Throughout May, the last month the cherry blossoms bloom, Vancouver will be the scene for the celebration of the 22nd Asian Heritage Month.
The explorASIAN festival’s theme ”Pan-Asian Routes,” refers to the richness and diversity of Pan-Asian artists and communities, who will be showcasing more than 50 performances, shows and exhibits around Metro Vancouver.
A Filipino point of view
With its 48 countries and a population of 4.4 billion people, Asia is the biggest and most diverse continent of the world by area and population.
”Interestingly enough, there are more differences among Asians than there are similarities,” says Ron Darvin, a Filipino graduate student at UBC. “But things that most of us have in common are a history of colonization, and a common migration story. Asians have moved all over the world in search of jobs.”
Vancouver is sometimes called the most Asian city outside of Asia, with 43% of its residents coming from Asian backgrounds. Despite this fact, the Asian population is quite underrepresented as a whole in Vancouver arts and cultural events.
“We see the establishment of independent ‘silos’ or ethnic groups, and we try to bring them together through collaboration during the Asian Heritage Month,” says Laila Fraser, executive director of the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society (VAHMS). “With the festival’s theme ‘Pan-Asian Routes,’ we want to increase public awareness of the rich Asian heritage and showcase the contribution of Asian artists to the Vancouver arts scene.”
When Leo Cunanan, a Filipino-Canadian artist and musician, was chosen as a board member of VAHMS in 2017, he was determined to draw his fellow countrymen out of their comfort zone.
“I felt that the Filipinos needed to get outside of their own community more. As a board member I am committed to act as a middleman between the Filipinos and other organizations,” says Cunanan.
The Vancouver Asian Heritage Society meets with community leaders throughout the year to encourage participation in the annual festival, while at the same time stimulating collaborations between the groups.
“It doesn’t matter what nationality we are from, we can all work together. That is what the Asian Heritage Society stands for,” says Cunanan.
Cunanan arrived in Canada as a nine-year-old boy, at a time when around 3000 Filipinos were living in the Vancouver downtown area. The number has now grown towards 90,000 according to the 2016 census.
“I got into many fights because there weren’t many Filipinos at that time, and there was a lot of discrimination. But after learning English, I felt more like a Canadian, and life became easier,” says Cunanan.
Cunanan believes in adaptation from both sides.
“I find it important to educate everyone about our Asian roots, but also to teach Asians how to integrate into Vancouver society. The majority of Filipinos are not interacting with other Asian groups, and that is what I want to change,” Cunanan explains.
One of the events that Cunanan organizes is an exhibit of the artist group Dimasalang III in the Vancouver Public Library.
“The founder of the group, SYM Mendoza, is a very well-known artist in the Philippines, who immigrated to Canada in the eighties. He took a lot of Filipino Canadian artists under his wing, among them myself, whose work will be displayed in this exhibition,” he says.
Cunanan feels Canadian, but appreciates the Filipino values he grew up with. “Family unity and respect for others are really important. These are things that I see less of in North America and that I want to educate the Canadian people about,” he adds.
An Iranian lens
“Immigration is challenging and we see that people get emotional during the events of the explorASIAN festival, because they are brought back to their roots for a moment,” says Masoud Esmailzadeh, president of the Iranian Hafez Literature Club, which will host a Persian music and poetry night. “Most of the Persians know Hafez, a Persian poet from the 14th century, who wrote poetry about peace, hope and love. Our goal is to promote these values among all cultures.”
The Persian language is not only used in Iran, but in more than 23 countries where Persian people have roots.
“Lots of Persians had to leave Iran because of the politically complex situation. Families were separated and getting together in community circles helps people get through the challenges of immigration,” says Esmailzadeh.
For Amin Sameni, the reason to leave Iran was motivated by his search for a better world in which he and his young family would have more opportunities. His mind often lingers on his home country.
“Things that I see or smell can suddenly remind me of home. Some days I feel awesome being a Canadian, other days I feel slightly homesick,” says Sameni.
As a part-time musician he tries to bridge the gap between Iranian and Canadian culture.
“It feels really good that you can be a Canadian without forgetting who you are and what your roots are. I try to obtain the best thing about each culture and become a better person,” he says.
Sameni feels sorry that Vancouver Asians are not really connected with each other.
“Talking about what we have in common might actually end up in a friendship. We should not look at differences, but at commonalities, and not only talk about it, but show it in our actions,” he says.
For more information, please visit www.explorasian.org.