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What are you really saying when you ask, ‘where are you from?’

Toronto-based WAYF Collective seeks to empower Asian-identified youth

Asian-identified youth take part in a WAYF anti-oppression workshop on Oct 27, 2016. Credit: Courtesy Karla Danan Ravela

It’s been two weeks since you started chatting over Grindr, Scruff, Tinder or what have you. One week full of sporadic conversations sparked by basic questions and the other with swapping not-so-basic photos. Now, it’s the penultimate chat: they suggest meeting up.

You agree. You go. You arrive and there they are, waiting for you with coffee. It’s a sweet interaction (albeit an awkward one), but things are going well (as far as you can tell). And then they ask, “where are you from?”

Many have the luxury of answering this without an ounce of hesitance; however, for visible minorities, these four words hold much more weight. As a response, the Toronto-based WAYF (Where Are You From?) Collective helps Asian-identified youth navigate the societal structures that reinforce stereotypes of Asians as well as challenge the lack of diverse representation of Asian communities.

“WAYF began for a number of reasons,” Rain Chan says. “We wanted to build a stronger community amongst Asian youth, share stories with other Asian folks and people of colour, challenge the media’s lack of representation of Asian people, offer a space where we can discuss issues of oppression, racism, and intersectionality [among other reasons].” To do so, the collective uses workshops to help youth express their identities.

A recent workshop was facilitated by Toronto Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam. She discussed how she navigated the male-dominated political scene as a queer woman of colour. Other topics in the workshop covered included being Asian in white-dominant spaces and reminding contemporary culture that Asians are not a homogenous group, but a significantly diverse one.

An upcoming intersectionality workshop on Dec 9, 2016, will discuss treading the line between identifying as “queer” and “Asian,” especially in places that are not welcoming to the latter (for example, in online dating spheres, in which some users aren’t shy about stating “No Asians” as a preference).

When does such a statement move out of the sphere of preference to casual racism? WAYF’s workshops provide youth with a safe space to explore such questions and how the Asian identity intersects with others, hopefully helping others increase awareness and empathy towards others.

As for the attendees of these workshops? “Many of the Asian youth expressed a great appreciation where there is a space for us to speak on the number of topics and issues . . .  [they] value having the opportunity to share their own experiences with these issues as well as brainstorm tools on how to meet these challenges,” Chan says.

While many of WAYF’s workshops provide safe spaces to host discussions, the collective also looks to more creative outlets. In the new year, WAYF will be running a series of zine workshops, beginning with a discussion on the history of zines and then providing participants with tools to visually tell a story as well as touch up on some formal techniques. The second workshop will see a more hands-on approach, allowing participants to explore different mediums of creative expression with different materials.

WAYF is also planning a zine fair in April. “We are really excited to be hosting the first Asian zine fair here in Toronto in 2017,” Chan says. As much as WAYF is dedicated to opening a verbal discussion on where one fits within the queer community when identifying as Asian, the collective also encourages individuals to start other conversations on identity in creative and fresh ways.

As for the future of WAYF, Chan hopes that the workshops will keep growing. “We are hoping that this project can continue to build a community for Asian folks to have their voices heard, share stories, and experience as well as offering a space to pursue creative endeavours.”