Wednesday, April 07, 2010

My latest San Francisco Chronicle column: ASIAN, EH? A trip to Vancouver for a look at race, ethnicity and Asian identity in Canada

This week's Asian Pop was inspired by my weeklong trip to the Pacific Northwest, occasioned by my elder son's public school spring break. The whole fam went — Hudson, age 6, Skyler, age 2, and my wife Heather (age unspecified) — making it our first long-distance, multi-city tour with the full band. We hit Victoria and Vancouver, BC, then Seattle, WA, traveling by plane, bus, ferry and car between the various stops and venues. It was exhilarating and fun, but also exhausting and probably, from a pragmatic perspective, a mistake, since the kids are still not back on the right time zone, while Heather and I both managed to catch hacking-through-the-night type colds. Yay.

That said, I met some incredible folks in Vancouver, continental North America's most Asian city, starting with Alden Habacon and his team from Schema Mag. It's easily one of the most interesting Asian [North] American media vehicles out there, and definitely worth reading regularly. 

Alden also introduced me to Kevin Li, creator and producer behind Vancouver's AZN Lifestyles TV series (reminiscent of Stir, the old show I created for KTSF and Comcast, but a wholly self-started enterprise that's found a broadcast niche on CityTV, Canada's most widely-available over-the-air independent television system); Barbara Lee, the founder and president of the Vancouver Asian Film Festival; Joyce Lam, founder and artistic director of the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre company; and Hanna Cho, a social researcher and former fellow of Canada's Asia Pacific Foundation, who shared some terrific background on the forces that have shaped Asian Canadian identity as a distinct construct from Asian American identity.

And synchronicitously — ran into him in an elevator! — I met Al-Riaz Adatia, a successful entrepreneur and social activist of Indian Canadian heritage (by way of Uganda), who divides his time between Vancouver and San Francisco. Those of you who recall the dot-com era (and haven't blocked it from your memories) might know him as one of the founders of Sonique, the second most popular MP3 player of the era, after Justin Frankel's WinAMP. Al-Riaz sold Sonique to Lycos for a nice piece of change, and has since then run and invested in a string of businesses, while pursuing his interests in global development work...and dirt bike racing.

He shared with me some really interesting insights on the social and political roots of Canada's pluralistic society (as well as its dark underbelly), while also giving me an introduction to the Ismaili Muslim faith; led by their spiritual leader the Aga Khan, Ismailis are a unique branch of Shia Islam distinguished by their outward-facing philanthropic activities, many of which are related to encouraging understanding and acceptance among different cultures, races and religions.

Which is in part why the Aga Khan has had a special admiration for Canada, one of the few countries in the world that has embedded the idea of multiculturalism into its very Constitution — he has launched a well-funded and thriving subsidiary of the faith's global development network in Vancouver, the Aga Khan Foundation Canada, and the Global Centre for Pluralism in Ottawa. Anyway, meeting Al-Riaz was terrific, not least because he in turn also introduced me to the vivacious and sharp-witted Cora Mau, a radio personality and North American publicity manager for Turkey's Mavi Jeans.

And somehow we still had time to visit museums, climb redwoods, hunt for whales, eat far too much food, and connect with a bunch of great old friends. So, hard to say the trip wasn't successful, even if it's nearly broken us physically and emotionally in the process.

Some pics of the family below — at the Vancouver Aquarium (slightly 'Shopped, of course), and at various other BC landmarks. But check out the column! Even if, or especially if, you know nothing about Canada and its unique racial and ethnic history.

ASIAN POP: Asian, Eh?

Jeff Yang heads to Vancouver, the most Asian city in continental North America -- just ahead of San Francisco -- to compare and contrast Asian Canadian and Asian American identity

Vancouver, BC—What do these notable Asian Americans have in common: actors Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), Kristin Kreuk (Smallville) and Sandra Oh (Grey's Anatomy); comedian Russell Peters; World Wrestling Entertainment RAW diva Gail Kim; Avon CEO Andrea Jung; professor and First Brother-in-Law Konrad Ng?

The answer? All of them are actually Asian Canadian.

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