NIMBY comes in all colours

If we took the opportunity to learn about other cultures, we would realize that some activities we ascribe to ethnic differences are really due to human nature.

Chinese people don’t like drug addicts. “It is a Chinese tradition to lock the addicts up be­hind bars,” was how one Rich­mond resident explained why the predominantly Chinese res­idents at Odlin Road protested against the setting up of a group home for rehabilitated drug ad­dicts in their neighbourhood.

Whenever there is an incident involving a Chinese individual or group, there is no shortage of people trying to explain the in­cident in a “cultural” context. The recent Odlin Road group home incident in Richmond is just one example.

In fact, the incident is no dif­ferent than any one of the other NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) incidents that we have seen over the years in the Lower Main­land. People don’t like change, period. It doesn’t matter whether the groups affected are white, black, yellow or any other skin color. When change is introduced to a neighbourhood, people react. The reaction, most of the time, is negative.

Why is it that we Canadians like to put a cultural spin on incidents such as this? It is because we still do not, as a people, know each other well enough to view people of different skin colours beyond the stereotypical images.

How would you react if someone were to tell you that the reason Albert Walker murdered his British neighbour and assumed his identity was because in the Canadian culture, there is a tradition of such behaviour? Or what if someone were to say that it is the Canadian culture that created criminals like Paul Bernado or Clifford Olson? You would laugh, wouldn’t you?

Yet many Canadians have little hesitation in believing that when a distraught Canadian mother of Chinese descent killed her child, she was driven by some elements of her Chinese cultural background. Why the suspension of logic? Those who believe such explanations know little about the Chinese culture or have limited reference points in dealings with Chinese people.

The same flaws in thinking have led many people to believe that the Odlin Road residents protested because of their cultural background.

The only way we can counter such faulty thinking is to promote cross-cultural learning and to combat the tendency to simplistically categorize people and events.

An avid skier can tell the differences between wet, dry, powder and compact snow. A skier’s knowledge of snow is infinitely better than a non-skier’s, making the skier much more adept in dealing with various snow conditions.

Similarly, if we can learn more about other cultures, we will be better equipped to deal with people from other cultural backgrounds.

As a non-skier, I can afford not to learn anything about snow because I don’t have to deal with it, except on the rare occasions when it snows in Vancouver. But as members of a multicultural society, we need to learn about other cultures in order to have healthy daily interactions with people of diverse cultural backgrounds.

Learning needs time and effort. We should all make a personal commitment to spend at least a few days a year experiencing other cultures in our midst. Why not spend an afternoon to visit the Sikh temple on Ross Street, take part in the French-Canadian festival, learn to make perogies, walk with the dragon or join in the Italian Day festivities at the Italian Cultural Centre?

The opportunities in Vancouver to experience other cultures are limited only by one’s imagination. We should also institutionalize opportunities for cross-cultural learning experiences. Churches, temples and gurdwaras that provide summer camps should offer cross-cultural or interfaith exchanges and scholarships to young campers of other religions.

Parents should encourage their children to explore other cultures, and to acquire basic knowledge of another language in addition to French. For shop owners in the Punjabi market, Chinatown or the Asian malls in Richmond, why not try to hire youths from a cultural background other than your own and give them a chance to learn about your work ethic and culture and vice versa?

It is only when we can celebrate each other’s festivals without reservation, laugh at our own fallacies without embarrassment and share our pains without restraint that we are truly a community.

In the Odlin Road incident, the residents need to learn how to best influence the decision-making process. They would be a happier lot if they learned to appreciate that in a democratic society, compromise is often not only the desired outcome but also the only outcome. Their determination to fight to the bitter end will only isolate and alienate them from the community.

The people who operate the facility, on the other the hand, need to do a much better job explaining to the residents the type of facility they are putting in the neighbourhood. Listening to the residents – really listening – would be a first step.

Acknowledging their genuine fear and apprehension of the unknown would be a second step. The third step, once rapport and trust have been built, is to respond to their anxiety and frustration with empathy by providing them with factual information to reduce their fear.

Changes in attitude and tactics are needed on both sides, and it doesn’t matter whether the people affected are long-term residents or recent immigrants. NIMBY has no colour, unless we’re looking at it through coloured lenses.

© (This article was first published in the Vancouver Sun on Thursday, July 29, 1999)

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