Creative writing class responds to “Too Asian”

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University of British Columbia students’ complaints go viral

Kait Bolongaro
Ubyssey (University of British Columbia)

When Maclean’s published “Too Asian?” in November 2010, there were protests across Canada. In response to the backlash, they issued a formal apology and changed the title of the article to “The Enrollment Controversy.”

This title is apparently more appropriate for the article, which was supposed to discuss the growing Asian majority in American colleges and how, should the US decide to limit Asian students’ enrolment, these students would choose to come to Canadian universities – —edging out local Canadian students in admissions.

University of British Columbia students had mixed reactions to this piece. Rebecca Gu, a Commerce student and blogger, was disappointed by the article’s stereotypes of people of Asian descent.

“I thought we had moved beyond being characterized as personality-less robots,” said Gu. “I wasn’t too impressed they brought it up again. I was tired of it.”

Others, such as Celestian Rince, a Creative creative Writing writing major, weren’t offended by the article. “I thought it was quite interesting and informative,” said Rince. “I hadn’t known that US schools have racist admissions. It was also good that someone finally discussed racial interaction at Canadian universities without glossing over the realities of the situation.”

One on-campus reaction to the article came in the form of a YouTtube remake of the 1980s hit “We Are the World.” The video, entitled “UBC’s Way Too Asian,” is the brainchild of Dr Ray Hsu’s Asian Canadian writing class, who were led by Tetsuro Shigematsu, a creative writing MFA student.

“Dr Hsu was the only one to take initiative with the article,” said Shigematsu.

“The challenge was to do something as a group that would be a lot of effort and coordination. I suggested half-jokingly that we could record a cover of the ’‘80s charity classic “We Are the World” and people seemed to think it was a good idea. We decided we wouldn’t wait. We would do it the next morning.”

While they didn’t have official permission to shoot on location in places such as the Chan Centre, Shigematsu explained that the group used guerrilla-style tactics to film the video, which now has over 6,800 hits on Youtube.

Hsu said that the results of the challenge “went beyond the Macleans article.”

“The issue of shelf life is interesting. On one hand, the pieces are kind of like journalism [as the videos feature] contemporary events,” he said.

“By producing works of art, that is different, however. Art doesn’t necessarily engage with the news. A work of art can transcend the moment in which it was created and has a longer shelf life. Most interesting, [with] works of art tied to present-day controversial issues, we have something that works on the border of journalism and what we think of as art work.”

The video sensation plays on traditional stereotypes of people of Asian descent and non-Asians who are fans of different facets of Asian culture. Characters pop on and off camera with tag lines like “addicted to MSG” and “loves dogs (deep fried).” The video also features Asian, European, and mixed-race children. Shigematsu says featuring the children in the video had a deeper meaning.

“We are [showing kids] who are different ‘degrees’ of Asian,” said Shigematsu.

“It’s quite effective when you see the kids, [because] it’s not just university students [who are] affected by racist media coverage …… [it] affects the next generation. Do we want our kids to grow up with a right-wing magazine featuring this garbage?”

There were some class members who felt uncomfortable with the project. “I initially felt that it was a good idea, as the article was definitely worthy of some sort of response,” says Rince. “However, that soon turned to dismay when I realized that the response would simply be a denial of the truths in the article. ‘No, that’s not true,’ is not a very reasoned or substantial response.”

Shigematsu expressed the difficult choice which student activists often have to make: academics or activism.

“I had that luxury, not having to decide between doing what’s right or homework. Ray Hsu took that away. It was so simple and ingenious. We shouldn’t be the only ones on campus to be able to do this. This is a defining issue on campus in Canada. What if other students had the privilege? We can change the discourse. Rogers have their money; we have YouTtube, Facebook, and Twitter. It’s not about who has the most money, but who is the wittiest and quickest. This issue won’t be defined by multimedia conglomerates.”

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