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How Asian-Canadians have used TikTok to educate and learn

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TORONTO —
Asian-Canadian creators are finding their place on TikTok, using the platform to share their culture and learn about it, too.

With so much of our lives online due to the COVID-19 pandemic, TikTok is now a popular way to share and engage with each other in a physically safe way, and with new content easily generated it became the perfect platform to try new things.

That new thing for Kyne Santos, OnlineKyne on TikTok and a contestant from the first season of Canada’s Drag Race, was combining her passion for math with her love of drag, something she didn’t expect to resonate with many people.

“I thought that what I did was just so niche, like who wants to hear about math facts? Let alone from a drag queen, you know?” she said.

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Santos, who is more commonly known as Kyne in the drag world, is one of TikTok’s Asian and Pacific Islander (API) trailblazers this year. This is the first year TikTok has put together a list of the top API creators on the platform, nominated by fellow API creators.

She loves math and riddles, and at the time was studying math in university and thought it would be fun to do daily riddles for like-minded people on TikTok.

“I started just doing riddles of the day and little math facts because I was a math student at the time at university, and it’s just my personality. I love riddles and talking about math with people,” she said.

Santos is not the only one who was taken by surprise by the onslaught of people watching her videos, her most popular videos have gotten over one million views a piece. One of her earliest TikToks has 5.9 million views.

“it just happened really fast, I think I hit one million by January and I started [in] September. It was only a few months,” Tiffy Chen, who goes by TiffyCooks on TikTok and is also an API trailblazer, told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview.

QUARANTINE BOREDOM

Both Santos and Chen are new to TikTok, having embraced the newer social media platform as a way to combat COVID-19 lockdown boredom and loneliness.

“I remember being in quarantine and having all this extra free time at home. I remember just feeling like I wanted to try something different,” said Santos.

It may have been boredom that brought Santos to the platform, but loneliness drove some to TikTok as well.

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“I started TikTok in like April when the pandemic first became this whole thing, and I work a nine to five job so I was just kind of like missing human interaction, to be honest, so I started making TikToks,” Kristine Fels, or K.Fel on TikTok, told CTVNews.ca in a Zoom interview.

Chen also took to TikTok as a way to battle the pandemic blues. As a frequent traveller, Chen was missing out on her usual adventures and decided to live them through food on TikTok.

“One of the reasons why I even started my platform was because normally I’m a travel person, I try to travel at least four to five times a year [but] because of the pandemic, unfortunately we couldn’t really go anywhere. So I started recreating a lot of the recipes that I actually had when I was travelling around,” she said.

EDUCATIONAL TIKTOKS

They all came to TikTok with a plan to share one thing or another about their lives. Santos wanted to share her love of math and drag, Chen wanted to share her recipes, Fels wanted to share her Japanese lessons and practice and Mei Pang, a makeup artist, shared her makeup skills.

Santos hoped that when people watched her videos they realized math is for anyone, it’s a universal subject.

“My core message is just that math is interesting, it’s beautiful, it’s not as hard and as boring as it might seem in school,” she said. “Math is for everyone, no matter what you look like, no matter where you come from, math is something that involves the whole human race. It is full of so much beauty and diversity.

Chen hopes that people take away more than just the recipes she’s sharing.

“I just feel like food is so much more beyond how you make the recipe. It’s so much more than that, it’s the stories behind it, the history behind it, the memory associated with it, everyone has a different memory to every dish,” she said.

She wants people to understand that food is more than just something to satiate hunger.

“In Taiwan, when we say ‘hello’ we actually say ‘have you eaten yet?’ That is how much food means in our culture and our community.”

More than that, she wants people to understand that all Asian food can’t be lumped together. Different countries favour different ingredients for specific reasons.

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“I think we need to take a step back, we need to educate people on our food and educate people on why we use it instead of letting people generalize,” she said.

Fels, who uses the platform to practice Japanese, hopes that people who watch her TikToks realize that it’s OK to step out of their comfort zone to learn a new language or learn about their culture.

“Something that I realized that my content has done for people is to really inspire them to chase after their own desires to learn the language or to share their passion for a culture,” she said.

Pang, TikTok user Meicrosoft, hopes that when people see her they realize that it’s OK to not fit in. As a heavily tattooed, bald Southeast Asian woman, she makes not fitting in look incredibly cool.

“Not fitting in is not necessarily a bad thing. I no longer strive to fit in, because when I make these decisions and I look like this and I’m also a Southeast Asian woman, I’m creating a path for myself,” she said.

A PLACE TO BE WHO THEY ARE

But TikTok soon became a place for them to learn about themselves, and unapologetically share who they are with the world.

Pang who was cautious of the platform at first, soon embraced the idea of being able to represent her culture on the platform.

“I thought that’d be a great opportunity to just like, show my face. When I was younger I never really saw that representation, especially, me being Southeast Asian and now covered in tattoos and bald, so I thought that this would be a sick opportunity to represent, and be that representation of the person that doesn’t really fit in, and it’s been a blast,” she told CTVNews.ca in a Zoom interview.

As a first-generation Canadian, TikTok has been a place for her to explore her culture and identity and find her place.

“It’s difficult not to fit in, but having your own space and carving out your own space, is just, I’ve never been more happy in my entire life,” she said.

Chen has also been able to embrace Asian food culture in a way that she hadn’t before.

“I’m a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan, and I remember when I first moved to Calgary I was so embarrassed to bring my food to school, because I was just so scared to be different,” she said.

Fels, who began using the platform to practice her Japanese, also felt a sort of disconnect from her culture. Using TikTok has allowed her to further explore her heritage.

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“I’m the only first-generation Filipino in my family and growing up I felt like, I don’t know if this is the right way to say it but, less Filipino or less Asian than my sisters who were born in the Philippines,” she said.

TikTok has been a way for her to find a connection she had trouble finding in her youth.

“Growing up I kind of felt disconnected from it, or like I was more Canadian than I was Filipino but I think now that I’m a little bit older, I understand my like cultural identity more,” she said.

And with other Filipinos reaching out to her because of her platform, she feels all the more connected.

Growing up, Pang was in a similar limbo to how Fels felt. Not quite enough one way or the other.

“For me personally, I never fit in. I always felt like I’m too Asian for the white kids, I’m too white for the Asian kids, in this weird purgatory,” she said.

“TikTok has definitely helped me as an Asian woman and seeing all of those voices, they helped me reconnect to something that I’ve never learned before and I think that it’s been awesome, and a little bit shocking as well and it’s given me that motivation to learn more,” she said.

Santos hopes that her success on the platform can normalize things for younger generations.

“And especially being in an Asian family being gay, there was so much stigma attached to that. And so I remember just feeling really ashamed and embarrassed. So I think, for people to see diverse voices online, especially for parents to see people like us online. I think it just normalizes it more for young people now.”

Growing up she had thought that being academic and successful had to be separate from being gay.

“When I was growing up I never really thought that it was possible to be a professional, academic person that went to university and got a successful job and also be super gay and flouncy and flamboyant,” she said. “I thought I had to be straight to be taken seriously.”

And while they all hope that people learn from their content, they’ve also been able to learn new things by being on the platform.

“I’ve learned so much in terms of just like, my culture, my heritage,” said Pang. 

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