Racism in Vancouver, Canada and my ESL student’s experience

It started with an unengaged substitute teacher, escalated with white kids throwing unprovoked juice boxes and insults at the Chinese kids, peaked with a fistfight between one of my Chinese tutoring students and two local black kids, and ended (hopefully) with a two-day suspension from school. My student ended up with a long, nasty scratch across his shoulder and chest.

I get that cafeteria scuffles will happen, and that race is only one factor among many and perhaps not even the main one. But the local students were swearing at the ESL kids in Chinese — they’ve been around Chinese classmates enough to pick up the swear words. It’s his first semester in Canada, but it’s not the first time he’s been randomly accosted for being Chinese. Getting cursed at in your own language by passing locals seems to me to be a little bit worse than having random Chinese people yell “老外!” at you.

Since we’re back in Vancouver, Canada for a few months I’ve picked up some ESL tutoring students. This one, like many, came to Vancouver to finish high school because his parents knew he wouldn’t do well on the 高考, the Chinese college entrance exam. He’s in a grade 11 ESL program at a local public school, with generally poor English, and it’s interesting to hear him relate his fight at school yesterday from a second-language, only partially-understood perspective (for example, he knows he was being taunted and challenged but doesn’t know exactly what they said to him, aside from the Chinese swear words). But it also makes me rethink about the experiences of Chinese students in Canadian schools. I don’t want to imagine what kind of impression he and his mom are getting.

I assume that my white majority perspective, growing up and being educated in a multicultural environment, maybe gives me a rosier-than-reality view of the current Asian Canadian racial experience in Vancouver. I’m not accusing Vancouverites of being exceptionally racist; although I think we’re generally much less civilized than we think we are, it was just one schoolyard scuffle, and I didn’t notice any racism when I was a white student among a large minority of Indians and Asians. But incidents like that of my student yesterday start me wondering if perhaps some of the sunshine and rainbows of our multicultural utopia shine a little less brightly for the immigrants and international students than they do for us in the white majority.

More about Asian Canadian and ESL student experiences:

About racism in China:

7 thoughts on “Racism in Vancouver, Canada and my ESL student’s experience”

  1. He was sitting with five Chinese friends (who didn’t back him up) at one of the tables in a common area during a gym class that the substitute teacher was letting blow off (he took attendance and that was it). Some local kids at another table (whites and blacks) started taunting the Chinese kids and throwing stuff, and when they saw that my student was angry two of them came over to physically challenged him, and they got into a fight. The kids that fought with him were black, so that didn’t help his own stereotypes any.

    His mom lectured him with an idiom (that I meant to write down but forgot) that is something like “It takes two hands to clap”, the idea being that he should have backed down and not engaged (I guess like his ‘friends’?).

    The other time he was walking down the street with his Chinese friends and some random guy in a car slowed down to cuss them out through the window. Those are the only two I know of (I haven’t pumped him for all his bad experiences; he just happened to mention these in separate classes). If I’d only heard one, I’d probably assume it was just an isolated incident. But since he’s had two incidents at least in just a few months, I’m more open to the idea that there’s maybe something more going on.

  2. “But incidents like that of my student yesterday start me wondering if perhaps some of the sunshine and rainbows of our multicultural utopia shine a little less brightly for the immigrants and international students than they do for us in the white majority.” … Perhaps you are speaking specifically about the Canadian experience, but I wanted to say, “Of course Joel! Did you think otherwise?”

  3. Did I think otherwise? No. That was just an obtuse way to say that the multicultural illusion we were indoctrinated with growing up in Vancouver is just that: an illusion. The only truly diverse and integrated place I’ve seen is on Sunday morning.

    I don’t mean to say it’s all bad; there are a lot of things I appreciate about Vancouver, even in the multicultural realm. But one thing I’ve been saying for a long time is that Canadians aren’t as ‘nice’ as the cliché stereotype makes them out to be (Vancouverites can be real jerks), and our veneer of civilized-ness is wearing increasingly thin (opportunistic hockey riots by suburbanites, anybody?)

    That said, overt, opportunistic expressions of racism – if that’s what my student’s experiences indicate – is more than I expected, given the aforementioned indoctrination we received in school.

  4. If I took my white family and moved to china my kid would be met with fierce racism and hostility…

    China is a scourge to the earth

  5. I grew up in Victoria and live in Vancouver.

    Always been one of the 2 or 3 asians in my classes, and even one of the 2 or 3 asians in the entire offices I worked in. Only experienced racism once, and that was when I was 9 years old from a white kid who also happened to be a trouble maker. Never been called any racist slurs or anything beyond that. Everyone that I got into a fight with was due to bullying, but the taunting never incorporated racist comments. Just standard dumb male provocation.

    I would say the most racist experience I’ve ever had was being put in ESL for being asian, even though I spoke english since I was 2.

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