Following Chinese New Year celebrations, a string of abuse towards East and South-East Asian American in the US has marred festivities and reminded us of the COVID-19 ugliness suffered by these communities. The latest includes a 91-year-old man pushed to the ground in San Francisco’s Chinatown and a similar act of violence towards a 52-year-old woman in New York.
The tide of hostility has been unrelenting. Almost every Chinese and East Asian person I know has experienced some form of name-calling or act of xenophobia in the last year. There has been the countless verbal assault on public transport and in restaurants reported or posted on social media.
Last February, a Singaporean student was beaten up on a Friday night in Oxford Street by a group of youths, one of whom yelled, “I don’t want your Coronavirus in my country”.
In March, while minding my own business in a London hotel, a man shouted “corona-corona” at me as he walked out of the lobby.
In the first three months of 2020, London saw a near tripling of hate-crimes towards people of “oriental” appearance. In early March, Ipsos Mori’s found that one in seven people intentionally avoided people of Chinese origin or appearance.
But a year on, as COVID-19 went from a distinctly “China problem” to a world problem, why is anti-East Asian sentiment still soaring?
Part of it is down to the most powerful man in the world’s relentless drumming of “China virus”, “Wuhan virus”, and “Kung-flu” into our ears. There are few terms so vividly remembered from Donald Trump in 2020.
The words had the desired effect – inciting hatred towards East Asian communities that fought back with #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus – #Iamnotavirus, campaigns like Stop AAPI Hate the End the Virus of Racism which is crowdfunding to establish the first UK non-profit tackling Asian racism. Other grassroots movements, like BESEAN, highlights similar issues while shining a light on British East Asian culture and talent.
Yet somehow, even with such efforts, it feels like little has changed in the anti-East Asian narrative a year on, as the latest attacks demonstrate.
East and South-East Asians are still being left out in the critical conversations about race in the UK.
We are rarely considered “disadvantaged”; according to the Office of National Statistics (ONS), we do well in school and typically earn more than our white peers. But the data also shows that the Chinese suffered more racial harassment than any other minority in the UK and that East Asian women make up most of those trafficked into the country. We also have the second-highest gender pay gap at 19.1%, and we’re one of the least represented groups in politics, media and public life.
For so long, we were dubbed the “silent minority” that doesn’t complain, which others take to mean there’s nothing to complain about.
Systemic prejudice towards us makes us angry, even if we haven’t shouted it in the past. My parent’s generation has endless stories of having to apologise when they’d done nothing wrong, being passed over for promotions and leadership opportunities because they didn’t fit the type — lacking the confidence, accent, or social immersion of born-and-bred Brits. They believed it was better to stay in a job than fight the powers that risked them losing it all.
Many of my generation, more integrated and “Western” in our ways, then spent years shaking off their “cursed” East Asian heritage, believing they’d be free of racist digs and jives if they were just like their peers.
And just when I thought I’d broken free of the stereotypes as a working adult, a friend’s brother asked if my parents ran a Chinese take-away and then cackled.
I wasn’t sure what was more shocking, that a 27-year-old British graduate found it funny or that my perfectly honed English accent did nothing to erase such attitudes.
Often referred to as “casual” or “playground” acts, such labelling makes these acts more socially acceptable; those who mock our features, what we eat, our “Chinglish” and kung-fu moves can just call it “a bit of a laugh”. I’m not sure you could joke about another group based on their appearance, culture, language or food and not call it racist or offensive.
Systemic racism includes us not getting job opportunities because we don’t look the part – as a teenager, I was overlooked for school plays and concerts even though I was musical; it was always the confident girls who got put forward. Even today, many think I can only “do China”, even though my experience demonstrates a much wider remit.
Trump’s anti-China rhetoric unleashed the vilest sentiments that many thought “progressive” society had outgrown. Joe Biden has vowed to claw back the ugliness in a memo days after entering the White House while Kamala Harris condemned the latest incidents on Twitter.
We need a similar political commitment in the UK. Sarah Owen, MP for Luton North, has been lobbying the government for this, but we need more East Asians representation on the committees and boards that oversee diversity and inclusion.
And what can you do to help? The next time you hear someone make a xenophobic or racist remark, call them out on it and don’t let them explain it away with the “I’m only joking” or “it’s just friendly banter” excuse.
Read up about Asian cultures and support the causes I mention above. Talk to your friends and colleagues and ask them to tell you about their experiences and the discrimination their families have faced. Find out how you can support their goals in a personal and professional capacity.
A few years ago, outside London’s Bank station, a banker yelled the worst anti-Chinese slur I’d ever had shouted at me. His less drunken friends briefly apologised, and all the passers-by kept on walking.
Stop. Don’t be a silent witness.