With support from the Richard Charles Lee Directorship of the Asian Institute, students are gaining insight into their families and themselves.
Students are gaining insights into their own lives by interviewing their parents and grandparents about the reasons they immigrated to Canada.
It’s all part of the Grandparent Project, an unusual venture at the Asian Pathways Research Lab of U of T’s Asian Institute at the Munk School of Global Affairs. The lab recently launched the Grandparent Project in order to build an archive of life-history interviews with Asian Canadians.
“The reason this project is unique is that these students have to negotiate this dual role of researcher and family member,” said anthropologist Emily Hertzman, a postdoctoral fellow at the Munk School’s Asian Institute and manager of the research lab. “We want this to be about that family member’s journey, and the student reflecting on how that journey is different from theirs and what they can learn from each other’s experiences.”
The project encourages young researchers, many of them international students or first- or second-generation Canadians, to investigate themes like home, mobility and identity, while also learning qualitative research methods.
Ailin Li and her family moved to Canada from China in 2004, when she was six, and settled in Calgary, where her mother’s best friend was living. Her mother, an engineer, felt restricted by China’s one-child policy, and was uncomfortable with the pollution and corruption in her homeland.
Li admitted that she didn’t appreciate her parents’ culture or language as she grew up, but as she interviewed her mother, that all changed. “Doing this research and brushing up on my Mandarin has made me realize how many things I didn’t understand or notice when I was younger,” explained Li, who is entering her third year as a psychology and social-cultural anthropology student.
Li said the project awakened her passion for research and changed her mind about pursuing a law degree in favour of international development work relating to East Asia. “It’s been a great experience in terms of taking down people’s stories and fitting them into a larger context.”
Like his father and mother before him, Stanley Chia came to Canada for a university education with the intent of eventually returning home to Malaysia. He said the practice of taking such a “sojourn” is common in that part of the world.
He interviewed his father, who worked in IT in Canada for 10 years and met Stanley’s mother here before returning to start a business in Kuala Lumpur. Chia had no idea how researchers in the field did interviews before starting the project, and said those skills will help, especially if he goes further into anthropology.
While Chia is unsure what he’ll do after graduation, he feels his own identity is less tied to his homeland than his parents’. “Many people wrestle with their identity after spending time abroad,” reflected Chia, who is entering his fourth year studying international relations, history and contemporary Asian studies. “Canada exposes you to a whole different environment, and that really opens up your mind and makes you see a broader picture.”
In the Fall of 2017, the first cohort of students are posting their interviews, photographs and reflective essays on the Asian Institute website and in the Pathways print publication.
The project will continue each year with a new group of students, who will examine the circular nature of migration and the “entangled trajectories of multiple generations of family members,” said Hertzman. She hopes the archive—a database of original qualitative data—will be a resource for future researchers to explore and use for larger and more long-term research projects. She also hopes it will stimulate learning about mobility, including comparative analyses, and provide examples to train students in conducting oral history interviews.
Story by Peter Boisseau
About DR. RICHARD CHARLES LEE (1905-1983)
DR. RICHARD CHARLES LEE’S NAME is associated with several initiatives at the University of Toronto that were made possible thanks to philanthropy. They include the Richard Charles Lee Chair in Canadian Studies at University College, the Richard Charles Lee Canada-Hong Kong Library, and the Richard Charles Lee Directorship of the Asian Institute, Munk School of Global Affairs.
Lee was born into a prominent family in Hong Kong, which was then a British colony. He studied at Queen’s College in Hong Kong, before attending the School of Engineering at Pembroke College, Oxford. He graduated in 1927.
Over his career in Hong Kong, Lee represented economic commissions to Australia and Singapore for the British colonial government. He led trade missions to West Africa and Germany. And he served the Legislative and Executive Councils of Hong Kong, the Court and Council of the University of Hong Kong, and the Council of the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Lee also served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of many companies that contributed to the growth of Hong Kong. He was made a Commander of the British Empire in 1963, and was awarded honorary doctorates from the University of Hong Kong and the Chinese University of Hong Kong in 1964.
AT THE LAB:
(top) Emily Hertzman with Ailin Li and Stanley Chia. Photo: Jaclyn Shapiro. (middle) Dr. Richard Charles Lee, 1964. Photo courtesy of the Lee Family