A gaping hole in culturally specific health and social resources was left when the Asian Society for the Intervention of AIDS, which began in 1995, folded in March last year. The organization, which provided sexual health services, social support, and outreach for queer people, drug users, sex workers, and more, lost its charitable status (after failing to file returns with the Canada Revenue Agency) and most of its government funding, according to Xtra .
That left the culturally specific needs of Vancouver’s largest visible minority groups neglected. According to the 2006 census, East, Southeast, and South Asians made up 37 percent of Vancouver’s population. In Vancouver, the Chinese Canadian population alone, the city’s largest visible minority group, is projected to grow from 18 percent of the total population in 2006 to 23 percent in 2031.
Eight Asian Canadian professionals are stepping up to the plate. The group’s members, who work in counseling, social work, sexual health education, and translation (and some of whom were involved with ASIA in the past), joined forces to build a new non-profit support organization that will address the needs of Metro Vancouver’s numerous Asian Canadian communities.
“After ASIA’s closure, we realized there’s nothing much happening for Asian population… particularly for sexual health,” Shimpei Chihara, ASIA’s former MSM (Men Who Have Sex With Men) program coordinator, told the Georgia Straight by phone. “ASIA did advocacy work for, for example, Asian sexual minorities, which are sort of marginalized populations within Asian communities.”
But this yet-unnamed new organization will expand beyond ASIA’s focus on sexual health and HIV/AIDS–prevention framework to encompass overall health and wellness. Chihara explained that sexual health has a strong correlation with mental and physical health. He noted that health risks increase as social and emotional support inversely decreases.
“The primary need for Asian MSM, I’m aware, is more social support,” he said. “And there’s a significant research document written about how lack of social-emotional support does create a risk among Asian MSM and HIV and AIDS infection risk. Social wellbeing and emotional wellbeing is a fundamental requirement for health. If one is depressed, if one is feeling isolated, the risk is much higher for any health issues, of course including HIV/AIDS.”
There’s another reason for the broader approach—to maintain diplomatic relations in the face of potential discrimination while reaching needy clients.
“We learned from [our] ASIA work that to reach out to the high-risk populations, the specific, specialized health approach does not effectively work because people feel stigmatized associating themselves with organizations providing services to particular areas which are already stigmatized,” he explained. “So for the case of ASIA, a lot of people need our services but they don’t want to associate with ASIA because ASIA is [an] HIV organization. So a lot of clients are afraid of associating themselves with ASIA because they don’t want to be labelled, they don’t want to be discriminated [against], they don’t want to be found by their friends and families that they are associating themselves with an HIV/AIDS organization.”
The expanded emphasis on overall health may assist in greater integration with their target populations.
“By providing [a] wide range of health services, or health-related projects, Asian community members, a lot of community members, can relate themselves to our organization. In this way, our organization becomes normalized and if community members feel that our organization is beneficial, they will consider us as a part of their community, and that’s a part that we really think is important—to be accepted and supported by the Asian communities. In this way, even our advocacy work, about issues faced by marginalized Asian people within Asian communities, we can do this advocacy work much more effectively.”
According to Chihara, the organizers have not yet specifically defined who the umbrella term Asian would include. Most likely, he presumed, it would encompass anyone who identifies as Asian, including those of interracial descent and West Asians. He said the pan-Asian organization will most likely respond to the needs of communities, and shift focus towards specific populations lacking other resources.
Addressing such a diverse range of ethnic populations can be challenging, but Chihara said he found commonalities between Asian cultures outweighed dissimilarities when it came to addressing sexual issues. Nonetheless, he does feel that important distinctions do need to be recognized.
“One of the things I have noticed is to organize a culturally specific, say Asian gay mens’ group, I think the facilitator or organizer must really [be] knowledgeable about the dynamics within these Asian groups as well,” he said. “There’s the language issues as well, but also there is some differences between Canadian-born Asians versus newly immigrated Asians…. Because their upbringing is different, primary issues can be different. For example, for Canadian-born Asians, maybe, say, racism within the gay community might be the issues whereas for newcomers, they’re sort of more keen on finding out what’s available or what kind of friends they can get and stuff…. There’s no sort of monocultural group, basically, quite a bit of multicultural and different issues everyone had.”
Asian cultural values, marriage traditions, religion, and taboos about discussing sexual orientation and even sex, add layers of social complexity that mainstream Canadian social resources may not recognize.
“Coming out within an Asian context is quite difficult and is not even an option whereas one of the challenges some of our Asian clients had in the past attending the mainstream group is they’re more talking about coming out, and coming out is one of the ways to deal with sexuality issues,” Chihara said. “But in Asian context, it’s really, really difficult because parents don’t understand, and they have a different cultural views….”
Chihara said they’re hoping to collaborate with other organizations and already have researchers on board to conduct a needs-assessment project.
What’s more, Chihara said they were pleasantly surprised that there’s been interest far greater than anticipated. For an invitation-only community consultation meeting scheduled for Monday (February 20), Chihara said they only expected about 15 people. Instead, a whopping 40 people RSVPed (Consequently, a second consecutive meeting had to be scheduled.)
“I think that it’s a great indicator that quite a bit of community organization stakeholders really think that this is an important issue. So we still think we are in the right track in terms of needs and demands for the services.”
After the community consultation meeting, Chihara said their next step will be to apply for registration. He said they are hoping by mid-March to get approval from government as a non-profit organization, and their goal is to get a minimum of at least one project going this year.