Gloria Zhu wants you to feel uncomfortable, if even for a second.
You might spot Zhu on campus one of these days. The Media and Public Interest student might ask you, ‘Have you ever felt like a fish out of water?’ She hopes you’ll say yes. She hopes you’ll relive that feeling as part of an exercise in empathy meant to draw attention to, and break, racial and cultural barriers.
Inspired by the slice-of-life photo blog Humans of New York (HONY), Zhu launched a blog last year titled A Fish out of Water for a campaign project in her Alternative Media class. Her initial desire was to document experiences of international students and newcomers to Canada as they acclimate to a new culture.
“I wanted to do something more in-depth than HONY – similar, but something more relevant to my own issues,” Zhu said.
When she first came to Canada from China at age 16, Zhu landed in a predominantly white high school in Etobicoke. As the only international student there, she instantly felt out of place – like a ‘fish out of water.’
“For the whole first term, no one talked to me because they assumed I didn’t speak English. That was the first time I realized there’s something with race and skin colour going on – the first time I realized Canada was not as diverse as we say,” Zhu noted.
A Fish out of Water, afishoutofwaterincanada.wordpress.com, features similar stories from students and passersby who’ve spoken with Zhu on campus. As part of the project, she doesn’t approach others. Instead, she can be spotted around campus with a poster board asking, ‘Have you ever felt like a fish out of water?’ If you approach her, she is happy to chat and share your experience on the blog.
If you tell her you’ve felt like a fish out of water, Zhu will ask you to share your story. If you tell her you haven’t felt that way, she will challenge you to speak to someone you think has.
But the blog is not meant to be a place where international students, immigrants or racial minorities simply lament their experiences of feeling like an outsider. Its purpose is to explicitly highlight the outsider experience – something that, on a very base level, is universal, Zhu explained.
“We prize Canada as a diverse place,” Zhu said, but it isn’t as diverse as we would like to think.
Some of the conversations her project has prompted have revealed implicit racism, a culturally instilled issue that nurtures the fish-out-of-water experience in those perceived as outsiders in our society, she continued.
“The whole idea is, from the stories on the blog, to promote the idea that everyone could be a fish out of water. Most people who were born here and who aren’t racialized, never thought they were a fish out of water,” Zhu said.
But that experience is a broad one and could include a vegetarian at a BBQ or being the only person to fail an exam, she added.
“I’m trying to encourage them to think they can be a fish out of water someday, at some point. I really respect personal experience. Listening to people who are feeling like a fish out of water, right now, is especially important. It’s important to pay attention to them,” Zhu continued.
“I’m not making these people up – they’re real people. Everyone could be a fish out of water. We have to respect and listen to each other. We’re not different at all. It doesn’t matter which racial group you belong to; that feeling is universal.”
If we recognize the feeling of ‘not belonging’ as universal, it goes a long way to determining how we treat those who, for whatever reason, feel like they don’t belong, she explained.
But not everyone gets it.
The risk of the blog, Zhu said, is seeing the stories as just stories – not recognizing the implicit, or in some cases, explicit, racism embedded within them. This has been the case with some readers, and she’s received provocative and inappropriate comments as a result.
She’s OK with that because at least it’s sparking conversation.
“The problem here is people don’t talk about racism – at all. That’s a real issue. If we don’t talk about it, and we pretend everything is fine when everything is not fine, something like Ferguson will happen.
“And it will keep happening if nobody is talking about it.”
Zhu hopes to continue the project long after the completion of her class. It will always be a work in progress, she said.