chinatown (like it was yesterday)

I remember Old

Town, like it was yesterday

elders walking the streets

and sleeping on stones

houses built on our bones

Found in the park cans collected and exchanged for yarn to spin into mittens and sweaters that always needed adjusting for me.. and the other babies because we kept growing she says nothing but through that blue, milky eye "I knew better" i see that our world equips us with daggers and guns and spears pointed at ourselves And the greatest trick is to mistake myself as the enemy, Not fights with mirrors or a Disney reflection, no these are words of my own, self-inflicted wounds, injuries we endure and feel but cannot see or hear
they build houses over our bones while we sleep on stones like it was yesterday

The colonization of Canada affected many people: First Nations who lost (and are continually losing) their land and homes and cultures and language; Black slaves who are forever tracing their steps back to their ancestry and never told of their own contributions to the colony; Chinese people who were separated from family, and some who were never reunited; Ukrainian, Croatian and Irish people who were never considered “white” until recently. The images in this poem are what I imagine when I learn about the history of Vancouver and colonization. Just as early white settlers stole from Aboriginal people, the state’s colonization of people of colour continues to dominate us through the gentrification and “development” of lands we live – whether it’s the borrowed-but-never-returned sacred land or a viaduct built over the only Black village or expensive buildings pushing out poor Chinese elders. The establishment that is called Canada is largely an occupation of unceded First Nations land. Much of their history and ancestry is left buried beneath the foundations of homes, village halls, museums, stores, restaurants, businesses and properties. So, too with “immigrant” folk. And the great tragedy is we are starting to think of this kind of racism as a relic of yesterday.

why (do i always)





have to explain..

that my cantonese
is 'siu siu.'

'mm sick gong,'

  i can't speak


that long before
my ancestors came to the
new land, i was already
forgetting a home and slipping
through my small fingers
was a language


that i wish my ability to communicate
was fed to me at birth -

i worked so hard to forget
and to remember...

why do i always have to explain
that i cannot speak,

but i understand.

What it is

I caught a Martin Luther King Jr. Day episode on Oprah today. (Yeah, I watch Oprah.) It was pretty moving to see so many different perspectives, experiments, and events that intersected around race the past 20 years, particularly in America. Racism is still alive and wears many masks. You see, race in the minds of the television viewer likes to play itself off as fiction – good programming, but not quite what happens in the “real world.” Believable, but not reality. But I’m old enough to recognize a fairy tale when I see one.

Looking at Oprah’s final season, she replayed a bunch of clips from past shows that dealt with racism which, through the magic of television, took me to events I never lived through: a sit-down broadcast in LA after the riots from the notorious Rodney King trial verdict; a once racist white man who went on to adopt two black children after his biracial grandson was born; a young white man who took life-threatening pills to change his skin pigment so he appeared Black; a social psychology experiment discriminating against blue-eyed people; the uproar after the OJ Simpson trial. I’m amazed at how far we’ve got, and how far we’ve got to go.

Racism and race are not only outside things, they are also inside things. Living with racism isn’t merely being called names based on our appearance. Racism isn’t merely defending your right to use the N word in a rap song. Racism – as a young white man who took skin pigment darkening pills said – is being white and automatically getting a certain kind of respect while being black means you fight your whole life to earn it. Racism is being beaten for being taken as a “jap” even if you are Chinese. Racism is hatred and indifference and ugliness and racism is seething, and yet racism is as cool as a coal. Racism is a joke and an antique. Racism is a Maclean’s article; it’s reading the class list of students and wondering why all the last names are Brown – where are the white names?

Racism isn’t just for white people; coloured people are racist, too. Black people are just as suspicious of Black people as White people. Native people are invisible in Vancouver. Fact is, things still need to change.

And yet, I haven’t lived through a generation before me. I haven’t worked on a railroad. I don’t know someone who had a family member lynched. But it wasn’t long ago.

Getting ‘it’: a bus ride, a memory, a reflection

The other day I got on the bus at the station ready to go home as any other, when behind me sat a couple of high school kids. They must have been fifteen. They were talking about the usual boy subjects, trying out their newly deepened voices as most fifteen-year-old boys. They lived along the same bus route as me, but as I noticed from their conversation, they did not go to the same high school I went to. One went the the private school and one went to the French immersion school. A topic of conversation between the kids that came up was that the school district was considering adopting a new program called Mandarin Immersion, for the growing Mandarin speaking population. This was seen as a negative as they said that those Mandarin kids already speak their language at school anyways and they will only talk to other people from behind their electronic dictionaries. The boys said that if they (Mandarin people) didn’t know English, then they should not be allowed to live here. There were intonations surety in their voices as both seemed to come to an agreement on their views of a possible new program. The subject changed and they were building good feelings between each other; I could feel the warmth of their conversation as they were kindling a friendship. Meanwhile I felt hot from what I’d just heard.

Not finding a right time to interject to the two, they continued talking as the bus passed the high school I went to. Almost home, I thought, almost home.

Like the start of most friendships, they started talking about common interests. Gym class came up as one complained about doing a Military week at his school where they trained like soldiers. Today they had to crawl through the grass after each time they ran around the track. He liked his teacher. His name sounded familiar, but being in my own thoughts I wasn’t sure I heard properly. As chance had it, the other had this teacher before and that’s when I caught it, “Yeah, I really like him, too. Mr. Le’s my favourite teacher.”

In Grade 7, our teacher hurt her knee rollerblading over the weekend when at a teacher development day, doing a team building exercise. As a result, we were given a substitute teacher. In Science, we were in the middle of studying tectonic plates and the geological events that happen because of them: earthquakes, tsunamis, etc. Our main assignment for Science was to make a storybook of how natural disasters affect cities.

My substitute teacher’s name was Mr. Le. He grew up in Vancouver and was Chinese like me.

Testing my identity and my newly deepened voice, I chose to make a panel about a tsunami off the shores of a West Coast city called Hongcouver, nation capital of Japanada. I thought it was hilarious. I was confident in my choice and the laughter and recognition I would get from my peers.

Mr. Le didn’t think it was so funny. He said those terms were derogatory. He took obvious offense to it.

I was confused, I’d really liked Mr. Le. I thought out of all the times we’d laughed in class, that this joke he would get.

Racism does not commonly manifest itself as overt discrimination in Canada these days. It is internalized, subtle and often invisible. Racism hovers around the fuzzy border of a private joke between friends and the misunderstanding and ignorance of well-intentioned colleagues or acquaintances. It is systemic and personal. But even though it is not always identifiable, it is no less real. Our challenge is to remember that it exists, and to act when we see it happen, by speaking up when we hear someone say something racist because we take offense to what they said, not who they are. Racism exists and the danger is when we pretend to be small and shrink from it, letting it go unseen and unheard.