Multiple migrations and recentering relationships: How Nadine Attewell and SFU's Global Asia program honour diverse diasporic experiences

May 27, 2022

Last spring, in her Global Asia 101 course, Nadine Attewell’s class watched Richard Fung’s film  Dal Puri Diaspora. The documentary tracks the evolution of the dish Dal Puri Roti, from colonial India, to the Caribbean, to Toronto, and notes the distinct and variated way its recipe changed over time as people adapted to new environments and challenging working conditions.

“Through the film and the story of this dish, we find a really rich exploration of the diasporic experience,” says Attewell. “I try to pick very concrete examples because it's in the specificity and messiness of those stories and those histories that some of the richness and complexity of something as heterogeneous an experience as diaspora becomes visible to us.”

Attewell is the director of SFU’s Global Asia program and is an associate professor in SFU's Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies (GSWS). Global Asia and GSWS are offered by SFU's Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences.

The Global Asia program, which will celebrate its third anniversary this fall, differs from other Asian and Asian Canadian Studies programs in its global focus, as opposed to just focusing on societies and cultures within the continent of Asia, or Asian diasporic experiences in Canada. “Global Asia allows people to explore Asia and Asianness across many locations, both socially and geopolitically,” says Attewell. “It really allows us to think about the complexities and the ways in which people with Asian origin and descent navigate family histories of moving between places, within Asia and beyond.”

“Many people have very complicated and long histories of multiple migrations in their family,” says Attewell. “Even in my own family, my mother had a fairly standard experience: she came to Canada from Hong Kong. But before that, there are family histories of migration to Malaysia, and across the border to China early in the 20th century. The artist Richard Fung’s family went to Trinidad from China, and then he migrated to Canada in turn.

Attewell’s own research examines the experiences of diasporic, multiracial and multicultural families in early 20th century British and British colonial port cities, like Hong Kong and Liverpool. “My first big research project as a doctoral student and early career researcher was thinking about early 20th century projects of reproductive and sexual control like eugenics, which often targeted racialized people,” says Attewell. “While reading through literature, policy documents and archival materials, I started to catch glimpses of racialized and colonized people leading extraordinary lives. I wanted to learn more about them and their lives, not just through the anxieties of those in power, but how they themselves understood their lives.”

“Although I was trained as a scholar of literature, marginalized people don’t always get to publish writing about their own lives, so I started to think about how else I might get a feel for their lives and choices.”

In her coursework, Attewell continues to decentre, unsettle and unpack what are seen to be “common” narratives. She aims to unearth stories that are not often acknowledged, remove the idea of universal experience and prompts her students to challenge themselves and one another.

“There remains a focus on European contact, so it's about thinking about other kinds of histories,” says Attewell. “Telling new and different stories that invite us to re-centre relationships between say, Asian and Black people, or Asian and Black and Indigenous people, in all of their messiness and complexity.”

“These are not always happy stories of harmonious contact and working together. Often, they're histories of tension and communities being matched against one another. But foregrounding how we can build better relationships with each other–that’s something that can happen within the context of Global Asia.”

Celebrate Asian Heritage Month at SFU, including reflections on what intimacy, kinship, and community look and feel like for Asian Canadians and Americans today from Attewell’s GSWS 321 class.


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