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.


Navigating High School

by Tiana Reid

From the National Post, 2011: Brothers James and Jose Wilson at Oakwood C.I.

From the National Post, 2011: Brothers James and Jose Wilson at Oakwood C.I.

In grade 10, I transferred from a small French-language public school to Oakwood Collegiate Institute on St. Clair West. In the papers, Oakwood was described as “multicultural;” to me, it was where my dad and uncle passed through after moving to Canada from Jamaica during their adolescence.

My old school was comprised of students whose parents were from Quebec and the Francophonie at large, especially African countries colonized by France. There, I learned that Toronto’s construction of “diversity” was  (to borrow from theorist Raymond Williams’ definitions of community) positive and warmly persuasive. At Oakwood, Mean Girls’ Janis Ian could have doodled a complex geographical map while siting in the back of sex-ed class. There were “black doors,” on the north side, closer to little Jamaica; “gino doors,” closer to Corso Italia; and “white doors,” adjacent to the small neighbourhood known as Regal Heights with big, turn-of-the-century homes.

The doors weren’t necessarily enforced zones, but rather names that we used to refer to areas where most people of certain colours hung out. No one really went to the cafeteria (I went only once at actual lunch time during my three years there), so hanging out around the doors were how we mapped out our social relationships. The doors weren’t severe roadblocks that obstructed physical movement—they were more of a psychic understanding than anything else.

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The Wedding Issue

funny sexy african american bride & groom caketopper medHow many weddings are YOU going to this summer? And how many have that special Toronto flavour? You know, the bride and bride or groom and groom or – heck! – bride and groom are completely different shades of human. The ceremony integrates multiple traditions: the couple bows Korean-style to honour their parents underneath a Jewish chuppah, then tucks into an Italian feast at the reception as a West Indian steel band taps out a tune. Half the guests give presents wrapped in fancy paper, the other half stuff fat envelopes into the provided box, and both halves consider the other a bit strange.

This week, we’re talking Weddings on the Ethnic Aisle. From what outfit to wear, to who to invite, to what do to about all of the parents’ demands and requests, for plenty of us its all got a cultural flava.

First up, Kelli Korducki isn’t quite sure what all of the fuss is about. “There are plenty of reasons for committed, long-term partners not to marry, and they needn’t even involve questions of “right one” -ness. Many—maybe most—involve the wedding itself.”

Then, Denise Balkissoon speaks with a bunch of brides who wore two dresses at their ceremony: an outfit that spoke to their ethnic traditions, as well as the Big White Dress.

Lucas Costello reflects on his own brief but quixotic marriage–and how pissed his overseas relatives were that he told them about it via e-vite.

Bhairavi Thanki discusses why she isn’t going to have any of her family’s Indian traditions in her own wedding, no how, no way.

Jaime Woo wishes Western weddings would adopt the Chinese custom of including games during the reception (and he’s got a few ideas of what they could be).

New contributor Helen Mo on why hipsters love an ethnic wedding.

and Simon Yau on why he sort of wanted his wife to change her last name from “Cheng” to “Yau,” and why “Chau” or “Yeng” just won’t work.

Keep checking back, we’ll be adding more all week. And feel free to share your most Toronto wedding stories in the comments.

One Bride, Two Dresses

By Denise Balkissoon (well, by all of the brides, actually)

For many, The White Dress is an essential piece of the wedding, symbolizing everything from a massive new commitment, to celebrity status for a day, to long-guarded virginal purity (ha). But for mix-and-match Torontonians, those traditions often dovetail with others, which are also marked with fancy dress. Here, some local brides talk about why they chose to wear both a white gown as well as an outfit with different cultural meaning.

Jaclyn Law, Chinese-Canadian
Married in 2001
I’d redo certain things about my wedding, if I could (like not having it in January!), but I still love my wedding dress – it’s so simple and pretty. My husband and I decided to have a traditional Chinese banquet (his idea, actually), so I went with a cheongsam, too. I changed into it after the third course. When I entered the room, everyone started applauding — I probably turned as red as the dress! I got both gowns plus matching hair decor in Scarborough. My husband, whose background is Czech, wore a rented black tux with a mandarin collar. In the pictures, we look like a couple of kids.


Cindy Ramkissoon-Shears, Indo-Trinidadian-Canadian
Married in 2008

I have always wanted to wear the traditional Hindu wedding sari, even though later in life I became a born again Christian.  Growing up in a Hindu home and attending many Hindu weddings, I fell in love with the designs, colours and accessories.  I remember being a small child and seeing one of my elder cousins in the traditional red sari walking down the stairs to meet her groom, having the veil of flowers hanging on her face. From that moment I knew that is what I wanted to wear at my wedding.  My spouse is not of my culture but he welcomed my ideas and so did our wedding party. I chose to wear baby yellow, as the traditional wedding colours are red or yellow.

We were married in a church and our pastor was very excited that although were we being married under Christian rites, other cultures and traditions were still being represented in our clothing.  My pastor and his spouse also wore traditional Indian outfits at our ceremony.  After the ceremony, we changed into the traditional white dress and white suit for the remaining of our pictures and for the reception.  Honestly, if I could dance in a sari, I probably would have continued to wear that throughout the night!

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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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Hennessy and Enemies: Booze, Brands and “Liquid Bling”

By Denise Balkissoon

Can you read that wine label? Cause this brand causes dictatorships.

Can you read that wine label? Cause this brand causes dictatorships.

There were many things to be upset about after last summer’s shooting on Danzig Avenue: the deaths, of course, plus the youth of the accused shooters, and how easy it seems for firearms to slip through our porous border.

Farther down on the list, but still troubling, was “Henny & Hip Hop,” a story that ran in the Toronto Star about 10 days after the incident. Dotted with lyrics by Mobb Deep and Eminem, the piece informed the reading public that “Hennessy has been part of hip-hop culture for almost 20 years.” It quoted a Brazil-based spokesperson from Louis Vuitton Moet Hennessy, who emphasized that the company “was not part of the party.” In other words, it was embarrassing and nausea-inducing, and almost a year later, it still bugs me.

Does alcohol make people violent? Unquestionably, yes. But I can’t think of a culture other than hip hop for which a string of brand citations follows every incident. When Vancouver Canucks fans tore their city up after losing the Stanley Cup two years ago, I don’t remember hearing what kind of flat beer they were overcharged for in the Rogers Arena.  An upper-class Scottish chef killed his girlfriend last fall, but the news coverage has yet to inform me about what sorts of fine wines he might have been drinking. At a time when there were many important, heart-wrenching things to consider, “Henny & Hip Hop” was just another piece of Othering tripe letting us know that “in urban culture, [Hennessy] is seen as liquid bling.”

I have some questions of my own about liquor brands and identity, questions that I might have considered stupid if the country’s biggest daily hadn’t opened these floodgates. Let’s start with the most important one, and move on from there.

1. Obviously we all want a world without prejudice or hate. Anheuser-Busch InBev is on track to own every major beer brand in the world. When Corona tastes just like Rolling Rock tastes just like Hoegaarden tastes just like Quilmes, will racism be over?

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