For many, story time at the library may seem like a distant childhood memory, but for the lucky attendees of Mixed Voices Raised, Hapa-Palooza’s opening event, this experience was as recent as Wednesday. On September 16th, Vancouver Public Library’s Alice Mackay Room was packed with Vancouverites of all bloods and backgrounds. They were gathered for an evening of warmth and laughter, as seven storytellers shared what it meant for them to come from mixed backgrounds.
It was a night of reflection, exploring many different emotions of growing up hapa. Anna Kaye, co-founder of Hapa-Palooza, told the tale of her Taiwanese grandmother, who, at first so obstinately against her daughter’s marriage to a Jewish man, eventually became her proudest supporter. “[My parents] didn’t just produce three mixed children,” she explained. “When my Ama moved across continents to be with our family, she gained a new identity… We both felt mixed.”
Speakers also discussed the (unexpected) humour of dealing with people’s assumptions about their identities. “Sometimes people say things so ignorant, I feel genuine concern for their health.” Sean Devlin, part comedian, part social activist, had everyone crying from laughter as he drew from comic experiences in his life to raise important social issues. “The perks of being what some people would term ‘white-passing’ is that I get to experience secret white-people only racism,” Sean confided. Once on a flight, he sat next to a Caucasian man, who offered him some Trinidadian tea—Sean accepted gratefully—then proceeded to confess that what he really couldn’t stand were “these Chinese people.” Sean put on his “skeptical face,” which, unfortunately, brought out his Asiatic features and their conversation to an awkward end. “Ultimately,” Sean concluded, “if a tree falls in the middle of the woods, and a white guy sits on the stump and says a whole bunch of racist stuff… it’s still racist.”
The pain of straddling multiple cultures was also acknowledged and discussed. Chelene Knight shared four heart-wrenching poems from her recently-published collection Braided Skin. An excerpt from How to Run Your Fingers Through My Hair can be found here. Chelene has been featured at many poetry readings and this night she encouraged “everyone [to] contribute a verse. Get it down on paper, on tape, on canvas, on napkin, on palms of hands or on a crumpled-up grocery receipt, get it down.” For Knight, words are a source of healing and a powerful impetus, “I will tell stories, share stories and write stories. By any means necessary.”
VPL’s newly-installed aboriginal storyteller-in-residence, Sharon Shorty, articulated the complexities of being Tlingit-shoni-wegian, or, Raven Clan and Norwegian. Her piece, “The Best Status Update Ever,” details how how the Indian Act refused to incorporate mixed marriages and identities in Aboriginal culture.. Her grandmother gained status, lost it, then gained it back again. Shorty shrugged it all off with good-natured sarcasm, “I can’t wait to renew the status card that ‘proves’ I’m an Indian—that’s assuming I don’t forget who I am in the meantime.”
Interspersed through narratives in English were snippets of Mandarin, Tlingit, Vietnamese, and Swahili, a testament to the colourful variety of cultures present that evening. Yet, speakers were also careful to translate unfamiliar phrases so that all would feel included. Sometimes, even the MC’s had difficulty pronouncing non-English names—much to the amusement of the audience. At the end of the night, the crowd dispersed reluctantly but satisfied. Everyone was grateful to have learned something new about culture and identity in a warm and relaxed atmosphere.
Diverse in genre, sentiment, and style, yet united in purpose, Mixed Voices Raised, as host Jeff Stearns put it, “celebrates that we are whole people, not just fractured identities.”
Mixed Voices Raised may have come and gone, but Hapa-Palooza is still going on this weekend! Don’t miss Hapa Family Day, a free event for the whole family that runs from 1-4 pm this Sunday at Granville Island Picnic Pavilion. A Michael Jackson performance by tribute artist Kyle Toy, music by Kutapira, family yoga, and face-painting are a few of the many things to look forward to on September 20th.