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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

We’ve Heard Enough: Cultural Education Beyond Words

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


I celebrated Lunar New Year on February 1st, the beginning of the year based on the lunar calendar that was traditionally used among East and Southeast Asian cultures. I didn’t expect to wake up to a social media news feed that read "U of T Gradhouse gave out 'Hell Bank Notes' to students."

According to a report later made by the Toronto Star, the Graduate House residence team prepared 红包 (red packets) for students as a celebration. However, instead of candy or peanuts, which are usually used to substitute money under similar circumstances, the red packets contained 冥币 (joss paper). Giving out joss paper to the living was highly inappropriate, especially during the celebration of the new year. What made the situation more confusing was that the joss paper had the title "Hell Bank Notes" printed in English, which made the act seem like a direct act of racism instead of a careless mistake.

Petition from Screenshot Courtesy of the Author.

After advocacy from multiple Asian student organizations and a petition that was signed by students across U of T campuses, the Division of People Strategy, Equity & Culture issued an official statement on February 9th, apologizing for the incident.

As a member of the East Asian communities at U of T, I appreciate the effort made by student organizations and every individual who responded to the incident so that the school took the matter seriously. However, as a professional working in the cultural sector, I couldn’t help but question: How did the mistake happen – was it due to carelessness, ignorance, or malice? What should be done so that similar mistakes could be minimized in the future?

Growing up in a relatively monocultural society, I had a very limited understanding of diversity when I first came to Canada and at times I spoke and acted inappropriately, which I would later regret. Every mistake is a learning opportunity. In turn, each time we witness someone else’s mistake is a moment for teaching, or for us to direct them to the resources where they could educate themselves.

U of T’s statement promised to develop programming that "focused on the unique experiences of Asian communities, and to address anti-Asian racism in its many forms." The current website only listed events scheduled in May for Asian Heritage Month. But I am looking forward to seeing the university’s action after the statement of apology to provide educational resources for its community. I appreciate the notion of dedicating a month to celebrate one of the diverse cultures in Canada. But just like Mother’s Day shouldn’t be the only day we say "I love you Mom," discussion about anti-racism shouldn’t only happen in February or May and decolonization shouldn’t only happen in June. Cultural education is a continuous effort.

Current Anti-Asian Racism Resources page. Screenshot Courtesy of the Author.

A museum is a place where informal education occurs; it is therefore an excellent venue for cultural education. However, the current situation isn't quite satisfactory. I remembered feeling slightly uncomfortable when visiting the Bata Shoe Museum. Walking through the fantastic collection of shoes from all around the globe, I noticed that the only object connected to Chinese culture was embroidered shoes used for women in foot binding. While foot binding was certainly a part of Chinese history, it was a symbol of women's oppression and the twisted sense of beauty that was imposed on them. Seeing it as the only representation of "Chinese shoes" in a museum that celebrates every kind of footwear from all around the world made it a less than joyful moment for a Chinese visitor like me.

Chinese shoes for bound feet, Bata Shoe Museum. Wikimedia.

When problems such as this are raised, common excuses are "it’s difficult to acquire objects that represent every aspect of a culture" and/or "removing or replacing an object costs a lot and the museum doesn’t necessarily have the budget." However, cultural education is not only what objects and memories are shared in a museum space, but also how they are interpreted.

The first museum I ever visited as a child was the Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre, a museum built in vigil for 300,000 residents that were killed during WWII in my hometown Nanjing. Like many other museums that deal with the theme of war and death, the memorial hall was an enclosed underground space, dark and sullen. The atmosphere and the historical photos and survivors' testimonies in the exhibition could be rather terrifying to young children. I remembered some of my classmates from my Grade 1 field trip exiting the memorial hall with strong emotions. Some were angry and apparently didn’t know how to deal with such anger at the age of six, which led them to say things like "I want to kill all Japanese people." Some others were crying and scared, thinking that war and death may arrive upon them at any moment, that they will lie in the darkness forever like the victims of the massacre. These reactions were nowhere near the message one should take away from cultural education.

Candlelight vigil at Memorial Hall of the Victims in Nanjing Massacre.

My memory of that visit, however, centred on when my mother brought me to the vigil hall, where visitors could light a red candle for the victims, sit, and reflect. We bought a candle and sat quietly among the candle lights, and my mother asked me how I felt about the exhibition. I didn’t remember what we talked about there but I remember walking out of the hall calmly, still sad but without unreasonable fear or anger. Even using the same material, the educational experience could lead to such different results – simply by engaging differently.


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