A mixed race Asian Calgarian reflects on his childhood experiences with systemic racism

May is Asian Heritage Month and to celebrate, CBC Calgary is featuring Calgarians and what it means to be Asian Canadian in 2021. This First Person piece was written by Heath Kai, a tradesman who worked on the construction of the Bow Tower in Calgary. For more information about CBC’s First Person stories, please see the FAQ.


What gives me hope is knowing that as human beings, we have an unkillable spirit. An ability to pivot in the face of adversities and find one way or another until we win or die trying. Hope is a very complex word as there is a lot of grey area.

I find myself pulling hope from so many places — the changing seasons, spring blossoms on the trees or new beginnings where someone or something is one step ahead of where they were yesterday. Personal stories of overcoming barriers, and growth are huge messengers of hope for me. 

I don’t feel like the pandemic has affected my Chinese Canadian identity at all. Even though my family comes from Guangdong, my grandfather was born here. So, that makes me a third generation Canadian.

I do know that in the beginning there was a very short time where some individuals were trying to name COVID-19 the “China flu.” But Canadians are too multicultural in our time to make something so blatantly culturally ignorant a public trend.  

Heath Kai, a single father and a tradesman, worked on the construction of the Bow Tower in downtown Calgary from when it was a hole in the ground to the installation of the topmost beam. (Rod Sanchez Photography)

I grew up watching prejudice happen all the time and assumed it was normal. My father is not white and has a mixed Chinese and Indigenous parentage. So, as an adult getting pulled over for the first time, I found out that you don’t have to sit in the police car every time you get pulled over. Growing up, driving with dad, that was all I had ever seen during a traffic stop. I have always been “white enough,” appearing to have never been the victim of race based harassment or hate crimes. But when people would meet my father, there were times I could see their expressions change. 

I remember going to middle school in a homogenous community and my father coming to parent teacher interviews meeting some of my teachers for the first time. Only days later, I was called into the school office to talk to a representative from social services who had very accusatory questions about my father. Luckily, no action was taken based on the interview. 

The same happened when I was rushed to the emergency room at the age of six. I had fallen out of my bunk bed at home and split my nose open on the dresser. Once we got to the emergency room, I didn’t see my father for hours. Assumptions were clearly made about a mixed race man bringing in a boy with an uncontrollable bloody nose. I remember being in a lot of pain and a social worker asking me if my father was angry and if he hit me. I was scared, and I just wanted my dad, but no one would let him in to see me until they were satisfied he wasn’t dangerous. Guilty until proven innocent. 

Prejudice isn’t just the grand displays of discrimination from misguided extremists, but also the micro-aggressions we don’t even think about.– Heath Kai

There is still a lot of education that needs to be learned by many people who aren’t visible minorities in this country. And here is the litmus test — if you are reading this now, are not a visible minority, and are offended or shocked, or refuse to believe that systemic racism still exists in Canada, then you are proof that more education needs to be had.

Prejudice isn’t just the grand displays of discrimination from misguided extremists, but also the micro-aggressions we don’t even think about. It’s seeing an Asian face serving a coffee and assuming they aren’t going to understand your order. It’s seeing a Korean, a Filipino, or a Chinese Canadian and not caring to know how they are unique from each other. It’s “OK” seeing a white man with an Asian woman, but slightly uncomfortable seeing an Asian man with a white woman. It’s meeting an Asian Canadian and being surprised when they don’t speak with an accent.

A lot of Asian Canadian families have been in Canada just as long as families with European descent. We have helped build this county, it’s railroads, it’s monuments, and even buildings like the Bow Tower downtown — located literally across the street from Chinatown. 


Follow #ProudlyAsianCanadian on Instagram for content throughout the month.

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