Growing up in Asia taught me the importance of speaking up on social issues

My experience taught me students shouldn't succumb to apathy

Sydney appreciates her Canadian university experience for giving her the opportunity to speak up.
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There’s something to be said for living in a free, democratic society, where voicing your opinion isn’t repressed, but is welcomed. The same is true for living in a place where everyone’s right to freely express themselves is protected by law.

While this may seem like something to take for granted living in Canada or any country with similar values, I recognize my gratitude for a society like this on a regular basis.

Growing up as a third-culture kid in Taiwan, I was brought up in a Western-style education system. Our classes were taught in English, we thoroughly covered Western history, and we analyzed literature written by Victorian-era British men.

In the classroom, teachers taught us everything we needed to know about Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and their ideas of social contracts and natural rights. Just like any typical humanities student, I devoured the material with total fascination.

But this newly-acquired knowledge never extended into my daily life. Instead, in the environment I was raised in, I was taught to simply accept the things thrusted into my lap. I was to never question an elder, whether that elder was a teacher, a parent, or an older peer.

If I questioned them, I was deemed disrespectful or degenerate.

If I questioned them, I was deemed disrespectful or degenerate.

In fact, students who expressed dissenting opinions were often viewed in a negative light in class, sometimes leading them to be labelled as “troublemakers.”

Thinking back to my high school life, I remember how careful I was with my word choices when expressing any strong opinions. I wanted to express my fury after finding out about Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo movement in class, but I didn’t want to come off as a “social justice warrior” or a “feminazi,” as pop culture warned.

I remember how badly I wanted to correct an older peer of mine after hearing him say that homosexuality is driven by having a “gay gene.” I remember listening to my parents’ lecture on listening more and talking less, because that allows you to avoid trouble.

While this ideology taught me to be diplomatic and collected in front of people with opposing views, it also shaped me into thinking my voice had no place in society.

This indoctrination didn’t just shape the way students around me thought—it also shaped the way many people acted. This ideology taught us it’s not okay to ask questions, let alone to express yourself when you feel like you’re in the wrong.

Considering that Taiwan is ranked third among the most democratic countries in Asia, the freedom to speak up still needs improvement, though in the eyes of many, this might not be considered the case.

Protesting on behalf of a cause or showing discontent with the government does happen in Asia, but rarely. Oftentimes, it’s met with strong criticism.

A few years ago, Taiwan faced a major student-led movement called the Sunflower Student Movement. The activists protested the passing of the Cross-Strait Service Trade Agreement (CSSTA), which they believed would leave Taiwan even more vulnerable to political pressure from China and hurt the economy.

While this movement drew more than 10,000 protesters, student leaders were severely punished, facing charges of up to seven years of imprisonment by the Ministry of Justice. 

Since arriving to Queen’s in September of 2018, I often find myself in awe at student advocacy toward social issues like mental wellness, sexual assault and violence, and the climate crisis.

Since arriving to Queen’s in September of 2018, I often find myself in awe at student advocacy toward social issues like mental wellness, sexual assault and violence, and the climate crisis.

While part of me is happy to finally be a part of a community that seeks action for social change, another part of me (the part that grew up in Asia) often wonders whether these protests are in vain. 

Will these activist movements see changes and progress? Will the school or the government actually listen to what the protesters have to say?

I find myself thinking about these questions in fear that my small contribution, perhaps through social media, will be rendered useless. I worry that once events blow over, the public will move on to the next “big” problem, leaving the old ones behind without a solution.

But in the last month, I have had the opportunity to participate in both the climate strike and the Take Back the Night rally.

In the words of Jake Peralta, the main character in Brooklyn Nine-Nine, it was “literal chills.” 

Perhaps the great feeling had to do with the crowd of 700 at the climate strike, or maybe it was because of the sea of signs advocating for divestment, but I felt my protest was being heard. My voice mattered.

We shouldn’t succumb to apathy when we live in a society where voicing our concerns is practiced and encouraged. While young people today are beginning to be vocal about what they believe in, from gun control to climate action, apathy seems to remain rampant among our peers and society alike.

We shouldn’t succumb to apathy when we live in a society where voicing our concerns is practiced and encouraged. 

Greta Thunberg has demonstrated it’s possible for young people to stand up and voice their opinions on our environment. Emma Gonzalez forged momentum through March for Our Lives by calling out the NRA and the White House for lacking gun control regulations.

And in September, Queen's students showed that it’s possible to get the University to listen to our desire for conversation about divestment with the Board of Trustees. Take Back the Night showed that it’s possible to heal and grow despite trauma, and to find strengths in numbers.

Living in a country where social issues can be freely discussed and expressed means being vocal about what’s important isn’t a pesky dramatization of a little problem. It’s a privilege for many, and it shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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