August 7, 2012

Am I Canadian?

photo courtesy by Shaun Tanaka
Canada prides itself on democratic principles of equality and fairness, and on the constitutional assurance of a cultural mosaic. Yet, our society is divided according to colour and ethnicity. This reality is pervasive and intractable, despite a resounding, collective denial by citizens, government and institutions alike. The margins of acceptability are constantly maintained in our every day lives: “SWM seeks SWF.” “Joe,” a White man in a plaid shirt, affirms in a television ad that yes, he is Canadian. Meanwhile, I constantly have to answer ubiquitous questions such as “Where are you from?” or “Well then, where are your parents from?” or “Which one of your parents isn’t an ordinary Canadian?” As if to be Asian, is to be from somewhere else.

Much of my identity transgresses the categorical lines that reassure, console and comfort people who cherish the normalized “White-ness” blanketing the Canadian landscape. I blur the margins of inclusion and exclusion, confusing the principles of division operating in our multicultural society. A fourth generation Japanese Canadian, my ancestors came to Canada shortly after the Russo-Japan war, some of many that experienced the uprooting, internment and dispersal of the 1940s. I am also of Irish descent, the other half of my ethnic identity. My features aren’t exactly typically Asian, yet I still carry many of the physical characteristics that aroused such racial antagonism in the past—an antagonism that arguably still exists today. As a child of multiple ethnicities, I experienced what I consider an unnecessary degree of isolation and ostracism in Toronto’s suburbs; as a result, I felt compelled to make a connection between my appearance and the historical and cultural dimensions of my Japanese Canadian heritage. In my search for solace that I could not find in my predominantly White neighbourhood, I felt pulled toward the Asian community. I decided to focus my Master’s thesis in geography on the Japanese Canadian community in the Greater Toronto Area, specifically the sansei (third generation). I was hoping to understand the dynamics of ethnic identity construction and the community affiliations of Toronto’s Japanese Canadians.
As part of my research, I gathered surveys and conducted a number of individual interviews and focus group discussions. Through this dialogue, I began to feel partly responsible for the present state of the Japanese Canadian community. Many of the participants spoke of hapas as “diluting” the Japanese Canadian population, a process that would eventually dissipate the affiliations, organizations and “authenticity” of the community.
This does not mean that the Japanese Canadians I spoke with disapproved of inter-racial marriage, or that they expressed hostility toward the children of these marriages. But I was left with the impression that proudly declaring myself Japanese Canadian would come across as vacuous and amusing to “real” or “legitimate” Asians.

Perhaps it is because I am a hapa who has invested a number of years into researching the Japanese Canadian community, and am greatly concerned about its survival, that I carry such a disparate view. I feel that most people who see hapas as the possible demise of an authentic Japanese Canadian community are focused primarily on the disappearance of visible indicators of culture, for instance, language, in-group marriages, religion and close geographical proximity between group members. However, this perspective fails to recognize the possibility that Japanese Canadian culture can persist and be maintained across generations in a translated form.
It is important to investigate manifestations of hybridity, not only as a way of moving beyond the essentialist views of race and culture, but to reconceptualize identity and to acknowledge the magnetism that both binds and divides people of multiple ethnicities. Race, and racism, are never innocuous—even if you are only half.

By Shaun Tanaka, in Ricepaper Magazine in Issue 8.4