5 Asian Canadians share experiences of life in B.C. and how culture has shaped their identity

Amélie Nguyễn owns an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant in the same neighbourhood where she grew up. She says she tries to collaborate with other Asian business owners whenever she can. (CBC - image credit)
Amélie Nguyễn owns an award-winning Vietnamese restaurant in the same neighbourhood where she grew up. She says she tries to collaborate with other Asian business owners whenever she can. (CBC - image credit)

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada — a time to learn about the history and culture of Asian communities across the country, and the contributions people of Asian heritage have made to Canadian society.

According to the B.C. government, people have been coming to this province from countries in Asia since the late 1700s.

"For more than 200 years, Asian Canadians have helped make Canada the country we know and love today. In the arts, sports, sciences, business, politics and social justice, the contributions of Asian Canadians can be found everywhere in Canadian society," federal Minister of Diversity, Inclusion and Persons with Disabilities Kamal Khera said in a statement.

However, Asian newcomers and those whose families have lived in Canada for generations have long been met with hostility and even hate.

While it would stand to reason these feelings would shift over time, a sharp increase in anti-Asian hate was observed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.

It's something that B.C. Attorney General Niki Sharma and Mable Elmore, parliamentary secretary for Anti-Racism Initiatives, find "unacceptable."

"Our diversity is one of our greatest strengths and we must continue to fight back against those who would suggest otherwise," they said in a joint statement.

CBC spoke to five Asian Canadians living in Metro Vancouver about their experiences living in B.C. and their connection to their Asian heritage.

Loveena Chera

Loveena Chera was born in India and came to Canada at the age of four.

During Asian Heritage Month, she said she's spending time with her children, explaining the challenges she and her loved ones faced as newcomers to Canada, and teaching them about resilience.

"It's really a time to appreciate and to reflect and to learn," she said.

Now she's the CEO of InspireHealth Supportive Cancer Care, where she aims to mentor other women to take on leadership roles, having come across few women in leadership throughout her career.

Chera credits her mother for pushing her to her highest potential.

"My mom was a teacher in India, so she raised me to want to achieve a lot of things and to set high goals for myself," she said.

Kevin Huang

Having grown up and gone to school in Vancouver, Kevin Huang was fortunate to be able to travel to Taiwan for nine months. There, he reconnected with family and his heritage, and reaffirmed his identity.

Whenever he spends time at home — whether that's in Taiwan where his parents spend part of the year, or at their home in B.C. — he reflects on how his parents continue to use food to connect to their culture.

In his work with the Vancouver-based youth empowerment non-profit the Hua Foundation, he's become passionate about using food to get people thinking and talking about who they are and where they came from.

"Traditionally it has been a fight for recognition of racialized people that are of Asian descent," he said.

As Asian Heritage Month has become more prevalent, he said, there's more opportunities than ever within Canadian society to explore other forms of justice and equity, such as promoting culturally appropriate spaces and services.

Amélie Nguyễn

Amélie Nguyễn was born and raised in Vancouver, in the Mount Pleasant neighbourhood where her business Anh and Chi — a popular, award-winning Vietnamese restaurant — operates today.

"Asian Canadians are everywhere," in every industry across the country, Nguyễn said. "There is a lot of diversity that's showcased in everything from what we wear, to what we eat."

In an effort to connect with her heritage, Nguyễn spends time with her late father's friends and people in the Vietnamese community in Vancouver, and collaborates with other business owners of Asian heritage.

She says her role in promoting and preserving Asian heritage goes beyond a special month or day. Instead, it happens every day, in the food she cooks and the conversations her restaurant opens patrons up to.

Shahnaz Rahman

Forty-five years ago, Shahnaz Rahman immigrated from Karachi, Pakistan, to Kitimat, B.C. She was just 18 at the time and says her initial experience in the small North Coast community was isolating. She said it was one of the hardest processes a person could go through.

But when her mother made the same move as an older immigrant, she said the transition seemed a little easier.

"She just refused to accept anything but acceptance in her community," Rahman said.

After raising two children in Kitimat, Rahman relocated to the Metro Vancouver area, where she thrived among people from her and other cultures.

She's now the executive director of the Surrey Women's Centre, where she actively works against violence in the community.

"It would be really dismissing if we were not to take a moment to reflect on the contributions and the achievements of Asian Canadians in B.C.," she said.

Mustaali Raj

Mustaali Raj, a Vancouver-based interdisciplinary artist originally from India, says all Canadians, whether they are of Asian descent or not, interact with Asian culture so often they don't even notice it anymore.

"There's so much that's integrated into our day-to-day lives that comes from Asian heritage or culture but a lot of us don't reflect or pay attention to that," he said, adding that stereotypes and racism often fail to acknowledge the things, people and places non-Asian Canadians know and love.

Raj was born in India, but grew up in Calgary and Vancouver. He's had to learn to be comfortable with the fact that who he is out on the street might be different from the person he is at home with his family.

"I like to think of it as existing within the intersections of identity," he said.

It's something he tries to reflect in his work.

"I try to create dialogue between cultures. Coming from an Asian background and a Muslim background, it's interesting to find commonalities, those intersection points where different people can connect," he said.