Monday, September 1, 2014
Last updated: 1 hour ago

Finding your place: Chinese student clubs navigating cultural identities

China is UBC’s largest source of international students and one third of our student population is of Chinese descent. How do student organizations reflect the diversity and divisions within the Chinese-Canadian community?

Banana. Honger. Fob. Chink.

These are among the many stereotypes that people of Chinese descent face in the world and at UBC. Even when these slurs are not actually verbalized, the underlying stereotypes are undeniably still present at our university.

In 2008, a promotional video by a club on campus ignited these tensions. The Chinese Varsity Club (CVC), which often markets itself as the largest student club at UBC, created a video in the style of the Apple “Mac vs PC” commercials. A fluent English speaker from the CVC played one role and a heavily-accented Chinese student played the other.

The heavily-accented student was described as being from a “typical Honger Club”; “Honger” is a term often used for people from Hong Kong who largely maintain their home culture.

Many students were outraged at what they saw as an attempt to segregate the Chinese community into different cultural categories. The AMS was inundated with complaints, including official complaints from four other Chinese student clubs.

In the end, the AMS forced the CVC to write apology letters to the other clubs and go through equity training.

While this is perhaps the best-known example of the conflict that can arise out of the diverse forms of Chinese cultural identity among students on campus, there are many others simmering under the surface.

Yet at the same time, there are also strong feelings among Chinese UBC students that what they have in common is more important than their differences. Whatever divisions exist in language and cultural background—and there are many such divisions—there is also an opportunity to forge social bonds and explore new ways of identifying as Chinese-Canadian.

Sticking to your own kind

UBC has long been known as a multicultural school, especially in terms of those with Chinese heritage. In September 2011, Alden Habacon, UBC’s director of Intercultural Understanding Strategy Development, told UBC Public Affairs that “one third of UBC students are of Chinese descent.”

According to UBC’s Office of Planning and Institutional Research, China is the largest source of international students by a considerable margin. Out of a current international student population of 7836, 1612 are from China, 163 are from Hong Kong and 139 are from Taiwan.

The Chinese student community can seem uniform to outsiders, but those on the inside quickly grasp its diversity. Some were born in Canada while others have recently arrived as international students; some speak several dialects of Chinese while others have never known the language.

As a consequence of these varying experiences, like-minded students have amalgamated into distinct groups within the Chinese community. In turn, these groups have each associated themselves with different Chinese clubs and organizations, some of them the largest on campus with long-standing histories. Over time, the interactions between these groups have provoked debate surrounding the forces driving the cultural separation.

Anson Tsoi, president of YOURS Student Association, a Chinese student group active on both UBC and SFU campuses, feels that the way Chinese students group together on campus is not necessarily a bad thing.

“I don’t think it is a huge problem for people to stick to their own kind,” says Tsoi. “Even if you’re Asian, you could be from Taiwan, the mainland [China] or Hong Kong. It’s just natural for them to bond in their own groups. But the good thing is [the groups] don’t mind accepting people who are not.”

“I think there is a differentiation between groups, but it’s not always clear as to what those differences are,” says Sharon Lo, a second-year student who has not yet belonged to any Chinese student clubs. “It is a step to acknowledging and understanding the dynamics of the Chinese community. People shouldn’t be lumped into one category and only one category just because they look a certain way or speak a certain language.”

The Asian-Canadian Cultural Organization (ACCO) formed as a student club at UBC three years ago to address problems arising from cultural segregation. It aims to raise awareness of pan-Asian social issues and spark intercultural dialogue about cultural assumptions.

“Stereotypes are problematic because on the one hand, they point to the diversity and the differences within one community—say, the Chinese community, that people assume to be fairly homogeneous,” says Bard Suen, ACCO president.

“But I think that when you look deeper into it, you’ll find that there are a lot of differences within each stereotype.”

Yet Suen recognizes that having clubs with certain identities serves a purpose.

“Clubs aren’t being exclusive per se, because anyone can join. I really don’t think that these groups approach the UBC community, and say, ‘We only want to selectively have these groups of people in our group and we don’t want anyone else.’ But I think that people naturally want to play up what they’re proud of and what they’re interested in.”

Dialects creating barriers

One of the biggest factors that creates different cultural identities is language.

There are many distinct dialects from different regions of China in the spoken Chinese language, most notably Cantonese and Mandarin. Students who are fluent in English or multiple Chinese dialects do not find it difficult to communicate.

The problems usually arise within populations of new immigrants and international students who do not possess a strong command of English. These students may have a tendency to converse only in their mother tongues, driving the divisions of groups due to language barriers.

It was language that created the most controversy with the CVC’s 2008 video. The “Honger” student stumbled over the pronunciation of many words, including multiculturalism, and confused the word “variety” with “Viagra.”

“It was a sensitive video,” says Ethan Wong, the CVC’s president, who points out that the CVC has always been focused on social activities and less on Chinese culture. “We did suffer the consequences of our immaturity there, but I think we definitely learned from it.”

“I think that video was very problematic,” says Suen. “I can see what they were trying to do, which was to break assumptions about what CVC was like and to separate themselves from what they didn’t want to be identified as. In doing that, they stigmatized a certain group within the Chinese community, like people who don’t have strong English skills.”

“Our club made a major turn and we grew a lot from it, like our cultural identity,” says Wong. “That’s why we’re able to not only be such a big social club, we can somewhat address those cultural issues but [in a smarter way] now with that type of hindsight. We did differentiate ourselves in that term but it was definitely a mistake on our end.”

Different stories to bring

The dichotomy of Chinese and Canadian cultures also creates a divide on campus. How a student straddles this cultural divide often depends on the number of years spent in China or Canada.

For some, memories of their lives in China remain vivid and affect their choices in music, mannerisms and food. Others have grown up entirely in Canada and have never been in touch with their Chinese heritage.

“I find that I associate with the Western lifestyle and culture more easily, having spent my entire life here,” says Lo. “My Chinese heritage is definitely important to me, especially since I have family in Hong Kong, but it isn’t as prominent as it is in other people.”

The CVC, for example, is often associated more with the “Western lifestyle,” and opens its membership to students of all ethnic backgrounds. Other clubs, such as the Chinese Student Association (CSA), have more students who have lived mostly in China. (The CSA didn’t respond to requests for interviews.)

“[The CVC] does recognize different Asian backgrounds of upbringings in Canada, if someone is a CBC (Canadian-born Chinese) who was born here, or someone who’s from abroad,” says Wong. “As much as it does seem like each club caters to one of those types of groups, I think it’s definitely something that happens on its own. It’s a natural progression.”
The political situation between China and Taiwan can also manifest itself on campus.

“Someone from mainland China and someone from Taiwan have political issues from the two countries,” says Tsoi, the president of YOURS. “They’re born and taught that Taiwanese people might dislike mainland Chinese people, and vice versa, and Hong Kong people will be in the middle. I believe that since we’re in Canada, we should leave all this behind. We’ve all moved on. We’re all considered Canadians.”

Kevin Zhang, the vice-president internal of the CVC, agrees that Chinese students should try to get past those differences. “Everyone has a different story they want to bring. It’s a big melting pot of different stories that you can share with such a diverse group of people. It’s all based on everyone’s personal characteristics.”

Suen thinks that Chinese groups have to take on the responsibility of addressing some of the divisions within the community.

“I really think there should be more cross-pollination between these different groups,” says Suen. “I think there is an immense amount of privilege associated with the Chinese community and they need to recognize that. There is a responsibility to be aware of that privilege but also use that privilege in a way that would further positive community development.

“The Chinese community has a lot of infrastructure that is already set up, so there’s a lot of opportunity for them to do good things.”

Getting to know each other

Although there will always be some conflict in a community with so many different cultural identities, some Chinese students want to stay focused on what they all have in common.

In his first year, Wong was in the Arts One program and felt that he did not fit in with any particular sub-groups. “As much as I could distinguish those different niches, I wouldn’t have to characterize myself under one of those,” says Wong. “When you get to UBC, you realize that if you start [characterizing yourself], there are so many niches out there. If you really want to meet people, you can’t be picky.

“Joining CVC has made me more aware of those stereotypes and more aware that they are transparent, vague and non-descript. The social aspect of campus will always trump stereotypes because stereotypes are nothing.”

Tsoi is convinced that as UBC develops even more as an international institution, the divisions within the community are going to diminish. “The Chinese community is [still] trying to get to know each other,” he says.

“We’re going to become more aware of our role and influence in society,” adds Wong. “The term ‘Chinese’ is so open-ended in Vancouver. The Asian identity will develop to be more mature.”

This sentiment is common among most students of Chinese descent at UBC: despite differences in background, language or cultural interests, every member in the Chinese community can share in the fact that they attend a world-class Canadian university, and wants to take advantage of all the opportunities of multiculturalism that this institution offers.

“It’s hard because a lot of the time, the larger mainstream community wants to have a singular idea of what a group is like,” says Suen. “The struggle comes in where you’re trying to express who you are and have an identity that you’re proud of, and at the same time, you have to say who you’re not.

“I think that’s why there’s so much conflict between different groups within the Chinese community, because they don’t want to be identified as such. This is not, in their eyes, what being Chinese-Canadian is about.”