Exploring Asian Heritage in Vancouver

The article below has been adapted from Dr. Lo’s talk for Exploring Asian Heritage in Vancouver,
hosted by the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society (VAHMS) and the Department of Asian
Studies, University of British Columbia (UBC).

Asian or Not, We Are All in This Together: Canada Benefits from the Heritage Maintenance of All Groups

More than ever, amid this pandemic and growing anti-Asian sentiment, Asian Canadians are struggling to sustain their heritage and cultural identity. We face enormous challenges. With the detrimental perceptions imposed on us, these is no easy fix, nor even a straightforward question to address. In need of immigrants due to an aging population, Canada is a migrant-infused society. British Columbia has been witnessing an influx of diverse ethnicities for decades. Asian immigrants, or people with Asian ancestry, have comprised the largest inbound group to British Columbia since 1980. While integrating into Canadian dominant culture, first-generation immigrants and Canadian-born Asians negotiate who they are, whether or not to preserve their heritage, and how. Since the observable integration pressures and heritage maintenance struggles are numerous, it is imperative for us and our multicultural host society to grasp how these populations negotiate heritage maintenance for the communal benefit of societal harmony, liberty, and unity.

The heritage maintenance efforts of Asians in BC have never been a single dimensional struggle. It involves the many aspects of compromise, resilience, desire, aspiration, and ideology at individual and family levels. It is also influenced by the intertwining and multiple facets of dominant ideology and power relations at large. Some driving factors are our desires and struggles for our children’s culture and heritage language maintenance, self-perceptions of being Asian, hardships of passing down our heritage language while strengthening a dominant language, and negative societal attitudes toward Asians as a whole. We, as Asians, often wonder how to maintain our heritage in an Anglocentric context, amid these obstacles and challenges.

Achieving heritage maintenance relies not solely on the desires and persistent efforts of one individual or a group of individuals; to grapple with the scope of Asian heritage maintenance challenges, Asians and non-Asians alike must acknowledge the monumental and entrenched hurdles that exist in an Anglocentric and western dominant society. In a micro landscape, one may cultivate a positive sense of cultural identity by passing down one’s heritage language as a medium for cultural knowledge transmission, communicating in the heritage language at home and with relatives, and engaging in cultural traditions and festival occasions. That being said, no one lives in a vacuum; we live in a society with social norms defined by dominant structures. Our sense of personal identity is not only how we see ourselves, but is also shaped by how others perceive us. Dominant culture does not only define who we should be— It has the power to alter who we believe we are.

With that understanding, identity has two dimensions: Self perception, and external perception. Therefore, an understanding of the perceptions of the dominant society towards Asians is imperative when grappling with the external and internal challenges of realizing a positive sense of heritage identity, which may be necessary to fruitfully pass down one’s heritage.

That said, as one individual, we can still do a lot. Infusing the notion of pluralism into the next generation may enhance the cultural fluidity of our children, thus improving their ability to grapple with the multiple levels of marginalization they may experience or witness, which Dr. Kubota identifies as individual, institutional, and systemic (2014). Cultural fluidity may mitigate the damage that these external perceptions and attitudes inflict. Pluralist ideology encompasses a broad perspective, not only a cultural inheritance point of view, but rather, a larger world peace and politics perspective. This standpoint suggests that we, Asian or non-Asian, should treat each and every culture as vital, embracing a grander heritage maintenance worldview. However, how may one embrace their own heritage, when their sense of cultural identity is null, or even negative? For Asians, the normalization and internalization of detrimental beliefs imposed by the dominant culture, may be, in part, a psychological mechanism to shield dignity, and in part, due to a perceived “price” of integration. Sadly, the internalization of racist or stereotypical beliefs alters the self-perception of the oppressed, which not only sustains the righteousness of the oppressor, but also silences any questioning of the systemic structures that produce and reproduce this inequality or oppression. Unfortunately, there is no quick fix to amend dominant societal attitudes or challenge the status quo of societal and systemic power relations. So, how may we cultivate a positive sense of cultural identity, while the dynamics of the macro social space we live in, perceive us very differently? This is a critical psychological burden that Asians and non-Asians alike should collectively question and challenge.

Despite the historical and contemporary hostility towards Asians in North America, we can, and should, continue the decades-long effort to embrace and maintain positive heritage identities for ourselves and the next generation. Heritage is not simply an amusing means by which to differentiate ourselves — it may play a fundamental role in fostering a positive sense of self. But this is not as simple as it sounds. For instance, without the proper language as a medium, not all cultural knowledge may be transmitted intact with all its nuance. However, without embracing one’s cultural identity, one may see less relevance or value to maintaining or learning one’s heritage language. In this way, heritage maintenance becomes quite complex when one does not already posses both a positive sense of identity and heritage language. This is further compounded when lacking one, or even both of these interconnected elements. In a perfect world, to properly inherit heritage as a positive addition to one’s sense of identity, would be to inherit culture through the medium of its language. Unfortunately, not all Asians have the means or opportunity to fulfil this linguistic practice in BC’s dominant culture. Even with resources and effort, the success of heritage language learning or preservation may be severely impacted by a perceived lack of relevance in the host society. Therefore, realizing the relevance and value of one’s heritage language, and fostering appreciation of one’s cultural identity and origins, may greatly bolster heritage language maintenance, thus heritage maintenance as a whole.

A large number of Asian Canadians believe that Heritage Language maintenance serves not only to pass down the language itself; it also serves to facilitate cohesion, affection, and the experience of Asian culture through the most culturally relevant medium. Without knowing the language, only comprehending through a translation into another language, the nuances of one’s culture and concepts may be lost. In other words, losing a heritage language means losing the best possibility to fully appreciate its associated culture, and one’s heritage. Though some may perceive that culture alone could still sustain a sense of cultural identity, to a degree, one cannot ignore that in possessing a heritage language, one’s personal cultural identity will be indisputably strengthened. Losing a language is not solely losing the communicative function of it; this loss may take with it, personal and group identities and the associated culture, thus heritage (James, 2010).

Language is one of the crucial facets of daily engagement that defines and draws meaning from identity and subjectivity. One’s mother tongue may comprise one of the most fundamental elements and characteristics of one’s cultural identity. Heritage language forms an imperative facet of habitus for linguistic minorities and for those in the diasporic context. It assists them in maintaining a positive cultural identity amidst daunting integration pressures, exclusions, and marginalization. While our macro surroundings and field are vastly different from Asia, practicing a heritage language in our adopted land may provide an anchor to maintain and nurture a positive sense of self, since one’s mother tongue cannot be changed or replaced, regardless of where one is situated. A transcendental connection to one’s family heritage across diverse geographic locations cannot be better achieved than through the maintenance of heritage language.

Asian language retention should be regarded as a pivotal part of heritage maintenance and cultural inheritance. As Dr. Day vehemently expressed, “If there is no link between language and culture, what would be the point of emphasizing language training?” (2000, p. 196). Culture and heritage are conventionally taught in the service of language in a linguistic classroom, but Drs. Orsini Jones and Lee (2018) argue that culture and heritage should in fact be the central focus of a language classroom, and that language should be taught in the service of culture and heritage. Either case upholds the notion that language and culture may encompass one another. Language is a vital component of any culture, and as such, one should aim to preserve it, as it is not only the medium but also the heart and soul of a culture, hence invaluable to a nuanced heritage retention. Without the culturally relevant language, a positive sense of heritage identity loses much of its meaning and substance. Being unable to speak one’s HL, whether through language loss or never having been taught in the first place, may block a most profound and intrinsic gateway to one’s culture, and a sense of positive cultural identity may consequently wane.

In essence, heritage language should be treated as a link between cultural identity and heritage maintenance, and an unquantifiable asset for a possible heritage renaissance in the supposedly multicultural society of Vancouver. All of the above discourse suggest that successful linguistic maintenance and positive cultural identity go hand-in-hand. Both elements are invaluable to the pursuit of fruitful heritage maintenance.

On a grander scale, the struggle to preserve one’s heritage in Canada illuminates the troublesome lack of language retention solutions in the Canadian Multiculturalism Act. Promoting the ideology of embracing culture and language (Kymlicka, 2012), without providing pragmatic suggestions to preserve said language, does not present a viable nor sustainable means for realizing a highly diverse, multicultural, and harmonious society. To one day achieve the ideology of Canadian multiculturism, the ability to navigate even unfamiliar fields comfortably may be necessary. The best way to increase this cultural fluidity and intercultural competence (Dimitrov & Haque, 2016) is by embracing or even possessing multiple languages that allow one to truly connect with culturally and linguistically diverse communities. Therefore, we should all treat heritage and heritage language, whether our own or those of others, as vital. Doing so aims not only to sustain the heritage of one’s own specific culture or community, but also to advocate for, and promote, the protection of all heritage in our diverse, multicultural society. When dominant culture deems one heritage as unimportant, others become more precarious with this precedent. The survival of one heritage may well depend on the survival of others. No one heritage is truly safe, until the notion of heritage, as a whole, is valued.

To reiterate: Asian or not, we are all in this together.

Caroline Locher-Lo, PhD Department of Educational Studies, UBC

Caroline Chung-Hsuan Locher-Lo

Below are the questions that Dr. Lo addressed in discussion at VAHMS’ Exploring Asian Heritage event on May 6, 2021.

Would you clarify what Language mean in your talk?
In a Canadian academic context, and in accordance with one of Cummins and Danesi’s Canadian studies (1990), heritage language refers to languages other than Canada’s official languages. This encompasses verbal and visual forms.

How does Canada benefit from heritage maintenance of all groups?
When one culture’s heritage is deemed unimportant by the dominant culture, this sets the precedent for other cultures to be evaluated as such, as well. Therefore, each heritage and heritage language is critical. Promoting the preservation of Asian heritages, for example, should not aim to promote these heritages while disenfranchising others. Instead, the preservation of our heritage should aim to advocate for heritage rights, so that heritage as a whole gains traction. Because no heritage is truly safe until all heritage is valued, it is imperative for us and our multicultural host society to educate ourselves on how different cultures retain their heritage, for the mutual, reciprocal, and communal benefit of lasting societal harmony, inclusion, and cohesion. And on a grander scale, for Canada’s enduring stability, solidarity, and prosperity.

How do we maintain one’s heritage and cultural identity?
The short answer, based on my research, is that heritage is best preserved by retaining one’s heritage language. Maintaining one’s heritage language is not solely for the functionality or practicality of it, but, more importantly, to protect, enhance, and embrace a positive and nuanced cultural understanding, identity, and subjectivity. Through maintaining one’s heritage language, one can be immersed in cultural knowledge with the most culturally relevant language as a medium. With further understanding of one’s culture, comes more heritage appreciation and relevance. In a cyclical manner, this appreciation and relevance may positively impact heritage language survival. In turn, the likelihood of passing down the language to the next generation, enhancing their cultural immersion and understanding, is also greater. In short, heritage maintenance, positive cultural identity, and heritage language are intertwined and mutually beneficial, feeding off of each other. If any one of these three components is missing, the prospect of holistic heritage maintenance is ultimately undermined.