Oprah (and stuff)

Yesterday I had the second day of training for becoming a board member at SFPIRG (the Simon Fraser Public Interest Research Group), which is the social justice resource centre on campus in Burnaby, BC/Coast Salish Territories. Aside from the incredible connections I’ve formed with my fellow board and staff, I have taken away some valuable insights that are only beginning to surface as a result of my reflection on the workshops, training and discussions (formal and informal).

One particular element that stuck with me was when we did an icebreaker activity. We all had identical sheets of paper with several questions about us: What’s your favourite food? What’s on your bucket list? What’s something nobody would know right away by meeting you?

Of course, I answered that dan tat (Chinese egg tart) is my favourite food, I would love to meet Oprah before I die, and something no one would immediately know about me is that I love Oprah… And then, unexpectedly, we got into a discussion about Oprah. My fellow SFPIRGies were amazed that I of all people was an Oprah fan (which is understandable because I’m visibly a Chinese man), but also that there are some other social justice issues that they have in contention with Oprah and what she represents. It’s true that she represents American idealism – especially the so-called “American dream” – and that she provides entertainment to the sort of audience that follows celebrity life, commercialism, etc. but I was struck at how particularly significant it was to my colleagues and friends that she represents American-ism. And by that I mean the perspective of the USA as the centre of the world. This wasn’t new to me – and knowing this I still love Oprah – but this sharing revealed to me how much of my own perspective centres around American news, happenings, festivals, culture and values. As a Canadian, it’s easy to point or wag a finger at the influence of the America as a political and social entity – but we’re not much that different.

And yet that’s how I feel…different.

I don’t necessarily see my love for Oprah as a downside of Americanization. As a Chinese person growing up in Vancouver (or “ham sui fa” aka “salt water city”), I relate to many blogs that speak about the Asian-American experience as my own Asian-Canadian experience. I openly identify with Los Angeles and the West Coast of Canada/USA because of the ethnically-Asian population and culture. You see, when my family came over from the old country (Sze-yap and Joong Sahn), they encountered struggles that immigrants of all kinds face: racist laws, explicit daily discrimination, separation from family for decades, etc. But what I believe makes my and my family’s situation different is that we’re part of the Chinese world. And the Chinese world in this day and age – place and time – is one where an ancestral language (like Toisan-wa or Joong Sahn Wa…also known as country Cantonese) spans the globe in a shape different from the traditional maps we’re used to seeing. It is the star map of satellite city constellations consisting of Chinatowns and restaurant districts. I’m sure many people of other languages can relate to how the world changes for them such as the Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, and African worlds. There is some sort of connection of place that is constant in time; language is a universal, living capsule.

So in modern day Canada, I feel like my following of “American” culture (Asian-American blogs and Oprah) is not so much a product of capitalism and media imperialism, but a by-product of a pilgrimage to my cultural ancestry as it lives and grows today. Whatever I do will be called “Chinese.” My world centers around American culture because it is connected to Asian culture. I am a country boy in an urban land, an immigrant whose home is LA as much as Vancouver, or Hou Choung.

Reference and inspiration for this post: A New Year.