Why 'Asian' isn't a one-size-fits-all term for many Canadians

During the month of May, many Canadians, especially those with South Asian roots, revisit a familiar inner dialogue about just what it means to be “Asian.” 

During Asian Heritage Month, some struggle to identify with the word used to describe an entire continent

Muhammad Ali said he's often asked himself whether the term 'Asian' really reflects or encapsulates the person he is. (Muhammad Ali)

What comes to mind when you hear the word "Asian"?

For Muhammad Akbar Ali, it's a complicated answer, and every year at this time, his mixed feelings get amplified during Asian Heritage Month.

"I don't feel ownership, and to me, I don't feel like I'm celebrating the month for myself. I think it's beautiful for others, but it's not [about] me," said the 29-year-old.

To lump everybody from the Asian continent into one, it's kind of impossible.- Puran Guram

Born in Niagara, Ont., Ali grew up in the Greater Toronto Area before moving to Ottawa for work. Despite having Indian and Pakistani roots, Ali said he's never identified with the term Asian. He said his parents taught him cultural traditions, but neither Asian nor even South Asian were terms used at home.

"They wouldn't identify in that way," he said. "I feel like in some ways it could be a disservice even, or misidentify," he said.

Ali is not alone. During the month of May, many Canadians, especially those with South Asian roots, revisit a familiar inner dialogue about what means to be Asian.

Too broad a term

For Puran Guram, the term is simply too broad.

"Asia is such a big continent, I never referred to myself as Asian. It was always Indian, and being Indian it was always Punjabi," said Guram, 38. "It was kind of like educating everybody about where you're from and keeping your culture."

Puran Guram thinks the 'Asian' is too broad a term to describe so many distinct cultures. (Puran Guram)

Growing up just outside Cornwall, Ont., Guram said she was the only person of colour in her school. She said her classmates identified her as everything but Indian, so from an early age, she became aware of the importance of specificity when it comes to identity. 

"If we were to put everybody in one group, then we wouldn't even try to learn about their individual culture, you kind of need to have the subcategories," she said.

Many meanings around the globe

The name Asia is derived from the Greeks, who used it to describe anything due east of their country. While in Canada the term is often associated with East Asian cultures such as Chinese and Korean, across the pond it is a different story.

In the U.K., the term Asian is used commonly to describe anyone with South Asian heritage. Even in the U.S., Asian is a broad term embraced by national groups such as the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), whose human rights advocacy includes those with Hawaiian roots. 

Despite the many definitions, some South Asian Canadians have welcomed the term.

Guram's colleague Aena Numan, who is a Pakistani-Canadian immigrant, identifies closely with the term "Asian" because of her family dynamic. 

"I do define myself as an Asian. I consider that being a part of my identity. I mean, of course it's not something that I could shy away from," said Numan. "Identifying every single aspect of yourself, regardless of what it is, it's so important."

Still, during Asian Heritage Month, Numan concedes that the term may be a little too universal.

"It's like saying that you're Canadian," she said. "Everyone's definition of Canadian, it's so dependent on what they believe Canada to be."

As Asian Heritage Month begins, some struggle to identify with the term

2 years ago
Duration 1:00
Puran Guram, who grew up in a small town outside Cornwall, Ont., says she didn’t identify as Asian growing up, preferring instead to describe her background as Indian or Punjabi. She says the term is too broad to describe such a large group of people.

Similarities between Asian cultures

There are also similarities between many Asian cultures. From the respect and gratitude shown to elders to living in multigenerational homes, Guram noted there are shared values between subsets of Asians, whether their ancestry is traced to New Delhi or Tokyo.

"[Across the continent], the culture and the food's very similar and the view of family and all these things are very similar," she said.

As people of colour, many Asian immigrants, expats and Asian-Canadians also face similar struggles around racism and racial stereotyping. Guram thinks it's important to remember that a homogenous term is not necessarily the best way to describe billions of people.

"There are similarities, but there's also a lot of differences," she said. "To lump everybody from the Asian continent into one, it's kind of impossible."

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