How many “Asians” does it take to make middle-class white kids uncomfortable? – Trevor Holmes

It’s International Education Week at Waterloo.

I say this because I had thought perhaps I could blog about my own personal framework for “internationalism” and intercultural awareness. I grew up in an adoptive family with a Scottish-Welsh mother (whose parents were immigrants) and an Irish father (who himself came from Dublin at age 12). My birth family are all Irish-Scottish on the mother’s side but Cape Bretoners since the mid-1800s, and Romanian on the father’s side (also immigrant parents). Somehow, though, the blog topic I thought I was going to consider has been overshadowed by another one, and it reminds me of my white background rather uncomfortably.

From age 10 to 18, I lived in Erin Ontario. Erin (besides being named after Ireland) was a pretty rough, white, tough guy town back then. There were exactly two Black Canadian kids (siblings, adopted by white folk) and two Vietnamese families (one ran a restaurant, the other had factory work). By the time I left for Trent in Peterborough, I had considerably more experience of the world than one might imagine, but it wasn’t from living in Erin!

Around that period, my parents and brothers moved to Waterloo, and my youngest brother ended up at UW. My mom asked me one day, perhaps 20 years ago, if I had ever been around the University of Waterloo campus. I said “No Mom, why? Isn’t that mostly a math and engineering school?” to which she replied that driving through campus was like “not even being in Canada anymore! It’s like being in China!” At the time it didn’t occur to me to make a retort about her hometown (Fergus, Ontario) and Scotland.

Fast forward a few years to my time doing entry-level Arts advising at York University for several summers. Idealistic PhD student trying to convince all 4000 first-years to take electives that they’d always wanted to try, running up against “if it doesn’t have business in the title, my father won’t pay for my tuition” from nearly every first- or second-generation Chinese Canadian advisee. I seem to recall that in the end we encouraged a bunch of departments to add business to the titles of some of their cool electives. I don’t know if that ever happened.

This week is International Education Week at Waterloo.

I say this because I have had truly enriching experiences at this University with Canadian students from so many cultural, ethnic, racialized backgrounds; with international TAs, postdoctoral fellows, and professors; with visiting scholars from every continent. One of the highlights for me in my professional career has been gaining a deeper understanding of intercultural communication from CTE’s own Svitlana Taraban-Gordon, and also from guest speaker Nanda Dimitrov (UWO). Another highlight was attending  a recent conference here on campus about the pedagogy of German language and culture instruction.

At the same time, I read satirical commentary about Asian stereotyping in our student publications. I hear students (mostly white kids with a determined commitment to not trying very hard to work out any accents other than Southwestern Ontario English) complain about TAs and professors who speak with Asian accents.

This week is International Education Week at Waterloo.

I say this because this is also the week that I’ve just seen that notorious Maclean’s article — very proud of itself for not hiding what it supposes is really on everyone’s mind in white middle class dining rooms in Ontario. I’ve also seen Louise Brown’s Toronto Star article on the same topic. University-bound white kids are, apparently, afraid of Asians! I’m not sure exactly what is so frightening about Asians. Both articles seem to suggest two things, neither of which seems to paint middle class white kids in a very flattering light: first, nobody else can compete with serious, studious Asians who have been pushed all their lives by their strict parents; second, university is for partying, and too many non-partying serious Asians around makes for a total buzzkill.

Is this what Maclean’s is afraid of?

Several things trouble me about all this. As a middle-class white guy, I am thinking we are not showing our best attributes here. It’s good, though, I suppose, to see misguided or offensive crap come out, so at least we know what it really looks like and where it is. At this point I’m not really proud of what I’ve seen from Havergal grads!

Second, the article seems to be speaking about particular groups within the umbrella “Asian” — stereotypical national groups rather than all people from Asia. It sounds like mostly Japanese and Chinese, perhaps Korean, are all filling in for “the Asian.” I hope the problem with this is self-evident.

Third, I see very little response yet from universities themselves (our own Feridun Hamdullahpur has one of the best quotes of the lot, and I’m not trying to win points here either). We are where the concepts of moral panics, racialized fear, and Othering are theorized daily. Where is the swift and sure defense of diversity from our Humanities scholars? We need historical and cultural refresher courses for the press and the public (or maybe we really are doomed to repeat past mistakes). At least the blogosphere lit up a bit around this issue (see Toronto Life,  see an archived copy of the original article in case it gets too edited online, see NowPublic, CCNC, and others).

This week is International Education Week at Waterloo, but I think I’ll stick to the habit I started trying to develop a couple of years ago here. I’m going to think of every week as International Education Week. Thumbs down to Maclean’s.


The Centre for Teaching Excellence welcomes contributions to its blog. If you are a faculty member, staff member, or student at the University of Waterloo (or beyond!) and would like contribute a posting about some aspect of teaching or learning, please contact Mark Morton or Trevor Holmes.

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As Senior Instructional Developer, Curriculum and Programming, Trevor Holmes plans and delivers workshops and events in support of faculty across the career span. Prior to joining the Centre for Teaching Excellence, Trevor worked at a variety of universities teaching courses, supporting faculty and teaching assistants through educational development offices, and advising undergraduates. Trevor’s PhD is from York University in English Literature, with a focus on gothic literature, queer theory, and goth identities. A popular workshop facilitator at the national and international levels, Trevor is also interested in questions of identity in teaching and teaching development.

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