May 31, 2024

UCalgary scholars reflect on Asian heritage and the academy

Learning continues after Asian Heritage Month
Preserving the Past, Embracing the Future: Amplifying Asian Canadian Legacy. Asian Heritage Month #AHM2024

Celebrated since the 1990s, Asian Heritage Month was formally designated as May in 2001. The theme for Asian Heritage Month 2024: Preserving the Past, Embracing the Future: Amplifying Asian Canadian Legacy. As Asian Heritage Month draws to a close, the legacy of Asian-Canadians to the nation’s past 200 years of history, present, and future continues to echo. At UCalgary, scholars continue to reflect on the enduring significance of Asian heritage in shaping Canada's trajectory.

At the intersection of cultures, traditions, and histories, the term "Asian" encompasses diverse identities, and more than 60 different ethnic groups, each requiring us to understand the unique heritages, stories, and voices. In Canada, the largest racialized group is constituted by diverse Asian communities.

South Asian Immigration to Canada

Calgary is Canada’s fastest growing census metropolitan area with 41 per cent (four out of 10) of the city’s population constituted by racialized groups. The 2021 census shows that South Asians constitute 7.5 per cent of the population, followed by Chinese at 6.8 per cent, and Filipino at 4.4 per cent. As well, as of 2021, three in five newcomers arriving in Alberta are from Asia, with the majority coming from India and the Philippines.

The UCalgary faculties and scholars are engaged in wide-ranging teaching and learning, research and scholarship, and community engagement related to Asia and diasporas. These include East Asian studies, Sikh studies, Asian languages, and history classes.

Amidst this rich diversity, the experiences of UCalgary’s academics of diverse Asian heritage show some of the multifaceted narratives of Asian heritage. Their stories and perspectives offer valuable insights stemming from an intersection of their varied Asian heritage, lived experiences, teaching and learning, and research and scholarship. The perspectives shared by these academics highlight just a glimpse of the vast diversity of Asian viewpoints present across UCalgary.

A graphic showing the growth in racialized population in Alberta from 2001 to 2021
  • Growth of racialized people living in Alberta from 2001 to 2021. Reproduced from CBC News. Data from Statistics Canada. Note: 'N.i.e.' stands for 'not included elsewhere.' This includes people who identified as a racialized minority (such as Polynesian or Tibetan), but whom Statistics Canada could not classify with a specific group.

Embracing Asian traditions of nonviolence

Photo of Dr. Clara A. B. Joseph

Dr. Clara A. B. Joseph, PhD, a professor of English in the Faculty of Arts, holds a deep-rooted connection to India — a country often characterized by its "unity in diversity" — which fuels her work in postcolonial and decolonial studies.

Joseph’s exploration of once-colonized countries worldwide, including Canada, sheds light on conflict and discrimination. Her approach encourages students to explore diverse perspectives including those of the colonizers and the colonized.

“I find myself reassessing prevailing decolonial methodologies by drawing on my Asian heritage, particularly its traditions of nonviolence,” says Joseph. These insights have supported Joseph in better understanding violence around the world, including in Asia, and bringing her perspective from her Asian heritage to foster “an environment of cultural sensitivity, empathy, and mutual understanding.”

While her definition of Asian heritage includes her Indian background, Joseph also recognizes the term includes a complex diversity of groups and advocates for a deeper understanding of their shared values. “I aim to utilize ‘Asian’ as a unifying concept to promote a sense of belonging and unity among individuals of Asian descent, fostering community engagement and advocacy initiatives,” she says.

Joseph believes UCalgary can benefit from these traditions to “offer ethical practices and nonviolent expressions of decolonialism and social justice” and move forward toward an equitable and inclusive campus community.

When not teaching or undertaking research, Joseph takes joy in writing poetry, contributing works such as M/OTHER (2024), which offers reflection on the realities of society through her South Asian lens.

Making the invisible visible

: Photo of Dr. Ling Jin

Racial trauma can have a profound impact on mental health and well-being, especially for Asian community members, whose mental health is often overlooked due to the myth that they are unaffected by psychological issues.

Dr. Ling Jin, PhD, registered psychologist and assistant professor, Werklund School of Education, is challenging the model minority myth through her work, which strives to “help visible minorities navigate their dual identities and find strengths in their unique experiences.”

Her work reaches a broad range of Asian ethic groups including Black, Indigenous, and People of Colour first responders, Chinese Canadians, South Asians, and immigrant and refugee groups.

She emphasizes that Asian collectivistic values, such as emotional restraint and humility, are often in conflict with mainstream North American values. “These cultural values, while viewed positively in Asian communities, are sometimes approached from a deficit-based perspective in Western cultures. My cross-cultural mental health research explores how these culturally congruent factors affect mental health symptoms to give voice to Asian individuals,” says Jin.

Jin advocates for creating safe spaces at UCalgary that allow discussion around racial trauma, oppression, and institutional racism. Jin hopes UCalgary can “create a space through which we can channel our collective pain into meaningful dialogue and spur those into social justice and advocacy action work, ultimately making the invisible visible."

Conceptualize life from a global mindset

: Photo of Dr. James Agarwal

Dr. James Agarwal, PhD, a professor of marketing and UCalgary Research Excellence Chair in the Haskayne School of Business, was shaped by the diverse cultures of India and Britain during his upbringing, influencing his perspectives today.

“This microcosm of environmental complexity and collectivism taught me to be open-minded, cosmopolitan and yet locally anchored, often having to balance differing values and viewpoints,” says Agarwal.

He uses this global mindset in his teaching, emphasizing the importance of holding multiple, sometimes conflicting, perspectives, a crucial skill in international marketing. Balancing his dual identities as an Asian Indian and a North American required a shift in mindset.

“On the one hand, the pedagogical method of logical reasoning and scientific inquiry has influenced my thought process and fostered my independent self-construal — the self-identity that wants to be authentic and unique. On the other hand, my cultural prior and interdependent self-construal — the self that draws identity through interpersonal relations with certain reference groups — is also important. It gives you a sense of belongingness.”

Agarwal’s shift from ethnocentric to transcendent thinking has significantly influenced how he connects with students from diverse backgrounds. He believes that values such as trust, respect, integrity, and community are universal, highlighting that “humility and a willingness to learn are the hallmarks of a true scholar."

In addition to his wide research interests, Agarwal serves on multiple committees, and is a mentor to doctoral candidates from different nationalities — all opportunities to continue expanding his global mindset.

The legacy of Asian heritage

As UCalgary engaged in learning and unlearning and participated in events throughout Asian Heritage Month, insights from these scholars highlight the enduring legacies from Asian traditions that the campus community can draw from throughout the year.

“We are in the midst of a great social transformation, one that is unprecedented in human history, shaped by the hyper-diversity and complexity of our campus, city, and country,” says Dr. Malinda Smith, vice-provost and associate vice-president research (EDI). 

“This transformation may be a source of anxiety for some, but it is also an opportunity to learn how to live and thrive together.

“It is a chance for epistemic pluralism, learning from diverse knowledges and ways of knowing and being from across Asia and its diasporas, including both newcomers and those who have been here for generations,” Smith continues. “We are committed to creating a campus where all members experience meaningful inclusion, belonging and are respected for who they are and their contributions to our campus and the broader community."

By engaging in these insights and continuing the dialogue beyond May, UCalgary can continue learning about diverse Asian heritage in Calgary, across Canada, through teaching and learning across faculties, transdisciplinary research and scholarship, and the Office of Equity, Diversity and Inclusion’s resource on Asian Heritage Month.

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