This City is a Minefield is the debut publication by Chinese-Canadian writer Aaron Chan. This collection of essays is notable for its stark honesty and courageous, expose style of writing. The pieces read like creative nonfiction versions of the classic confessional poetry, both in their tenderness but also in their rawness.
I was excited to read this one as part of my exploration into and focus on Asian/Asian American (or in this case Asian Canadian) Writers this year. This was one of my three major thematic focus areas for reading in 2020, and Chan’s work is a welcome inclusion to that collection, particularly as I don’t read much Canadian writing, either.
What the collection does well is work around a few common themes, most of which pertain to race, sexuality, and aspiration. Chan writes openly and honestly about what it is to be a gay Chinese man in Vancouver, and I learned a lot about a city that I had, until now, held in very high esteem. It’s both rewarding and a little unsettling to get such an inside look at an idealized city from the perspective of a native who is also an outsider. Chan’s writing about being gay and Chinese, too, is disturbing. It’s not just the pressure from family, but the blatant homophobia in the gay community that is incredibly maddening. Chan touches on the other side of that coin, too, when he writes about the problems of fetishization.
Another interesting insight Chan offers is how traditional Chinese parents think of themselves as “Chinese first.” This is a term that, though holding different connotations, rubbed me the wrong way immediately, because of the rise of this idiotic and dangerous “America first” mentality here in the United States. Chan’s perspective on it is different, though, in that this is a family trying to hold onto its heritage in a new world, and among the pressure to assimilate into a white western society. Still, Chan is I think reasonably upset by his mother’s constant pressure on him to be Chinese before Canadian. Much of this struggle over identity and multiple identities comes up repeatedly throughout the collection. How to be gay and Chinese? Chinese and Canadian? A native and an outsider? A dutiful son and a man who is true to himself and his own ambitions?
I think some of my favorite essays in the collection are “Between Channels,” “Identities,” “Cold War,” and “Underworld.” Each of these explores something that gets a little bit deeper than just Chan’s own experience and individuality. And if I have one critique of the collection, it is that Chan writes mostly about himself; this isn’t surprising or even a “bad” thing, given that the essays are personal narrative-style; however, when I think of the great essayists, one thing they do well is to connect their personal story with universal themes. In his best essays, Chan is doing that very thing. I hope he will continue to pursue that avenue in future endeavors.