When I first moved to British Columbia, I spoke like an American, I thought like an American, I reasoned like an American. Now that I have lived in BC for nine years and have become a postdoc in Seattle, I have put American ways behind me…
…at least when I’m in BC…
I moved to Richmond, BC in 2004. I was born in Vancouver’s Grace Children’s Hospital and spent the first six weeks of my life in a townhouse in Steveston, the southern part of Richmond. When my father was head-hunted as a civil engineer down to the San Francisco Bay Area, I was that one crying baby on the plane. We settled in Fremont, California. Little did I know that by virtue of spending one’s life between Richmond and Fremont, I would have the privilege of growing up in the two most diverse cities in Canada and America respectively.
Except I didn’t spend the first eighteen years of my life in Richmond.
I spent them in Fremont, went to church in Hayward just north of Fremont, and went to Catholic school also in Hayward
When I was eighteen, I moved back to Richmond to find my Canadian roots. This is the story of how I discovered I had none.
It was the (un)fortunate fact of my life that when I moved back to Richmond, my family moved with me. For my American readers, it will be readily understandable that this was every young college student’s worst nightmare; for my Richmond readers, the horror will take some explanation as every other student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) commutes from home. My father became a pastor at a Chinese evangelical church whose members – though attempting to keep their politics separate from the church – were becoming embroiled in formal politics at every level of government.
I misread these politics at every turn because I was not in fact from Richmond. I was an American from Fremont.
On the surface, the politics that I heard about from both church and this weirdly exciting new television channel (for me) called the CBC resembled American politics in many ways. 2004 was a milestone in the American public sphere around same-sex marriage, with state Supreme Court case in Massachusetts and mayoral interpretations in San Francisco setting historic precedents, and it turned out that there was also a massive civil society debate in Canada around sexuality questions that came to a head when the federal government legalized gender-neutral marriage in 2005. One local university had in fact been embroiled in sexuality politics – that was Trinity Western University (TWU) in Langley, BC – and its 2000 Supreme Court of Canada case, Trinity Western University v. British Columbia College of Teachers, was the stuff of legend among evangelicals. After all, the story went that TWU had stood up for evangelical truth on questions of sexuality and had been vindicated against liberal activists seeking to attack its religious freedom. (I promise to post on this in more detail in another post.) Mythologies like this had in turn been fueling a politically conservative resurgence in BC since at least the late 1990s, something with which we in the States were familiar at both the federal and state level. It wasn’t much of a surprise to us that the newly formed Conservative Party of Canada was taking an upswing and that the people around us tended to support pro-business, family values conservative candidates at all levels of government.
What was also significant about the TWU case was that it was about teachers. As my sister started high school in BC, she found her studies interrupted by the teacher’s strike in 2005. Again, as a Californian, this was somewhat understandable. Education in the state of California is, after all, a major political lightning rod, and being from Fremont, one of the items that concerned parents dealt with in 2000 revolved around the redrawing of school district lines in an effort to ‘desegregate’ Asian American students. The politics of school desegregation was not new to Californian public schools. In 1979, the United States Supreme Court had decided that some desegregation policies in California could be reversed, and this has been an item of constant conversation in California. Shielded as I may have been by my parents’ decision to put us in private schools, one heard about this routinely on the news, as well as from our friends in the public school system. That teachers and education were political also in British Columbia came as little surprise to us. We simply assumed that it was American business as usual – liberal school districts come up with proposals that threaten conservative parents, students are the victims, and the cycle goes on.
There was, of course, a lot of talk about the teachers’ union and why labor unions were bad for business in general. I’ll say more about this in future posts, but you know, conservative resurgence, no surprise…
Finally, having grown up in arguably America’s most diverse city, I simply assumed equivalency between the Asian Americans of my past and the Chinese Canadians of my present. To some degree, there’s even this equivalency in the academic literature: much of the work on Asian migrations to Vancouver is premised on the work of Berkeley anthropologist Aihwa Ong on wealthy Asians in the Bay Area. As we heard about wealthy migrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea, and China buying up land to build big houses and flying back and forth across the Pacific for work and family, we thought that this was pretty similar to the California situation. We assumed that at the end of the day, their kids would grow up as second-generation Asian Canadians who would just integrate with all the other people in a sort of ‘colour-blind’ ideology (let’s be honest – I wasn’t exposed to the critical race literature till much later in life) with the ambition to find high-paying jobs to take care of their retiring parents. We thought that there was very much an assimilationist ideology just like America. We did not know that it was still kosher in many circles to ask, ‘Where are you from?’ We didn’t know that there was a difference in liberal racial ideologies. In fact, to be honest, we didn’t even know that the word ‘liberal’ could mean so many things to so many different people.
In other words, marriage equality, sexuality questions, religious freedom, Asian migrations, concerned parents, education politics, conservative resurgences – we thought that this was the same old story from the States. And so it goes for the present battles that are consuming my social media feed. True to form, there’s a teacher’s strike happening right now. There are concerned parents hitting up the Vancouver School Board because of their transgender policy. There’s controversy about TWU’s new law school that again have to do with sexuality politics. There’s all this stuff that can sound just like the fragmented, divisive politics of our neighbour down south.
It’s not American.
I’m writing this primer because I now have friends moving to BC who can’t afford to be as naïve as I was when I was 18. At the tender age of 18 and before the popularization of Facebook and Twitter, I could afford to make ignorant American statements about BC politics. My friends who will be working in a much more politicized BC than the one I came to (believe it or not) do not have the same luxuries.
Take this as what I’ve learned about BC after living and doing research here for nine years. It’s not objective, and it is thoroughly biased, though it is certainly not partisan – and definitely not partisan in the way that certain municipal parties that claim to be not partisan are in fact partisan (say that to yourself 10 times). It doesn’t cover all of BC, and it’s unapologetically situated as a Richmond perspective — worse, a Steveston one (yes, the same Steveston where Once Upon a Time was filmed). They say that it’s impossible to leave Storybrooke…
But I think and hope (and pray) that my account is also pretty accurate. Of course, it will be contested.
What I want to argue in this series of posts is that BC politics is the politics of the private consensus on steroids. What this means is that the objective of politics in BC seems to be to expose the private interests lying behind every public political move. This is why when any politician – or influential citizen, for that matter – gets tarred with the brush of ‘opportunism,’ their political fate as pariah is sealed. That’s because there’s a particularly Canadian understanding of the public, common good ordered by the state, which makes private interests in politics distinctively anathema. The twist is that BC politics seems to have descended into this shouting match among how different groups have used their private interests to hijack this Canadian public good.
What we will see is that everything – from land use politics, the ideological left, the ideological right, First Nations, ecological politics, anti-racism politics, Chinese Canadian politics, Indo-Canadian politics, education politics, everything – gets sucked into this black hole of the BC private consensus. We will explore how this came to be. We will then propose that this private consensus is unraveling.
Enjoy. [See here for Part 2, a rundown of BC issues.]
POSTSCRIPT: I think my account of Fremont, CA places a major qualifier to Diana Eck’s account of my hometown as a liberal multicultural interfaith paradise. I do not want to deny that it was a great place to grow up. But it was — shall we say? — a very politically contested landscape.