My column in Business in Vancouver last week:
Vancouver culture now meeting newcomers halfway
In Vancouver today, there’s a lot of hapa happening. In Japanese, “hapa” means leaf. In Hawaiian, half. It also means people of mixed racial ancestry.
But hapa culture is bigger than that. If you live or work in Vancouver, it includes you. Because living in Vancouver means everyone is unavoidably involved in a dialogue of ethnicity. When a city is roughly half Caucasian and half Asian, within which there’s great diversity, it becomes a different kind of place.
And it’s happened fast. Within a generation, from the early 1970s through the 1990s, Vancouver and Richmond changed complexion, by and large without a lot of fuss. When tensions flared, we worked our way through them, thanks to good leadership – in particular by former lieutenant-governor David Lam. Of course, it’s been a time of prosperity, and our kids, most of whom went to public schools, were taught tolerance and shared more or less the same popular culture. Then they started pairing up, engaging in that sincerest form of integration, the sharing of genes.
Justin Ault, 37, is hapa. In fact, he and his wife, Lea, also Japanese-Caucasian, opened a restaurant called Hapa Izakaya – the first one on Robson in the West End, the latest on Yew in Kitsilano. The staff is young, exuberant and pretty darn good looking. Some have come recently from Japan, others are many-generation Canadians. The crowd varies noticeably from night to night, but around the tables it would appear that class, age and culture trump race, colour and nationality.
The assimilation going on inside Hapa Izakaya also happens outside. On Robson and Seymour Streets, students fill the sidewalks, where the huge ESL population mixes with each other and the locals. Downtown is their campus; West End highrises are their dorms. Through sheer number they add another layer of change – which, come to think of it, has been the traditional role of Robson Street. Once known as Robsonstrasse when it was a reflection of post-war European migration, now the lower village offers Koreans, Japanese and Chinese the taste of home and keeps downtown alive – youthful, safe and hapa.
Justin is of the generation that led the way. He was born in Port Alberni, lived there until he was 18, and never for a moment had any confusion about his identity. The people he hung out with shared affinity, not ethnicity. Now, of course, it’s possible to find friendship solely within your ethnic or identity group: people who share your race and your interests. The technology that brought so many together also lets them live apart, getting the news without a local filter, never needing to really learn the language, never quite becoming hapa.
So people wonder: will immigrants integrate? Or will Vancouver become an archipelago of ethnicities as people stick to their own kind and reinforce distinctions.
Justin is not entirely sure what will happen. Most likely, he believes, when people mix as they do here, assimilation happens. But it takes time – and it probably doesn’t happen any faster than it did for previous generations.
The important thing: so far it’s happening with respect. We’ll see whether there’s enough understanding to offset the fear and suspicion that inevitably arises when people who are different from each other have to compete, or when public anxiety over gang violence is magnified by the media echo chamber into an un-nuanced fear of the other.
But here’s a more benign example: we seem in some ways to be a more polite, perhaps more formal, city than we were. Mythology and anecdote would have us coarsened by the trends of modern times, but I have a hunch something has counteracted all that, and I think it’s the need to accommodate differences by emphasizing common rituals. Or maybe it’s because we know we have to make a bigger effort to keep things civil. There’s got to be some reason why people thank bus drivers more often.
Some still focus on the differences, and many, because it’s easier, cultivate their own exclusive affinity groups. But when people mix peacefully and respectfully, in a time of affluence, the culture that emerges is something everyone can identify with.
This is more profound than mere multiculturalism, because this blending is not one-way – just the newcomers adapting to a dominant, unchanging culture. The mainstream current changes, too, fed by the torrent of migration. For those who believe that newcomers should reasonably accommodate to the dominant culture, well, the newcomers very likely will.
But the dominant culture will have changed too, into some kind of hapa, where people meet each other halfway.