By Zara D. Garcia-Alvarez
It isn’t May, but I’m still proud to be an Asian…
The month of May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada, which is a time to acknowledge and celebrate the history of Asian Canadians. Except right now, it’s still March—and I’m still very much proud to be an Asian.
This small reminder happened when my family and I went to visit IKEA this past weekend. While we browsed through the showroom and finally reached the children’s section just before the restaurant and the Market Place, we passed by a bin of plush dolls.
What made me stop while I would have otherwise just passed by was the final arrival of a doll that represented an Asian likeness.
As an Asian woman growing up in the early 70’s as a daughter born to recently landed, hard-working immigrants from the Philippines and a daughter born as a native to Canadian soil—I was born a product of a dichotomy—the east and the west.
And though I don’t speak of it often, I did grow up during a time when racism and discrimination towards Asians and what “used to be” ethnic minorities were vocal and ran rampant.
Being “Filipino” was unrecognized. My identity and culture was “lumped” into the abyss of Asian geography, a silent map that blinked its slanted eyes in wounded awareness.
I was ridiculed as a child and verbally abused in school, taunted with threats that shouted, “Move back to your country, you f—ing chink!” I couldn’t stand taking the bus to school and I hated recess.
When I complained to the teacher on duty and told her what the kids in the yard were calling me, she asked in a condescending tone, “Well, you are Chinese, aren’t you?”
She was wrong on many counts:
1) I am not Chinese. I am a Filipina.
2) There isn’t anything wrong with being Chinese.
3) Why in the world did she condone such brutality in the schoolyard?
4) Why was she an active participant in racism and discrimination against a four-year-old child and a teacher?
Her answer was not only devastating to me, but instilled my first experience of distrust in adults, teachers, and those in authoritative positions. I had always believed teachers were intelligent and fair creatures. That day, I was taught otherwise. It was the beginning of a life-long lesson that drove me to justice advocacy in all forms especially for the marginalized.
It also instilled in me at a young age, a self-questioning seed of my identity that transpired into an unnamed fear, a self-hatred, a parallel racism. And one I have had years to work against.
I hated my flat nose. I envied blonde hair. I was embarrassed by the smell of the food my parents cooked, afraid the fish scent would travel with me when I left the room. And in toy stores, there were no dolls that looked like me. Barbie was a far cry from what I looked at in the mirror as a child.
And so, it’s taken years to eventually unravel the psychological damage done by those who were not ready to understand or accept someone who they deemed catastrophically different from them based on an old ignorance.
The joy I felt, though late, when I saw this Asian doll while shopping at IKEA, re-surfaced an old anger, a confusion that a four-year-old Filipina girl had no vocabulary to articulate. And it wasn’t because I couldn’t speak English. I could. I do. (I even studied it all the way into university and hold a degree!)
Okay, so it’s not a rights activist protest or camp out (yes, I’ve been part of those, too). But it’s a beginning. A reaffirmation that those who have scorned me and others like me based on ethnicity alone, have been pushed aside to understand that we are not only visible—we are at the very least, acknowledged.
I am still a product of a cultural dichotomy. But, I’m also Canadian. Native born. English-speaking. And as part of an interracial marriage, my children, too, are part of a growing cultural complexity.
The doll was bought and claimed by my two-year-old daughter. I can, with its help, reaffirm to her, who she is, and why she’s beautiful…