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York Region's East Asian youths share insights on identities

Student believes there is a cultural shortcoming that exists with Asian people --- 'We are too nice.'
July 4, 2022

The Live Well, Take Action: Ambassador Program for East Asian Youth (LWTA) has been funded by the Ontario Trillium Foundation since 2016, aiming to empower East Asian youth by exploring their social identities and providing them with the tools to become agents of social change.

Through culturally relevant approaches and hands-on activities, the program centres on East Asian experiences to build confidence and promote well-being.

Student participants attend from different high schools across the York Region District School Board. “Our program attempts to foster positive well-being among Asian youth with a more wholesome and social approach, rather than a medical approach,” said Jaclyn Wong, program manager of LWTA. “This is very different from what we know as mental health, such as medication, counselling, Kids Helpline.”

Past participants, Brandon Chen and Ginny An both felt the program had a huge impact on them. Before joining the program, they did not have much sense of their Asian culture or heritage, but afterwards, they have found more purpose and sense of self, which has also helped with their confidence and direction in life.

LWTA was the first spark in Chen’s passion for East Asian activism when he was in Grade 10 at Markville Secondary School. During the course of high school, he began to dedicate his time outside of the classroom to various Asian activist issues. “I strongly believe that every Asian, not only youth, has a responsibility to stand up to systemic racism,” he said.

When Chen was helping as a Mandarin translator for undocumented migrant workers getting their COVID-19 vaccines in Chinatown, he saw his own grandparents in so many of the elders waiting in line. He couldn’t believe so many elders would not have received the vaccine because they didn’t speak English. “That made me realize our work was imperative,” Chen further stated, deriving a sense of purpose from his work outside the classroom as an activist.

In addition, Chen believes there is a cultural shortcoming that exists with Asian people --- “We are too nice. In Chinese culture, it is called 客气 (meaning polite, courteous and kind).”

“The only problem is, it’s easy to mistake kindness for weakness. And as visible minorities in this country, this is the source of our exploitation.” In Chen’s opinion, generations and generations of being the model minority has made Asians too kind and he wants to shout out to every Asian: “Let’s continue to treat everyone with kindness. But let’s never be complacent, docile or weak.”

Ginny An, a participant of the LWTA program when she was in Grade 10 at Thornlea Secondary School, completely understands the pressures and stress to fit into the model minority. “As a Korean-Canadian, my whole life is being a part of the model minority,” An said, “to be successful in academics and career, overachieve, and define against all cultural and ethnic odds. I had spent my entire life trying to be the best at every possible thing, but never questioned why.”

Her insecurity is based on the fact, she did not pursue a degree in the STEM field. Instead, she chose to pursue a degree in the humanities, which is often looked down upon in Asian families, and is a stigma because of the lack of careers or money the degree may bring.

“However, I beg to disagree because there are so many successful people with an Asian heritage that pursued humanities.” An said she would continue to take action to ensure East Asian students from the next generation are able to live in a safe and welcoming environment.