Lest we assume that the US has a monopoly on discriminatory immigration policies in North America, let us remember our brothers to the north, and the way that they treated Indian immigrants in the previous century:
On May 23rd, 1914, the Komagata Maru entered Burrard Inlet carrying
376 passengers looking forward to starting their lives in Canada. The
ship and those on board arrived despite the recent introduction of
Canada’s discriminatory Continuous Passage Regulation, a law that
required immigrants to Canada to arrive by a single, direct journey
from their country of origin. Because no direct route between the Dominion of Canada and British
India existed, this policy was a roundabout means to exclude Indian
immigration and preserve — in the words of a popular song of the
time — “White Canada forever.”
Like the Canadians on shore, all Komagata Maru passengers were
subjects of the British Empire and many had fought for Britain, upholding the very freedoms they now desired. Upon arrival, the passengers were immediately detained by Canadian immigration authorities determined to keep the ship at anchor. Vancouver’s Burrard Inlet became the
flashpoint for a standoff that gained international attention.
Their inability to land caused hardship for the passengers, who soon
lacked food and water. The passengers were also denied access to
medical attention, communication with their family and proper legal
counsel. Their challenge to Canada’s right to deny their landing was
delayed and eventually denied. On July 23, 1914, the Komagata Maru
passengers were forced to leave Canada.
– From komagatamaru100.com
Asian American genealogy is difficult. My experience is mainly with Chinese American genealogy, so I’ll start there. As Chinese Americans immigrated, their names were changed to approximately English phonetics. Or they immigrated under false names, like the paper sons. Or the records were lost in the San Francisco fire, or the Chinese Revolution. Family records were destroyed in the 1950’s as the US government scoured Chinatowns for communist sympathizers.
Asian American genealogy is difficult, but not impossible. For some Chinese Americans, the Canadian government is here to help. The Library and Archives Canada have digitized a good number of immigration records through something they call Ancestor Search. To search for a Chinese Canadian, you can use their special database, aptly called “Immigrants from China, 1885-1949”.
Less genealogical, bust still wonderful is their digital image archive. A search for “Chinese” or “Chinois” brings up pages and pages of picture, like this orpailleur Chinois, vers 1875:
Place: Rivière Fraser, C.-B.
Place of creation: No place, unknown, or undetermined
Copy negative PA-125990
Other accession no.
Additional name(s): Photographer: Inconnu.
Additional information: Described by the MSTRCAGE project.
Signatures and inscriptions: (Recto:) — /(Verso:) Chinese Man washing gold Fraser River.
Have you been tracking the #WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign? The hashtag and the Tumblr are lively places to find books withe diverse characters and authors as well as heart felt pleas for more. Back in the beginning of May, when the hashtag started, I had reactions similar to many of the people who use it:
- I don’t see many people like me in literature.
- I’d like more characters that represent a race/history/culture like mine because I want characters I can really relate to.
Statement 1 is certainly true. Asian Americans? Asian American women? Mixed-race Asian American women? Mixed-race Asian American women in their late-mid-twenties? What if we add in my geographic location, relationship status, or current proclivity towards home manicures?
This brings me to statement 2. I can relate to characters who aren’t like me. Who are of a different age/era/race/gender/planet than I am. Given the veracity of statement 1, I relate to characters unlike me on a regular basis.
This brings me to a different set of statements. I’m calling them the diverse-characters-universal-themes-statements:
- I like reading about diverse characters because it allows me to step into someone else’s world/view.
- I believe that reading about diverse characters encourages me to forge connections with real diverse people. And I believe that’s something that people could use more of.
- I believe that in the specificity of situations, we find universal themes.
Thank you to Sara Farizan, whose book “If You Could Be Mine” I was reading while thinking about this. Reading about a young girl living in Iran, her own relationships intersecting with different parts of the LGBTQ community there made me think about my own experiences between LGBTQ communities and conservative Christian communities in the US. It’s not about sticking to sameness, but finding common ground. I want so many diverse characters represented in literature that their stories become about how all the facets of their identity are important, not just their race or sexuality.