Please check one of the following three options. I am __white. I am __black. I am __other. If other, please specify________________________________.
How often have you been faced with this question? Where was it? When was it? Why? And what have you checked? What did you specify? How easy did you find putting a name to the parts of you or, for that matter, to the whole of you?
The 20th Anniversary Japanese Canadian Redress Conference was held this past September here in Vancouver, BC, with participants traveling to attend from all over Canada, as well as the United States. This conference stood out as a celebration of community.
On the Friday afternoon of this three-day-long event, I had the honour of co-facilitating a workshop geared towards youth. Titled Re(a)ddressed: I am (Japanese) Canadian, the aim of this workshop was to open a dialogue between Japanese Canadian youth surrounding the present and possible futures of identity and ethnicity in Canada. Very suited to these topics was the collaboration of award-winning Canadian independent animation filmmaker, writer and artist, Jeff Chiba Stearns.
If you’re close to a computer right now, please open up your internet browser (. . . and if you’re not close to a computer at the moment, then please remember to come back to the following websites later . . .). On YouTube, search for “Yellow Sticky Notes.” Take a couple of minutes to watch what unfolds before you. Next, through the CBC website, log on to http://citizen.nfb.ca/node/20831&dossier_nid=20498 and treat yourself to a viewing of “What Are You Anyways?” – another piece of short animation by Jeff Chiba Stearns. I guarantee that you’ll smile, laugh and be left with some pretty hard questions to ponder.
These two animations, in fact, served as the introduction to the Re(a)dressed youth workshop. With Jeff describing his experiences as a hapa boy growing up in Kelowna, BC, as well as the present motivations behind his work as an artist, workshop participants were given a very unique (but also representative) picture of what it means to be a 21st century Canadian youth of mixed race. Focusing his expression not only on youth within the Japanese Canadian community, Jeff’s questions and dynamic identity reach out to all those who are a fraction this and a fraction that. Jeff, it turns out, actually prefers thinking of halves as wholes. While many of us label ourselves half Japanese and half something else (or maybe even a quarter, or an eighth), Jeff considers each part of us to be a whole. “You’re not half this and half that,” he explains, “you’re two wholes.”
In the end, the majority of people who participated in this Re(a)ddressed workshop were slightly over the age of what is typically thought to be “youthful” (. . . although, as many of the Calgary Kotobuki Society members told me, we all remain youths at heart). This, however, seemed to have absolutely no impact on the breadth of discussion or creativity expressed! In fact, the ideas raised around discrimination, connections to Japanese heritage and the future of the Japanese Canadian community (as well as ethnicity in Canada in general) were all the more enriching because of the wide range of ages.
And since the purpose of this activity was to get all participants involved—not only listening but expressing—everyone was a given a pad of colourful sticky notes on which to write/draw/scribble their responses to the different ideas raised throughout the workshop. Discussion centered around the themes of ethnic experiences in Canada, our own “Japanese-ness”, the future of the hapa identity, and the million-dollar “what are you anyways” question. By the end of our two hours together, almost everyone had accumulated a thick stack of stickies, covered in artwork! Each person then posted their stickies next to the sticky notes of others on a series of colourful boards. The final product was beautiful, a patchwork of colour! We had collected and shared a multitude of differences, as well as similarities—every individual’s unique identity.
Above all, this workshop reminded me of just how proud I sometimes feel when checking the “Other” box on a survey, tax return, or exam. Of course, the “If other, please specify…” part is a whole other story. But my occasional cultural metamorphism, I figure that I have and always will know who I am. Sometimes I just can’t find the appropriate words to express this.
What are you anyways?