After 20 years, Asian Canadian kids say they need more than a heritage month

Story by CBC Kids News • 2022-05-06 06:30

Learn the history, educate yourself and really listen this May, teen says


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This May, Canada celebrates the 20-year anniversary of Asian Heritage Month.

But is it making an impact?

The idea behind the annual celebration is to recognize the history and achievements of people who hail from more than 40 countries in the continent of Asia, but who live or were born in Canada.

CBC Kids News spoke to several kids and teens of Asian descent from different parts of Canada.

No one had ever heard of Asian Heritage Month before, even though figures like Canadian actor Simu Liu and the official account behind the Toronto Raptors have tweeted about it.

Tweet from @SimuLiuL Happy start of Asian Heritage Month everyone! Join me in celebrating by supporting Asian-owned businesses and ordering boba and soup dumplings for dinner tonight! This is totally not something I do personally two to three times a week...yeah...

“I guess school never actually brought it up,” said Megan Kung, 11, from Winnipeg, Manitoba.

“With Black History Month, there’s always protesting, so the government has to bring it up. Asians don’t [speak up], so in my opinion, that’s why.”

Even though the kids we spoke to weren’t familiar with Asian Heritage Month, they’ve still found different ways to connect to their culture and share it with others.

However, they all feel that Asian Canadians need more than a month to feel accepted and understood. 

How it all started

The first Asian Heritage Month was celebrated in 2002.

Canadian Sen. Vivienne Poy, the first Asian senator ever to be appointed in Canada, was behind the idea.

In an interview with CBC News at the time, Poy expressed a desire to have Asian Canadians recognized for their achievements and place in Canadian history.

“Asians have helped to build Canada and it’s important that it is recognized,” said Poy.

What does Asian Heritage Month actually do?

There are many holidays in Canada celebrating marginalized groups, including Black History Month in February and National Indigenous History Month in June.

Ahmed Hussen, Canada’s minister of housing, diversity and inclusion, told CBC Kids News that heritage days and months can make up for blind spots in the Canadian education system.

Asian Heritage Month can be a push to celebrate notable Asian Canadians, he said, but also spread awareness about the darker periods in our history that Canadians don’t learn about in school.

Poster with illustrated faces and text: Asian Heritage Month #AHM2022

This is the poster for the 20-year anniversary of Asian Heritage Month. (Image credit: Government of Canada)

The theme in 2022 is “continuing a legacy of greatness.” The official Government of Canada website says the month is “a reminder for all Canadians to come together to combat anti-Asian racism and discrimination in all its forms.”

“It teaches people about the diversity of our country and that we didn’t just become diverse today,” Hussen told CBC Kids News.

According to a report from Statistics Canada, almost half of the immigrant population in Canada (48.1 per cent in 2016) was born in Asia, including the Middle East.

Reports of anti-Asian hate and violence in Canada have increased during the pandemic, after the coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in late 2019.

So, do Asian Canadian kids think that Asian Heritage Month is enough?

Selfie of a girl with dyed blond hair in a black tank top

Hannah Kim, 15, takes a selfie in Markham, Ontario. (Image submitted by Hannah Kim)

Too Korean at school and not Korean enough at home: Hannah

Hannah Kim, 15, lives and goes to school in the predominantly Asian area of Markham, Ontario.

She describes herself as “full-blooded Korean.” While she was born in Mississauga, Ontario, her immigrant parents came to Canada in their 20s.

At school, Hannah noticed that Asian students often tend to hang out in one big group.

“I think a lot of Asian people my age struggle with their identity,” said Hannah.

“Usually the popular groups are white-dominated, so [the Asian kids] are a little too Asian to fit in.”

Hannah found herself connecting with other Asian students at her school through a program called Live Well, Take Action.

It is an engagement program for East Asian kids within the Greater Toronto Area that helps Asian youth get in touch with their culture and builds self-esteem.

“It was helpful for me because it was a bunch of East Asian teens that got together to complain about how at home they’re too white and at school they’re too Asian,” said Hannah. 

“We were like, ‘Oh my God, we all feel this way,’ and it was really validating.”

Many kids at Live Well, Take Action felt the struggle of trying to fit in without losing their heritage.

“It was really interesting to see people talking about their home life, how kids feel regret because they can’t speak the language they speak at home,” she said.

“At school, they’ll get isolated for looking a certain way, or bringing some sort of lunch to school that smells different. The environment was really inviting and everyone could be vulnerable.”

A nine person Zoom call, only the top three people have their cameras on

A Zoom meeting with some of the kids from Live Well, Take Action. (Image submitted by Live Well Take Action)

While Hannah said that the spirit of Asian Heritage Month is really “cool,” she said Canadians should do something meaningful to recognize it, if they’re going to bother at all.

“You have to want to learn about the history, educate yourself and really listen to actual East Asian voices, and Asian voices in general,” she said.

Bringing sushi to school led to teaching her class about Asian culture: Megan

A young girl looks back from a desk where she practices Chinese calligraphy.

Megan takes part in a calligraphy competition at the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural and Community Centre in 2019. (Image submitted by Ruey Su)

Megan Kung, 11,  lives in the area of Tuxedo in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

She is the only Asian kid in her class, and one of the few at her middle school.

Megan is a talented artist, and even won first prize in a kids’ calligraphy competition at the Winnipeg Chinese Cultural & Community Centre in 2019.

“I do Chinese calligraphy and I have to go to Chinese school on Saturdays, so those are the reasons I feel connected [to my heritage],” Megan said.

“But I barely know anybody who is Chinese at my school. There’s nobody that’s Asian in my class.”

In terms of fitting in, Megan said she “mostly feels totally normal,” except when she brings different lunches to school.

In Grade 1, she brought sushi, which led to everyone in her class asking questions.

Her mom ended up speaking to Megan’s teacher about highlighting more Asian culture in the class.

It was near Chinese New Year, so Megan helped her teacher learn about the Chinese tradition of “red pockets,” where people receive envelopes with “lucky money” inside.

“It does feel weird when your mom is telling the teacher to do stuff, especially when you’re the only Asian in your class,” said Megan.

“But I didn’t mind it. I got a lot of attention.”

When it comes to Asian Heritage Month, Megan said having the opportunity for Canadians to learn more is a great idea.

One of her heroes in her community is the former lieutenant-governor of Manitoba Philip S. Lee, whom she met a few years ago.

“He promoted Chinese culture by throwing street parties, and he also built apartments for seniors, so I look up to him,” said Megan.

Half Asian but still Korean: Rebekah

A girl smiles next to a bowl of bibimbap.

Rebekah Joy KimPhin poses with one of her favourite foods, bibimbap. (Image submitted by Gloria Kim)

Rebekah Joy KimPhin, 12, from Toronto, Ontario, is half Korean, as well as Scottish and German.

She knows first-hand that kids don’t always understand her culture.

“I always say, ‘I’m Korean.’ I never say, ‘Oh, I’m Scottish, I’m German,’” Rebekah said.

“But I’ve also had people be racist, saying that I can’t be Scottish, German, because I’m not that colour. Just because you can’t see it, you can’t say that I’m not.”

According to Rebekah, we should be kind and understanding to marginalized peoples every month, not just when we’re supposed to.

“It’s really good that we have different months to honour the different people in our country, but I also know that it won’t change everything that fast. I feel like we’ve gotta try harder.”

Is Asian Heritage Month enough?

Even Hussen acknowledged that commemorative dates on a calendar are not enough to combat hatred and racism against minorities in Canada.

He said there’s a lot of work for all generations to do, in empowering the Asian community in Canada.

“If we don’t work at it, if we don’t empower people, if the education system and all the other institutions around us don’t start to reflect the diversity of Canada, nothing’s going to change,” he said.

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