Possibilities of Asian/Canadian Transnationality

In 2011 I left the University of California, San Diego, to join the faculty of arts and science at the University of Toronto. Shortly after arriving in Canada, I participated in a commemorative event that reflected on Maclean’s “Too Asian” controversy. In discussing the nation-wide protest against the problematic representation of Asian students in a Maclean’s article on Canadian universities, the participants also addressed multiple issues that ranged from the freedom of press, white supremacy, and xenophobia, to the legacies of British imperial violence (Findlay and Köhler). Arguably, this was my first encounter with “Asian Canadian critique” in action. Before moving to Canada, I had taught Asian American studies related courses in which we engaged the seminal works of such “Asian Canadian” intellectuals as Joy Kogawa, Richard Fung, and Henry Yu, to name a few. Yet I confess, it was only after I crossed the national border that I began to take note of their interventions as distinctly “Asian Canadian.” If the distinctiveness of Canada is lost in the United States, the statements about “Asian Canadian” I frequently encounter in Canada—whether as census category, object of academic inquiry, or grounds for collective organizing—generally underscore its under-recognition. There is indeed very little institutionalization of Asian Canadian studies, or Ethnic Studies as an overarching academic rubric.

For me, the pedagogical challenge in this new environment was not so much posed by the lack of established space for such work. More urgently, my concern focused on how I might connect the productive challenges of emergent transnational and transpacific Asian/American inquiries to the new location’s “here and now.” In my own research and teaching on memory and historical justice, I have foregrounded transpacific inquiries in order to expose and challenge hegemonic Cold War institutional arrangements and epistemologies. At the same time, I have cautioned myself not to treat Asian/Americans as an analogical equivalent to Asian/Canadians. As Iyko Day has compellingly demonstrated, Canada has a distinct racial formation that is also punctuated by the long history of Indigenous activism. Whenever a critique travels from one location to another, we need to exercise utmost care in attending to the critique’s situatedness in its geohistorical specificities.

In the United States, “Asian Americans” emerged as a product of the US juridico-political apparatuses that define and regiment the nation through racialized knowledge, surveillance, incarceration, and selective inclusion. It has no intrinsic relation to the imagined geography of Asia. Moreover, the viability of “Asian” as an identificatory category has been contested from within. Still, the enunciation of “Asian Americans” as racialized pan-ethnicity, as opposed to discretely compartmentalized ethno-nationality, has often proven vital for political mobilization against State violence. It seems to me that Canada’s political reality—in which state sanctioned multicultural and humanitarian nationalism are supplemented by the ethno-nationalisms of different diasporic and migrant populations—has made it especially difficult for many of my students to articulate a sustained critique from the position of “Asian Canadians.”

Asian American studies emerged out of the internationally politicized moment of anti-Vietnam War protests. As such, it has called on the genealogies of US military violence that continues to haunt knowledges about Asia and diasporic memories. Yet in the process of disciplinary formation, Asian American studies was severed from Asian studies and institutionalized as a single-national, civil-rights model academic inquiry, while Asian studies remained a site of knowledge production that facilitates US Cold War policies. What became lost in the disciplinary divide was the US military-security presence in Asia and the Pacific Islands. The recent move to transnationalize Asian American studies has posed critical challenges to such disciplinary boundaries. It conjured up memories of violence that were foundational to the field. Transpacific critique that connects Asian/American inquiries to Pacific Islands studies, moreover, has illuminated the interimperial colonial legacies in the region, where newly “liberated” regions emerged after the Japanese empire’s collapse only to quickly come under the military supremacy of the Cold War US liberal empire. The interface between inter-Asia cultural studies and transnational Asian/American critique has furthermore questioned the uneven capitalist development in the region. If Asian/Canadian critique were to be critically intersected with transpacific Asian/American critique, this might open up a way to relearn how Canada as a subimperial nation has been deeply implicated in the transpacific Cold War order.

Transnationality as a critical analytic suggests that transformative knowledges about any given cultural production or social process cannot be effectively generated without attending to the historical sedimentation of conquest, colonialism, imperialism, and globalization. Clearly, the concept is implicated in the demands of globalized capital. At the same time, in so far as transnationality points to capital’s transgressive nature, it also indexes the limits of the nation-state’s ability to regiment its population through managing normative identities and the authenticity of belonging. Transnationality in this sense refers to the excess elements that threaten to unsettle the discourse and institutions centering on nation-states.

To the extent that transnationality is a critical epistemology borne out of colonial-modern histories, and once transnationality is grasped as a longue durée, we will begin to see that there is no text, historical event, or social identity that is not transnational. This will lead us to pose the following questions: what power is at play in the occlusion of transnational histories? What are the mechanisms whereby our sociality, cultural practices, and histories are made to appear solely national even in the diaspora? Which memories are erased in the production of nationalized knowledge and in what ways do they haunt and unsettle neatly defined national contours? Asking these questions may potentially unravel the habitual forces that have made us see our histories as separate, exceptional, and indeed exclusively national. A distinctly fertile ground for such a transnational inquiry, the geohistorical location of “Asian Canadian” can shed light on the often disavowed, yet shared and deeply interconnected genealogies of violence, which are constitutive of the world we live in.

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