reputation that can be a bit of a killjoy” and with a “reputation of being Asian.”

“Too Asian” is not about racism, the girls insist. It is just that white students believe “competing with Asians — both Asian Canadians and international students — requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make. They complain that they can’t compete for spots in the best schools and can’t party as much as they’d like (too bad for them, most will say).”

Certainly, sources have the liberty to say what they wish, but so too do reporters have the authority to choose quotes that they feel would illuminate the story. Here, Findlay and Kohler used quotes that attribute blame to Asian students for making it difficult to get into university. Moreover, “Alexandra” and “Rachel” implied that being “Too Asian” meant students study so hard, they have no fun.

That leads to the stereotyping. First, the use of the term “Asian” is already problematic. If readers were to take for granted the students who were interviewed in this article, they would think that all Asians are ethnic Chinese. Not once did the authors quote students from Indian, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Malaysian or Cambodian descent. Needless to say, these students can be as different from each other as “white” students from English, French, Italian, German, or Ukrainian heritage are to each other.

Perpetuating divisive stereotypes

Furthermore, in the article, so-called experts stated that Asian students are “strivers, high achievers and single-minded in their approach to university,” that they only major in science and math, and that they focus so much on their studies, they have no time to join clubs and develop social skills. White students, on the other hand, are more fun-loving, athletic and social. Of course, stereotypes never occur in a vacuum; they are often based on a certain degree of truth and there may be plenty of people who fit those two general images. But what about the ones who don’t? Where are they in this story? By using such crude assumptions, this article not only perpetuates misconceptions about both whites and Asians, the dichotomy suggests that separation between people of different races is the norm.

This leads to a conversation about why stereotypes get used in Canadian mainstream media. It is no secret that the brevity of the news cycle and the industry’s deadline structure often leads journalists to rely on oversimplified assumptions rather than to dig deeper into an issue. It also has to do with the fact that those who make decisions in the newsroom have not committed to preparing news that is fair, accurate, sensitive and representative of Canada’s changing demographics. Many lack reporters from minority communities who can speak the language, understand the customs, and discover stories that are meaningful to those communities. Moreover, as Minelle Mahtani, associate professor of geography at U of T and the founding director of the Centre for Innovation in Diversity and Journalism, wrote in The Globe and Mail, “Journalists report the way they do in part because of the way they’re trained at journalism schools. Most journalism professors were trained years ago. When you have journalists teaching the next generation about old-school journalism, with the same frames and unchecked biases, the result can be old, tired stories.”

UBC student William Tao also makes a good point: “Often times, we ourselves, as Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Persians, are the biggest perpetrators of the ‘Too Asian’ stereotype,” he said at the UBC panel on Wednesday. Tao admitted that he deliberately avoided studying sciences and engineering because he thought they were “too Asian.”

Several years ago, one of the Chinese student clubs on the UBC campus created an ad campaign that ridiculed other Chinese clubs for being “too Chinese” — their members were too studious, too socially awkward, and speak English with an accent because they were mostly new immigrants. The members of the first club, on the other hand, were depicted as being more “cool” — equally hardworking and bright, but also outgoing, witty, sociable and mostly Canadian-born. Thinking back to my high school years, those differentiations between Asian groups certainly existed and continue to exist. Vietnamese kids where the ones who wore a lot of Kappa sportswear and had gold streaks in their hair, and Canadian-born Chinese were different from Hong Kong-born Chinese, who were different from those born in mainland China, and so on.

Therefore, I think Tao makes a valid point when he said, “Until we begin to embrace our own identities and differences, we cannot expect any different from others who may not know the difference between Taipei, Beijing, or even in my case, Victoria, B.C, and instead see us as a sea of black hair and brown eyes.”

Getting beyond self-segregation

If there is one thing I appreciate about the Maclean’s article is that it touched upon the subject of self-segregation between different racial groups in Canadian universities. “Diversity has enriched these schools, but it has also put them at risk of being increasingly fractured along ethnic lines,” wrote Findlay and Kohler. “It’s a superficial form of multiculturalism that is expressed in the main through segregated, self-selecting discrete communities.”

In my opinion, Findlay and Kohler are absolutely right, but it is this segregation that allows the stereotypes that they employed in their story to prevail. UBC president Stephen Toope has observed that despite a diverse student body where 43 per cent are ethnically Chinese, Korean or Japanese, the different cultural groups rarely connect with each other. Concerned, Toope recently hired former manager of diversity initiatives at CBC Television, Alden Habacon, to be the director of intercultural understanding strategy development at UBC. Habacon’s job is to devise mechanisms and opportunities for people on campus to interact and better understand each other rather than exist in separate enclaves.

“The challenge at UBC is, how do you get all of this diversity to be meaningful to each other… in such a way that if you were a student going to UBC, after four, five or 10 years on campus, you walk away and you’ve somehow internalized an intercultural sophistication that you wouldn’t have gotten not going to UBC?” Habacon said in an interview. “Why it’s important is because I think that is the difference between multiculturalism producing ethnic enclaves, as opposed to actually enriching society.”

For Habacon, what occurs at UBC, and what could possibly occur in terms of cultural integration could have implications for demographic change and social cohesion in Canada.

“The difference between a multiculturalism model that failed versus a multiculturalism model that actually excels is that there is a greater sense of how people live together, a greater acknowledgement of each others’ differences and there’s a greater ability to walk away and say we are obviously disagreeing, but it doesn’t mean we can’t be compassionate towards each other,” he said. “Otherwise, all we’ve done is basically said, ‘Yeah, you can do your own thing, but stay within your own boundaries.'”

As I think once again about why Maclean’s article upset me so much, I realize it is because of more than the racism, the stereotyping and the poor journalism ethics. It’s the fact that publishing such an article illustrates that it’s okay to pit one group against another in a country that prides itself for implementing multiculturalism as a policy 40 years ago. So what disappoints me the most is the article’s underlying message (whether it is the authors’ intentions or not): multiculturalism has failed. 

Vivian Luk has written for The Globe and Mail and
the Vancouver Sun and is completing a master’s degree in the University
of British Columbia’s school of journalism. This piece was originally published by The Tyee.