On Being an Asian Lawyer in Canada

I have almost certainly been treated differently at different times because I was a man, a Canadian, a lawyer, or an Asian. Sometimes it is impossible, and fruitless, to point at one thing or another. Nonetheless I think I can tell some stories of what it has meant to be an Asian lawyer, especially in those times when I was forced to see myself as an other. Here are some memories laid bare.


You know the look. A genuine smile, a pleasant surprise, a comfortable pride, man-to-man, he says “Hello! How are you?” a little too loud in a small corner store, just him and me and no one else in this nook in downtown Toronto. I slow my walk, resplendent in my beige-grey Ermenegildo Zegna, the suit jacket hugging my shoulders but loosely over my waist, the pants swishing with my steps, my blue tie matching my blue socks – I’ve never looked better – and return the look with an in-kind salutation, “Great. A beautiful day.” I sense his eyes following me gently as I walk around his store, pick up a Perrier, and tap my card. “Have a great day!” he says, and I nod, and smile. It is the look, I suppose, of one Asian man to another, that says, here’s one of us, and he’s made it, he works up in one of those big towers, any one of us can make it, maybe not for me, but for my son, my daughter, and my brothers, our future, it is here, he’s here, there is hope for us. I have seen this look from IT staff, retained experts, translators, transcribers, cleaners, taxi drivers, and restaurant owners; and I have given it to many as well.


“I didn’t hire you because you are Asian”, he says, and in so saying I immediately conclude he hired me because I am Asian. I suspected it, for I am no dummy, and it is no coincidence that I am sent out to solicit every Asian potential new client alone, and not him nor the senior partner. I’ve done the math and I know that the billables from these clients make up my salary by multiples. But to hear him say the negative out loud affirms the positive, especially when spoken out of the blue. Gallingly, and perplexedly, my emotions are mixed, for it is my very Asian-ness that lets me keep my job, and my pay, which is far higher than the average Canadian.

It was the same negative-affirms-the-positive when a partner joked about my last name at the firm’s holiday party, mid-speech in front of everybody, and says, “you don’t mind, do you?” knowing full well they’ve done something wrong. But I take it. My parents gave up their lives so that I could live a better and richer life, and if the cost of a higher-than-average income livelihood, if the cost of fulfilling my parents’ dreams, if the cost of one day creating a family on Canadian soil, is an occasional slight, my ancestors had already paid much more.


“Do you speak English?” the partner says, when he sees my notes for the first time, written in short-form. Confused, I do not answer. He requested notes, after all, and it cannot be because he seriously doubts my fluency. Rather, he eventually explains he is upset because I did not write in full sentences. A strange reaction given the request. I cannot help but wonder if he asks this of the other white associates, of which every single other person is, and against which I am the only… “other”.

And so it was, years later, when with pleasure I asked the same question of a white Canadian man, whose salary dwarfed mine as Jupiter Earth, during a cross-examination, when he pretended not to understand whether a written note in a document meant – I needed his evidence to agree with me, for it was my smoking gun. Flustered, the witness affirmed his fluency. I followed up with “And is this written in the past tense?” “Yes.” “We agree it is written in the past tense. And that means that something had already happened, then, correct?” “Yes.” Thus flexing my knowledge of grade 9 English and accomplishing the greatest cross-examination I ever did, achieving with that simple line of questioning several hundred thousand dollars worth of liability and damages (yes, I still have the transcript, and yes, I have re-read it several times throughout the years).


I sought refuge in a law association which I thought catered to my race and culture. But they did not let me speak, nor did they help when I reached out. They held conferences amongst themselves, always inviting the same speakers – themselves. Could I blame them? The market is tight and we fight over scraps like rats over cheese. But I did blame them, and I was deeply hurt and disappointed. If my own people will not support me, who will?

Eventually I found my way to the Federation of Asian Canadian Lawyers, a beacon in the darkness. We were barely a hundred lawyers, mostly young, mostly disenfranchised, mostly ambitious, and refused to be pegged in the lower rungs. We met but once every few quarters, but it was enough to keep me afloat. It was the first time I realized that I was not the only one who was the only Asian lawyer in my firm, not the only one who was stared at walking around in a suit in a downtown Ontario town, not the only one skipped over for partner. We never spoke of it to each other, and instead focused on helping others, on catching up, on making friends. Leaving it unsaid was nice, for it allowed us to discuss what we liked to do for fun, what we liked to eat, what restaurants were hot, that is, to talk like human beings. And we ate dim sum together, making up the largest gathering of lawyers in an Asian restaurant I’ve ever seen. Maryka Omatsu, Julia Shin Doi, Avvy Go, Gary Yee, Chia-yi Chua – you led and we followed.


It wasn’t until on-campus interviews when I realized how important it was to be a Raptors or a Leafs or a Jays fan. I was brought back to I when I first arrived on these shores as a stranger, barely a teenager, finding myself on the outs for not trading in baseball cards, not knowing who Kelly Gruber or Dave Steib or Fred McGriff was. That was not a fun time. I thought I had left the need to be cool and to be a sports fan when I left high school and found in university my fellow philosophy-reading, sneaking-into-the-music-department-studio misfits, but here I was again in the working world, returning full circle to elementary school.

Following OCIs I perceived my fellow Asian female students succeed in greater proportion to the men. I was jealous and angry. I thought they were hired by men who stereotyped them as sexually demure and attractive. On the other hand I figured I was stereotyped as an emasculated, non-sexual Asian man – and in later years I once overheard a partner describe me as “passively aggressive”, easily sliding into that stereotype. It is sad that we are made to pit ourselves against each other when the air is taken out of the room.

I was astounded again when I later heard a decorated lawyer speak about his career as an Asian lawyer. I hoped to commiserate and learn how to overcome. But he refused to recognize discrimination, which made me wonder if he was acting tough or simply grew up privileged beyond my imagination. Eventually I saw that there were both those who denied and acknowledged discrimination, and it was not for me to judge truth and lies, better or worse. I suspect the deniers did so to protect themselves from perpetual anger. Regardless, “fit” came easily to some more than others. For me, I would have to work to fit, and so I did.


How many years, and what toll was taken, to change who I was and how I acted? Some of it was easy. Watching the Jays win in ’92, ’93, and the Raptors take the crown with Kawhi was good fun. Other parts were hard. I laughed less freely as authority was, I learned, linked with quiet serenity. I adopted the language of the profession, of dog’s breakfasts and I’ll-be-brief (but I will never, ever, say “with respect”, which is always followed by disrespect, just as in the deep South “bless your heart” is followed by derision). I became more careful and less outspoken. I learned, as Dale Carnegie taught, to compliment and to listen. The lines blur between maturity and cultural adaptation, so in the end the changes were more favourable than not. And now that I am older, and care less if I am judged, I laugh more freely again.


I cannot deny, and indeed am thankful, for the privilege of the profession. You understand the power you yield, latent in every interaction. A doctor will treat you as a patient more thoroughly – did you mention your occupation when you were assessed in the emergency room? A contractor will treat you as a customer more seriously – one once tried to collect above and beyond the estimate initially given, which I resolved by opining on the quality of the work, the probable findings of an imaginary retained expert, and ultimately by a trier of fact. And new friends will treat you with more importance than desired. You are an expert in making bureaucracy bend the knee; who else can tend to soul-killing forms and institutions? These are not trifling skills or interactions, but universally change how I exist in the world, and for the better. I cannot turn my back on this profession, for I recall at the age of 25 that I was lost in a prior career, eating rice and black bean canned fish as my staple meal, hopelessly single, powerless in the world, a future not just uncertain but decidedly forsaken. It was not because I was Asian that I found myself lost, but because I was me, bound up, embodied, in every aspect of my history and presence and body. And in no small part the profession pulled me up and gave me a life beyond what I thought possible. So it is as I am now and prefer to be an uncategorized human being, though it seems I am unable to for I am involuntarily pulled back from my human reverie into the shape and colour of my face and skin.

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