Using historic timelines to describe multicultural experiences

This is a guest post by Guanqiao (Tony) Fu, a student in the History program at University of Toronto Mississauga. 

As an intern, I am working with OurDigitalWorld on creating digitized historical timeline exhibits. This is an opportunity for me to learn new skills and knowledge while putting my historical research skills to use.

Image of article titled Town Celebrates Portuguese Month, from the Oakville Beaver, May 7, 2003
Town Celebrates Portuguese Month, Oakville Beaver, May 7, 2003

Working with OurDigitalWorld to create timelines to tell stories of others using creative exhibits is the exact experience that will refine my research skills while reminding me that studying history puts the story of humanity in our hands. I am working on three exhibit projects, focusing on the Portuguese Canadian Diaspora, Chinese Migrants in Canada, and Ontario’s Experiences of Wars and Conflicts for the past 100 years. Finding and selecting primary sources while interpreting them in ways of bias-free story-telling is perhaps the greatest challenge I have encountered so far, and it is also where I learned the most. Through the past three months of researching, organizing and training, I have become more familiar with the ways of understanding primary sources and how to use my understanding to produce works—a necessary skill for historians to succeed.

Photo of Portuguese protesters at Toronto City Hall 1971
Anti-fascist and anti-colonial protest by PCDA members on Nathan Phillips Square, 1971

What is most interesting about my experience creating timelines with OurDigitalWorld is perhaps my positionality as a Chinese international student studying in Canada. I have been staying in Canada since the COVID-19 pandemic hit and my own cultural background and social bonds enabled me to interpret the historic development here from a different perspective. I often have the feeling that even though I have no difficulties interacting and connecting with people here as an international student, I still feel like an “outsider” who cannot fully interpret or comprehend other people’s experiences. For example, I discovered material about Portuguese settlers in the 1970s actively participating in the pacifist protest against Portugal’s military operations in Africa despite their Canadian nationality. I first found it hard to interpret living as both Portuguese and Canadian at the same time because I grew up in a monocultural society where this diversity is unimaginable. I could not help but try to interpret Portuguese settlers’ identities separately, and it was not until after I read about the communal networks Portuguese settlers established to honour their traditions did I realize that it is possible for a community to be proud members of several societies without breaking off from their own culture. Different communities have their own culture, and these cultural traditions continuously develop despite how each community chooses to express them. There is no absolute contradiction between cultures, only how people interpret and treat how each expresses themselves.

And this is what historical study is all about! No matter how we express our perception towards a topic, a community, or perhaps an event, we inevitably use our own perspective, which is shaped by our own culture and experiences. Working with OurDigitalWorld allows me to further reflect on my own positionality, to expand my own knowledge of history while expressing my findings using timelines that are both creative and informative. To me, history is about the greater cause of telling humanity’s story by collecting representative instances and putting them together as a portrait of our civilization, and this practical work is both an exciting and enjoyable experience that extends my career as an undergraduate student far beyond classrooms and libraries.

See Guanqiao’s exhibit and timeline about the Portuguese Diaspora in Ontario here.