Between rising hate crimes against Asian communities during the pandemic, an increasing call for Asian representation in popular media, and the push to debunk the ‘minority myth’, questions about Asian issues have steadily found their place between socio-political discourse.
Vicky Zhou is an undergraduate alumna of U of T and is now pursuing a master’s degree at The Munk School of Global Affairs & Public Policy. In 2021, she published a book titled Through My Eyes: Exploring the World While Being Asian, in which she combines political case studies, historical evidence, sociological theories, and her personal experiences to paint a comprehensive picture of the Asian diasporic experience in Canada.
In her book, she draws links between the Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate movements, unearths neglected events such as historical relations between Indigenous and Asian communities, and discusses how younger generations can communicate complex political issues to their elders.
Recently, The Varsity sat down with her to learn more about her time at U of T, her writing process, and her take on current socio-political issues.
The Varsity: You began writing this book during the pandemic. Could you tell us how and why this period of time sprung your journey into writing Through My Eyes? What else, if anything, inspired you to write this book?
Vicky Zhou: I would say there are two reasons that I would attribute to the [start of my] writing process. The first one was, as I mentioned in the opening chapter of the book, this very odd encounter at the very beginning of the pandemic. I walked into a local coffee store wearing a mask when a lot of people were not used to that idea yet. In the cafe, a man asked if I had the virus, and followed it with a series of borderline offensive questions.
The encounter itself wasn’t the driving factor for the book, but it was the resulting feelings and thoughts that I had to process. Many people who have experienced racism or prejudice, instead of calling it out, I internalized it. I asked myself, “What is it about me that made him pick on me and ask me those questions?” This was at a time when people were calling the virus the ‘China virus,’ so I went through a lot of self doubt.
Then I came across a book by Cathy Park Hong called Minor Feelings. She wrote about how racialized minorities, especially Asian Americans, are discredited because many people refuse to believe that Asian people experience racism too and downplay the impact of microaggression. I wanted to do what Cathy did in her book — make these feelings legit, make people doubt themselves less. Another reason why I chose to write was because of my background in sociology and policy. I already have a lot of these thoughts and theories, and I always wanted to put them into words.
TV: In your book, you pose a distinction between the experience of being a “FOB” (Fresh Off the Boat) as opposed to being simply diasporic. Could you tell us a little about your experience as an international student?
VZ: Even as international students, we have so many diverse experiences from Canadian ones. One thing I found that differentiates FOBs from Asian Canadians or domestic students is that a lot of Asian Canadians who were born and raised here experienced racism at a very young age. I think that shapes your childhood differently, and it could impact your upbringing, unlike someone who came here at the age of 18. I cannot speak for everyone, but chances are if you came later, you already have this cultural connection with your home, so the experience of discrimination is quite distinct.
For me, the challenge of coming to Canada as an international student was the initial foreignness. I was trying to figure out who to identify with and which group I stand with. On one hand, I do speak ‘good’ English because I went to an international school for two years. But at the same time, I don’t fully identify with people who were born and raised here. So I was just trying to find my camp.
TV: You dedicate a section in your book where you discuss conversing with parents and relatives about racial misperceptions. How would you suggest that young people approach that conversation with the generations above us?
VZ: It’s a very tough one. I intentionally put that chapter at the very end hoping that my parents and family get tired of reading so they don’t get to it! But joking aside, I think it’s definitely a process. I always remind myself that as humans we’re all a product of our environment. Our parents or grandparents, especially when they are from a country that is not as multicultural [as Canada], don’t get a chance to meet a lot of people outside of their cultures, so they tend to think very differently from us. That understanding gave me a lot more hope and also patience.
I feel like in Asian culture we tend to think of our elderly as people who have a lot of wisdom and we need to show them a lot of respect. But as we travel to other parts of the world, we see things that they haven’t seen, so we also have the responsibility to teach them how to learn and unlearn certain things, especially stereotypes or prejudice. I think we have a responsibility to communicate that in a respectful way to them. That’s how I would personally tie the cultural aspects with teaching and giving back.
TV: Getting a piece of work published is challenging itself, but, arguably, even more difficult when the author is racialized. Could you give us some insight into what your publishing process was like?
VZ: Writing isn’t just about putting words down on a document or on a piece of paper, it’s a process of transforming your emotions and thoughts into something concrete and solid. That process can be emotionally labourious, especially when talking about race and personal experiences and translating them into a language that readers can understand. So as a young writer, if I could give a piece of advice to anyone, I would say to keep an open mind and find something, whether it’s a program or institute, that can help you.
Something I [realized] is that publishing isn’t the only end goal, especially for young writers. It’s learning the process of editing, the process of how to make that product. So find an institute, an organization, or a mentor that can uplift your voice and support you through that journey.
TV: You mentioned the feeling of ‘double duty’ as a racialized writer. What does that term mean to you and how has that affected your experience as a writer?
VZ: Well, there’s my previous point of emotional burden, and another one is responsibility. This could be a bit controversial because I know there’s one camp of writers that tend to think that we’re the creators of whatever we want to write: we don’t want to be put in a box as POC writers and only become experts when we talk about race. The other [line of thinking] is that we’re responsible [for educating] other people about the experiences that we go through. I feel like I tend to be in the middle — I want my writing to be my creative outlet, but at the same time, I want to use the power of writing to showcase what we go through, how other people can support us, and how we can build that intercultural connection.
The third thing I would discuss [about writing as a racialized person] is writing in a second or third language. That’s really tough, especially when we talk about fictional writing, which I think takes even more of your creative writing skills. It’s difficult, but I don’t think it should stop people from writing; I think you could actually use that to your advantage.
To that point, I would suggest people to read Minor Feelings, where Hong talks about growing up in Koreatown, and all she heard was “broken” or “bad” English like people speaking a pidgin. Accents are often an index for one’s education, social status and are intertwined with a racial aspect. By [wanting to sound] Canadian, I wanted to sound white.
What changed this was my understanding of what ‘being Canadian’ means. I learned about the history of Chinatown and the diasporic communities in Canada. Speaking with a different accent now signals the strength to uproot your life to a new world, the resilience of living in a society that could discount your credentials, and even fascinating stories from moving between or across cultures.
‘Bad’ English began to mean badass English to me. When I first started writing, I had a lot of self-doubts about my English usage. Although these doubts never fully dissolved, what I am certain of is that how I speak and write is a part of my identity and the fruit of my experience.
Through My Eyes: Exploring the World While Being Asian is now available on Amazon. Interested readers can also find Vicky on Tiktok, at @vicky_zzzzzzz, or Instagram, at @while_being_asian, where she discusses relevant political issues and Asian history.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.