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Dr. JP Catungal on Being Asian and Queer in Academia

Written by Serene Mitchell
Photography by Moe Yang
November 2020

Dr. JP Catungal at Vanier Park in Vancouver, photographed by Moe Yang

Dr. JP Catungal is an interdisciplinary scholar trained in critical human geography and intersectional feminist theory, focusing his research on: Filipinx and Asian-Canadian studies; feminist and queer of colour critique; migrant, anti-racist and queer community organizing; and the politics of education, mentorship, teaching, and learning. JP is an assistant professor in Critical Racial and Ethnic Studies at University of British Columbia's (UBC) Social Justice Institute and teaches classes offered through UBC’s Asian Canadian and Asian Migration program (ACAM). The following is a dialogue where Serene Mitchell, an undergraduate student in Asian North American history at McGill, member of the Pan-Asian Collective Montreal, and editor for Sticky Rice, sits with JP to discuss the experience of being queer and Asian in academia. This dialogue has been lightly edited for readability and clarity.

Introduction: Asian Canadian Popular Culture, UBC, Research, and Paths

Serene: I am so excited to have this conversation with you because I have had the pleasure of taking a class with you at UBC while I was doing research there! It really affected the way I saw myself in academia.

JP: Thank you, I’m glad it resonated. I mean, that's really what I want as a teacher — for folks like you to be able to see themselves reflected in my classroom. That's why I'm in academia.

S: In the class I took with you last year, Asian Canadian Pop Culture (ACAM 250), you used an interdisciplinary approach to subjects that are underrepresented in academia. It was the first time I saw myself represented in the topics that I was learning about in a classroom setting. The program that this class is a part of is so important. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about ACAM and ACAM 250.

JP: The Asian Canadian and Migration Studies program has been around formally since 2014. It was founded as a result of activism by Mary Kitagawa, a local Japanese-Canadian community leader and activist. Mary made waves by petitioning the university to grant Japanese-Canadian students, who were forcibly removed from UBC during the Second World War, honorary degrees. As a part of UBC’s response, they committed to creating courses and programs that will centre on Asian-Canadian histories, knowledge, and communities.

ACAM was born partly out of Mary's activism. ACAM 250 came somewhat belatedly. I'm in my third year of teaching that course now, and I've been teaching it since the beginning. That course is meant to be a kind of gateway for folks in the beginning of their academic journey to explore Asian-Canadian and Asian migration issues.

It uses popular culture as a means to examine significant issues in Asian-Canadian Studies. Pop culture is the entry point. As a queer scholar, as a queer of colour studies scholar, it was really important for me to include that perspective as a central component of Asian-Canadian Studies. I wanted a conversation that was intersectional — exploring Asian-Canadian gendered, classed, sexualized, and racialized categories.

S: Definitely! I think that approach is so crucial. My research revolves around Chinatowns and the archives. My training is in the discipline of history and Asian Northern American studies. That intersectional lens was really missing from my education prior to taking your class. Taking it was very timely because it allowed me to see my own research differently. Your class also provided a roadmap for students, like myself, on how to effectively decolonize Asian-American studies.

JP: That's lovely, tell me a little bit more about the research that you've been doing.

S: It started last year as a project looking at influential Chinatown leaders. I was looking specifically at Ron Bick Lee, who was a businessman and philanthropist to the Chinese community. I was kind of using him as a tool to understand the dynamics of conservatism in Chinatown and looking at his efforts to preserve Chinatown. After I finished up that project, I had an opportunity to continue doing work in the same subject area.

I think the Vancouver archives —not just at UBC, but city archives and the public library archives— are so underutilized. Last year, I started to use them, and I am excited to get back into it and go more in depth. I have now focused my research on Vancouver’s Chinatown from the 1960s to 80s. I am interested in connecting processes of gentrification in Chinatown to continued-but-shifting forms of settler colonialism.

Talking about my experiences, as someone who is still very early in their academic career, I'm curious as to how you found yourself in the world of academia. Did you always think that you were going to go into it?

JP: My family migrated to Canada when I was 13 years old from the Philippines. I came to Canada at an odd moment in my life. I entered the Canadian education system in the middle of grade nine. Particular moments and teachers in my high school education were really crucial to the development of my interests. My geography teacher, specifically, made me interested in questions of environmental politics. Taking courses like geography that enabled conversations about difference changed the way I saw these subjects in my future. I wanted to go into university with the goal of becoming an educator. I went into a major program in geography, because geography was a teachable major in the BC [education] system.

I ended up finishing my undergrad with an honours degree in geography. Eventually, I realized that I wanted to teach but I also wanted to do research. I went to Toronto and attended the University of Toronto for both my masters and PhD in geography. I needed to go away for my own personal growth; I did a lot of growing up in Toronto. I was included in vibrant queer and queer of colour communities. When it came time to do a PhD, I ended up doing research on the work that queer of colour organizations do for their communities. My PhD focused on the emergence and evolution of three AIDS organizations for and by racialized communities. I spent six years of my life doing that work, after which I ended up back in Vancouver at UBC.

In grad school, I started taking courses with some kick ass women of colour. I began to think about how the social organization of academia has allowed me to progress through my undergrad without having encountered people who looked like me. When I was in grad school, it was so important for me to be able to take courses with these folks. They shaped my approach to knowledge production.

S: I can see my story in bits of yours. Feeling the need to leave and find yourself in a different city and finding that you do not see yourself represented in academia. I became close friends with three queer Asian-Canadian women in your class. It was the first time I really felt like I saw myself in my peers at school. I think it is really telling of the dynamics you set up in your classroom, that we met each other there and that we are all still friends.

JP: Yeah, it's not accidental at all.

“As queer Asian Canadians, there is inherently a risk being in these spaces. I think in some ways our existence in these imperial universities already challenges notions of who can be there.”
Serene Mitchell (right) next to Dr. JP Catungal, chatting .

Asian and Queer Experiences in Academia: Performing Diversity, Emotional Labour, and Risk

JP: I know that my presence at the front of the classroom can mean something to people in a positive way. There are times where my presence has resulted in a negative story though. In your cohort of ACAM 250, there was a student who emailed me to say he didn’t expect to see the word sexuality on the syllabus. I eventually said, “You know, when I said sexuality, I did not just mean queerness — although that's clearly a central part of it.” We talked about a lot of things, including the regulation of relationships, bachelor societies, and legal regulations on capacities for Asian immigrants to form families, right? Clearly that was a trigger for this person. These subjects and the fact that I am a visibly queer professor bothered this person. So, I'm glad that I can make space for folks in my classroom, but it's also not something that everyone appreciates.

S: Your presence in the classroom and your position as an instructor are still contested when you're dealing with these subjects and that's so frustrating. That's something that I've heard again and again, from BIPOC professors and queer BIPOC professors. I have had so few professors of colour, and even fewer queer professors of colour. I remember a conversation I had with one of my profs, who kind of became one of my mentors from my first year — the only Asian Canadian professor in the department. She was talking a lot about how the university really values having this image of diversity; it is appealing, and it is a promotion for the university. There are all these events where BIPOC professors are asked to speak at, as a way for the university to perform diversity, but more often than not this extra time and labour is not compensated.

JP: Sometimes it's even worse than just additional labour. Putting yourself out there publicly can sometimes lead to you being targeted by people who do not see eye-to-eye with you on these issues. I teach in the ACAM department, but my home department is the Institute for Gender, Race, Sexuality, and Social Justice. I am constantly aware that programs like these have been targeted and continue to be targeted simply for their existence, their interventions, and the bodies that teach in them. To do this work carries that additional risk.

S: As queer Asian-Canadians, there is inherently a risk being in these spaces. I think in some ways our existence in these imperial universities already challenges notions of who can be there. The role of the connections made over these shared experiences between racialized professors and students is crucial.

JP: It matters who’s teaching these courses. Someone who is not of my body could teach these courses, but there would be a different dynamic.

S: I think being able to identify with your professors is what gets so many racialized and queer students through academia. I went into university with a different set of expectations. Taking classes taught by white folks who essentialized racialized and queer experiences has been so exhausting and disheartening. Being able to find classes where I was taught by professors who are coming in with the same experiences made me feel seen and that I could continue on. These connections are so essential and healing.
“There is so much diversity within the category 'Asian Canadian,' but part of what brings the category together is a certain kind of experience and place within a settler colonial framework, including in the classroom.”
JP: Being in front of a classroom teaching on the Asian-Canadian experience and having the majority of the students in the class personally identify with the topics is something I don’t take for granted. There is so much diversity within the category “Asian-Canadian,” but part of what brings the category together is a certain kind of experience and place within a settler colonial framework — including in the classroom. It is different to be teaching something like ACAM 250 because of who's in that class.

Engaging with Community in Academia: Love intersections, Kimmortal, Kababayan, and the Pan Asian Collective

S: I want to acknowledge the speakers that you introduced us to in ACAM 250 — people like David Ng and Jen Sungshine at Love Intersections and Kimmortal. These were connections being made with community members. I still follow them all today and continue to appreciate and engage with their work.

JP: The thing is that these folks bring in a lot of wisdom and knowledge that I don’t have. These community activists and artists have their own experiences with race, gender and sexuality. They enrich the conversation. I also know that the university has resources, and it is important to me to redirect these resources to community members who work so hard.

S: I think you showing and leading by example of how to uplift and support other queer Asians, queer Asian Canadians is so important for students to see. When I saw that kind of community building happening in your class, it inspired me to do the same thing. I remember seeing these dynamics and community members uplifting each other and thinking, “This feels right; we deserve community.” I wanted to look for opportunities to work for my community.

JP: Asian-Canadian studies is not just theoretical questions — these are community questions, everyday life questions.
“We cannot assume that the communities that we are a part of are innocent. There are also norms around gender and sexuality.”
Looking ahead. Dr. JP Catungal in Vancouver, October 2020.
S: Academia does have a reputation for being paywalled, for being non accessible to the larger community. The racialized and queer communities that are often the centre of research are frequently not a part of these discussions. How do you work through these issues?

JP: You're pulled in multiple directions within an institution with its own set of norms around what one should sound like and look like, and how one should write. You get trained into these things that as you note, rightly, can be very alienating and foreign to the communities where we find ourselves. At the same time, in communities where we belong, there are also norms. We cannot assume that the communities that we are a part of are innocent. There are also norms around gender and sexuality. Someone like me doing research on queerness within Filipinx communities is not automatic. Just because I'm of the community does not mean that my research will be valued because of norms around heteronormativity.

There are other norms that are a product of broader systems of power. One example of that is earlier this year I co-wrote a call with a community organization, calling on the provincial government to collect data on race as part of its response to COVID-19. Some members in the Filipinx community got upset, criticizing our work because it could be perceived as Filipinx “complaining too much” — saying things like, “You should just be grateful you’re in Canada,” and all sorts of things like that.

I mention this to explain the fact that the work of bridging academia and the community means contending with these multiple issues. The metaphor of the ivory tower sometimes is taken to be interpreted as academia being its own bubble, but on the other hand, there's also a long history of academia doing a lot of damage. Academia underwrote policies of gentrification, of violence, providing a kind of intellectual gloss for these processes and practices. So, how do we contend with that?

In terms of research and employing community-based researchers, growing the community capacity to do research by providing training — there are other ways.

S: Yes! And I can see this in the different work that you do, including your involvement in Mentorship as Political Practice. Can you talk more about the research and work you do with this organization, and how this work in academia might serve your community?

JP: So, the Mentorship Project is a collaboration with Maureen Mendoza, who was co-founder of the Kababayan Academic Mentorship Program and the co-researcher on this project.

We wanted to use that project to train younger folks, who had been involved in Kababayan, to do research. We knew that this was probably not an experience that they would get in their academic journey. We employed five community-based research assistants and provided them training. They did the interviewing and eventually we will be able to get them to help with writing the publications, doing the presentations, etc. We wanted to use this case study of the Kababayan Academic Mentorship Program to talk about community-based interventions into what we're calling “educational abandonment.” These are the institutionally and socially organized practices that lead to members of our community having some of the highest dropout rates among migrant communities in a country. In the method, the conception of the project, and the kinds of stories we want to tell — we wanted to centre the community.

S: Community-based is a constantly shifting term. I think it is so much easier when you can find collectives with the same intersections as you to figure out what that means for your specific experience. I've had such a privilege to be a part of a group called the Pan-Asian Collective, started by my friend Chris Lau. Groups like that are so important; they allow us to centre our experiences and find spaces for healing.

JP: It's useful to have these collectives. I don't take them lightly. The communities that I'm a part of energize my capacity to be able to do this work at all. It’s not easy to do this work alone, and I'm glad to a great degree that I haven't had to. I've had folks who have been able to support and lend their support and their expertise. These collectives are a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on if necessary, and sometimes it is.

I’m so glad that Sticky Rice is having these conversations and making it possible to discuss Asian queer experiences within these open frameworks.

Serene Mitchell (米倚旋) is a Taiwanese-Canadian creative based in unceded territories of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm, Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, and Sel̓íl̓witulh Nations (Vancouver), and Tiohtiá:ke (Montreal), currently completing her undergraduate degree in Asian North American history. On weekends you can find her skating with friends, at the local archives, or wandering around in Chinatown.

Moe Yang is a photographer and filmmaker on the traditional, ancestral, unceded lands of the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓-speaking Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. In her work, Moe explores how storytelling through images can (re)shape time, identity, and the unknown. Her work can be found online at





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