The Death Issue


Calavera Las Bicicletas, by the Mexican artists José Guadalupe Posada

It’s the time of year to honour the dead, usually by wearing outrageous costumes and eating too much candy. While we at the Ethnic Aisle love a good party where you can’t tell who anyone is, this year we thought we’d take All Hallow’s Eve and Día de Muertos a little more literally.

Here are some personal reflections by Torontonians of various cultures on death, dying and remembering both here, and abroad. They’re about ancestors, and decisions, and grief – and also about love, and how we choose to live.

In A Way of Death, Heather Li describes why her annual visit to her family graves is actually kind of fun.

Rawiya Kameir explains the Sudanese ritual of beit el-bikka for In the House of Crying, a dramatic display of grief that first annoyed, then comforted, her.

Perhaps it happens in many cultures, but Helen Mo has only seen Asian and South Asian families hide death and illness from older relatives. “With one act, it’s possible to both love and disrespect,” she writes in Don’t Tell Grandma.

In God Lives in India, Vivek Shraya writes about love, faith, disillusionment, and the death of his personal God, the multifaith guru Sai Baba.

After 40 years in Toronto, Septembre Anderson’s relatives still grieve using Trinidadian mourning rituals. She talks about the death of her uncle in Nine Nights and Forty Days. 

For many Torontonians, deaths of relatives we loved–or hardly knew–happen on different continents.

Adwoa Afful reflects on the passing of her grandmother and great-grandmother in On Death and Mourning From a Distance. 

While Pacinthe Mattar talks about how “shame and guilt move through my veins” when she missed the funerals of her grandmothers and uncles in Death Struck Where I Was Born, But Never Lived.


Don’t Tell Grandma

Hazy Grandma PictureBy Helen Mo

One night when I was nine, my mother explained that my paternal grandmother would not return to our home in Canada. My grandparents had returned to Hong Kong for what was intended to be a short visit and it was there that my grandmother’s cancer made itself known. Doctors gave her three months. Because my father’s siblings all lived in Hong Kong, they decided that my grandmother should stay with them to be cared for in what time remained.

Meanwhile, my grandmother was unaware of her diagnosis. Her adult children shrouded her in unknowing. She had been told that her treatments were cancer “prevention” treatments, her medications also “preventative.” When my family flew to Hong Kong soon afterward, she was the only one not in on the secret that it was no ordinary reunion, but a last goodbye.

This story has a twist, however: to everyone’s surprise but her own, my grandmother defied her prognosis. She thrives to this day, seemingly oblivious to her fortune.

The next story has no happy escape. Two years ago, my teenage cousin died in an Algonquin Park car accident. My mother and grieving aunt called their sisters in Hong Kong; together, they decided not to tell their elderly mother. Her heart was bad, her spirits low. They reasoned that she was better off untroubled in what time remained.

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A Way of Death

Heather Li's grandparents' grave in Scarborough

Heather Li’s grandparents’ grave in Scarborough

By Heather Li

My family and I visit the cemetery twice a year, once in spring and again in autumn. In front of my paternal grandparents’ tombstone, we lay out a whole steamed chicken, roast pork, oranges, candies and tea on a wood board wrapped in a red cloth. We burn incense, bow three times then do it again two rows over, at my eldest aunt’s grave. Afterwards, my cousins and I catch up, tease one another and complain about how it always rains when we visit (it does). Meanwhile our aunts and uncles burn fake money (bills marked up to $10,000,000) in a metal barrel punched with holes, to allow oxygen to fuel the fire. Later, everyone comes back to my dad’s house after to eat the food offerings and hang out.

It’s a really fun day.

I’ve grown up visiting the cemetery, since my grandmother died before I was born, my aunt a few months after my birth and my grandfather when I was five. All of my Chinese friends with dead relatives buried in the city do the same around the same time every year. “What are you doing this weekend?,” I ask a close Chinese friend. “I gotta go to the cemetery,” she replies nonchalantly. “Oh yeah. I think we’re doing that next weekend,” I say.

As a child, I also spent a lot of time in funeral homes. My dad has a lot of cousins, a lot of friends and someone (who I usually didn’t know) was always dying. I was more stressed out saying hello to unfamiliar living adults than peeking at the dressed-up corpse at the front of the room. We have photo albums of family friends standing next to open caskets, posing for the camera. My older sister thinks it’s odd, morbid even, but I think I get it. We sent these pictures overseas to the people who couldn’t travel to Toronto and pay their respects. It’s a direct link to their community.

Death isn’t tragedy. And it isn’t something to fear. In Chinese culture, when someone dies, we grieve, we are sad but we also celebrate, we come together as family and friends and we understand the reality of life.

The Booze Issue


Now, we know what you’re thinking: isn’t it a bit crazy for a blog dedicated to challenging stereotypes about Toronto’s many communities to time a booze issue right near St. Patrick’s Day? It’s a fair question, and one to which the answer is “uh, probably?”.

But what better time to poke at the rituals, assumptions, and differing views that circle around drinking? Like few other things, alcohol shows us what we share and what we don’t. Those of us who indulge often do it and think of it in different ways. Some of us never touch the stuff. How different communities look at alcohol forms a kaleidoscope of opinion.

This week on the Ethnic Aisle, we’re all about booze. From how culture and religion affect our views on drinking, to what a multicultural bar might look like, to the dreaded “Asian Glow”, we’re diving in to the world of liquor.

Sitting down for drinks amongst a mixed group of friends can be an ideal symbol of Toronto’s diversity. Whatever disagreements we have tend to dissolve in the pleasant haze of a good buzz. So in that spirit, we invite you to kick back, pour yourself a drink and savour the many notes of our Booze Issue.

Starting off, let’s confront St. Patrick’s Day head-on with a Dubliner’s Rant by Séamus Conaty. “Patty! Really? Patty? That is either an old WASPy woman’s name or a delightful Jamaican pastry, not Ireland’s main man.”

There’s so much more to Greek alcohol than ouzo. Kat Armstrong gives us a handy primer and a breakdown on drinking etiquette (metaxa is so fancy, like).

“It felt weird to me to be the only sober person in a room full of people who were inebriated.” Bharavi Thanki talks to a young, ambitious Muslim woman about whether her choice not to drink affects her career path.

Kids and Wine Is Just Fine: Kelli Korducki was a child drinker (sort of) and people let her get away with it cause her parents were foreign (maybe).

Navneet Alang and Anshuman Idamsetty would like to know – just What Is a Multicultural Bar? Is it about the crowd, the food, the decor, the music? Must it serve Kingfisher?

Hennessy and Enemies: the Toronto Star had some pretty stupid things to say about the link between hip hop, cognac and last summer’s shooting on Danzig Ave. So Denise Balkissoon has some stupid questions of her own.

Are Asian club nights different than “regular” club nights? Karen K. Ho talks to David Ins, a promoter with Asian-focused party company Epic Nights.

In Irish Pride, Lucas Costello shares an intense, dark memoir of life with an alcoholic Irish dad and a teetotalling Filipino mom.

and Chantal Braganza teaches us all about pulque, the Mexican liquor with the consistency of saliva and the taste of runny sourdough starter. Cheers!

You Can Find Them In The Club: Toronto’s East-Asian Scene

IMG_2702-copyBy Karen K. Ho

“It’s hard to explain without seeming racist,” laughs David In when asked about the East-Asian party scene in Toronto. The 29-year-old Korean-Canadian is a co-founder of Epic Nights. The entertainment production company produces concerts and other events, but Epic specializes in promoting club nights targeted at young East-Asian students and professionals.

I haven’t been to a nightclub in years, but I still know that clubbing is a massive part of Toronto’s entertainment industry. I also know that East-Asian nights are incredibly popular. What I wanted to figured out was exactly how popular, and how parties focused on East-Asian clubbers might be different than a “regular” club night. So I asked David, and here’s what I learned.

Club gear transcends race. “You’ll have your hipsters and the guys who are all GQ’d, and obviously the douche-bags who are wearing Ed Hardy,” David said. “You know, the True Religion jeans and really flashy standout style.”

East-Asians drink what everyone else drinks. Bottle service orders are dominated by vodka, while bar orders are mostly Jagerbombs and tequila shots.

“Asian Glow” exists. (It’s increased acetaldehyde accumulation, ok?) “Some people will have one sip of beer and they’ll turn red,” David laughs.

Friday night is Asian Night—it’s when club owners are most likely to ask Epic to help them bring in an Asian clientele. “However on Saturday it’s completely different,” he said, noting that the demand for “white” nights goes up. “But those tend to become mixed anyway.”

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Racism, Past: Toronto’s Bygone By-Laws

By Chantal Braganza

This piece began with a simple premise and kind-of crude headline: A History of Racist Bylaws in Toronto. It presumed the existence of such bylaws, that there were enough of them to constitute a history (possibly a timeline—how readable!) and that they were as easy to find as a sushi shop on Bloor.

Surprise: it’s really not that simple. Happily (with one major exception) Toronto doesn’t have a history of enacting obviously prejudiced municipal rules. What we do have is a habit of going through municipal proceedings without considering all the different types of people who live here, who might not have certain Anglo-Saxon values or whose community-specific practices might be considered “undesirable” (whatever that means).

So forget the timeline. Here’s a look at what happens when the law gets in the way of a community who wants to do things differently.

Laundry Drama

The Wah Chong Laundry, Vancouver, 1884. Courtesy of City of Vancouver Archives and

The oldest example of these bylaws is the most straight-up racist.

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My Big Banana Body

By Karen K. Ho

I am five feet, eight inches. I am also Chinese. Surprising but true: not all Chinese women are short, skinny and small-footed. I suspect this perception and outdated stereotype comes from a period when nearly all Chinese people were very poor and had rice-heavy diets. Many Chinese women are still short and skinny, but my guess is that that’s less about genetics, and more due to a modern obsession with thin-ness and a lower prevalence of fast-food outside major city centres.

Growing up in north Scarborough, I always felt like my head was in-between two cultures, Chinese and Canadian. I only just realized my body reflects that in-between status too. There are parts of me that are completely (stereotypically) Chinese, and there are parts that are much more Canadian (or, maybe, north American).

In this top-down, completely unscientific survey, I’ve tried to figure out once and for all if my physical makeup is more reflective of my parents and ancestry, or whether I’m a product of Canada, the only land I’ve known my entire life.

It’s black, straight, thick. The kind seen on the heads of many Chinese, Filipinos and other East Asians and Pacific Islanders. To me, my hair lacks personality, and over the years I’ve attempted to perm it and/or dye it unnatural colours like blue, purple and red. This doesn’t exactly make me more Canadian, just an angsty 20-something. People all over the world chemically alter their hair. What grows out of my head is very Chinese.

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