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Letter: Be the change you want to see in Richmond

“I love Richmond, but I don’t like what’s happened to Richmond.” “I feel like I don’t really belong here anymore because I’m outnumbered by all these Asian people.” “The last time I looked, Richmond is in Canada, not China.
Neighbours on Burkeville court enjoy a barbeque party in their cul de’sac and meet with each other in the neighbourhood. Photo submitted

 “I love Richmond, but I don’t like what’s happened to Richmond.”

 “I feel like I don’t really belong here anymore because I’m outnumbered by all these Asian people.”

“The last time I looked, Richmond is in Canada, not China. Why do you not stand up for the rights of the White minority?”

I read, with dismay, a local story published last month in a national paper (Douglas Quan, “In Search of ‘Cultural Harmony’ in Richmond, B.C. – North America’s Most Asian City”, National Post, 19 October 2018).

The National Post article paints a picture of my hometown divided by race, language, and class.

The stories are familiar to readers of this paper: businesses without English, mansions without occupants, strata council meetings and a mayoral bid catering only to Mandarin speakers, unfriendly encounters with newcomers, and increasingly toxic letters sent to the City Clerk.

Besides some of the legitimate complaints voiced by Richmond residents, what dismayed me the most about the National Post article was the sense of helplessness that those interviewed felt about our fractured city. What also troubled me was the impression left by the article that there was little that the City could do to achieve its stated goal of “cultural harmony”.

But, to me, Richmond residents are not helpless, and “cultural harmony” is not unattainable or elusive as we or the author might think.

There is a solution to Richmond’s divisions, and the solution does not require us to wait for the City to act.  In fact, the solution might even be more effective and more enduring than any City-led strategy, program, or policy.

That solution is you.

Every day, you have a chance to shape Richmond into the community you want to see.

Will you step outside your comfort zone and invite the new neighbours over for a meal, introduce yourself to the resident across the hall, or chat with a fellow commuter on the bus?

Will you use your language skills and help a newcomer struggling to integrate, help an immigrant-run business attract new customers, or help teach English to new Canadians during your free time?

Will you wait for a top-down solution from City Hall or will you find ways for you and like-minded individuals to be part of the solution right now? 

Put differently, will you ask what Richmond can do for you, or will you ask what you can do for your local community?

When faced with Richmond’s seemingly unbridgeable cultural divide, we should never forget the power that small acts can have in bridging the gap. 

Just ask Tila Akhavan, the proprietor of the only non-Chinese restaurant in the President Plaza food court.  When Akhavan chose to open her Persian eatery, AnAr, in Richmond’s all-Asian mall, many doubted that her business could survive.

But the restaurant has been a success because of what Akhavan calls “great food [that] travels across cultures”.

AnAr’s success did not happen overnight.  The restaurant struggled at first until Akhavan reached out to her neighbours.  Akhavan shared samples of her dishes to her neighbours.  The neighbours, in turn, returned the favour by sharing their own dishes to Akhavan and by translating AnAr’s menu into Chinese.  Thanks in part to their translation help, four out of five of AnAr’s customers today are of Chinese background, Akhavan says.

Or ask John and Joan Young.  The retired teacher and his wife have made a habit to deliver a welcoming note and a small gift to each new neighbour who has moved onto their block.

Wanting their new neighbours to meet one another, the Youngs organized a Christmas tea in their Barkerville Court home and a summer barbeque in their cul-de-sac.  Nineteen out of 22 households attended the BBQ party.

“Now when [the neighbours] see a house, they know who lives there, they know the face, they know the person living there,” John Young says. “The whole neighbourhood has become much friendlier.”

Finally, ask David Zhao, a director with the Broadmoor Neighbourhood Association.

Fed up with break-ins in their local neighbourhood, Zhao and several other concerned neighbours formed a block watch.  The block watch had its own signs, stickers, and volunteers wearing bright vests.

As more households joined the group, crime in the community went down.  And as households got to know one another better, the group’s activities also expanded beyond security. 

Last year, the Broadmoor Neighbourhood Association hosted a potluck near Errington Elementary School.  Around 300 to 400 residents attended.  “Even though we’re from different countries and from different parts of the world, we live together and kids play with each other”, Zhao says.

The experiences of Akhavan, the Youngs, and Zhao are not just feel-good stories.  They are concrete examples of ordinary citizens taking action in their local spaces – a food court, a block, a neighbourhood – to bridge the gap and make their corner of Richmond a more enjoyable place to work, live, and play.

These individuals did not wait for a language bylaw to be passed, or wait for an official crime strategy to be released, or wait for a different kind of neighbour to move in.  Akhavan, the Youngs, and Zhao initiated the change they wanted to see.  And they, their neighbours, and Richmond are more harmonious as a result of their efforts to bridge the gap.

There are common lessons that Richmond residents can learn from all three examples.

First, bridging the gap takes courage, it takes patience, and, yes, it can be uncomfortable.  Akhavan’s business struggled at first in an all-Asian environment.  Not every neighbour was receptive to the Youngs’ overtures.  And organizing a community gathering, no matter how small, takes time, money, and volunteers. 

But in all three examples, the trailblazers did not give into doubts or discouragement.  They persisted until their efforts paid off.  To them, the greater risk was staying in their comfort zone and not trying. 

Second, bridging the gap takes effective communicators.  AmAr would not have attracted as many customers as it does today without the translation help of its neighbours.  The Broadmoor Neighbourhood Association would not have had as many members as it does today without its bilingual presence, both online and offline.  And the Youngs’ summer barbeque would not have been as successful without a neighbour who was fluent in both Chinese and English and who could translate conversations between guests. 

There is an urgent role, if not duty, that multilingual residents and second generation Canadians must fulfill to help our city overcome its language barriers.  These individuals could form volunteer groups to translate menus and signs for local businesses.  They could more easily persuade newcomers to learn English or refer them to language programs provided by local governments, not-for-profits, and the private sector.  And, dare I say, they could even teach their longtime friends in Richmond some useful phrases spoken by some of the city’s many diverse communities.

Even for those of us without a second tongue, we must also not forget that much of communication is nonverbal, and kindness is appreciated in every language.  As John Young put it, “[neighbours] all appreciate a helping neighbour… No matter what language they speak, you get to know them and be helpful.”

Lastly, bridging the gap brings mutual benefits to all parties.  Because of AnAr, President Plaza gained new customers, customers who otherwise would not venture into an Asian mall.  One neighbour on Barkerville Court regularly returns from China with a container of tea for the Youngs.  And as the Broadmoor community rose in solidarity, it saw a drop in crime. 

But the biggest benefit from bridging the gap cannot be measured by material gain.  When we shape Richmond into the community we want to see, the experience tends to shape us in return.  We stop seeing the ‘other’ as a competitor in a zero-sum game.  We stop judging a whole people by their worst examples.  We see that our neighbours are not much different from us and that they share many of the same interests, dislikes, struggles, hopes, and dreams for their families and their community as we do.

Change does not come easy. There is a role for government to play in solving systemic problems and in doing the tough work that our citizens and communities cannot alone accomplish.  But we should not underestimate the power of individuals and groups to make change.

Margaret Mead famously said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed it’s the only thing that ever has”.  Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi implored his followers to “be the change you want to see in the world”.

Mead, an anthropologist, and Gandhi, the father of the world’s largest democracy, both understood that large-scale societal change begins with the individual.  

The cultural divide that Richmond faces today is not unique to Richmond. As the world becomes more connected, it is also coming apart in other ways.  In Richmond, we have a real chance to show other cities just how cultural harmony might be achieved.  It will take a lot of work.  But with small acts, and with the examples of Akhavan, the Youngs, and Zhao, we each have the power to change our community for the better – and no excuse for not starting today.

- Stephen Hsia