When the UK went into a nationwide lockdown, I was devastated. For weeks, I had been hoping — rather stupidly — that everything was going to be okay. It was foolish of me to think that was going to be the case, but to be honest, one of the reasons was because I was worried about what people will say about me and more importantly, my fellow Chinese community.
Although I was born and raised in Scotland my entire life, I have always identified as a Hong Konger because both my parents were born there. So quite rightly, I started to get nervous when the outbreak started in China, letting the entire world and their anti-China beliefs have another reason to hate on the country. I remember the first couple of months when it had all started when everyone around me seemed quite chilled and relaxed about it all. I was offended, as people were dying in China, yet people thought it was okay to post memes on their social media about the virus as a joke. I watched as the memes circulated my entire Instagram feed and sat quietly as people made inappropriate jokes where I could hear. Not once did they see it as the severity that it had become because it hadn’t started to affect their own lives. You don’t really feel anything properly until it starts to affect your own daily life. And for me it did. It started making me feel more sensitive even when the virus was brought up in conversation. It made me think:
What are they going to say now? How will they make fun of my race this time? My culture, my heritage, my people?
An idiotic president is able to bluntly call out my entire race at fault for the pandemic, serving no consequences for naming it the ‘Chinese virus’. The Good Morning presenter, Piers Morgan mocked the Chinese language. A club was able to host a coronavirus-themed club night and offer ‘traditional Chinese hats’ (which don’t even exist?). Chinese takeaways have been vandalized and lost business because people think they will catch the virus through our food or think our culture is disgusting. People have experienced verbal racism, being told our eating habits are gross or that if we go anywhere near them we will give them the virus. People all around the world were able to joke about something that was killing so many people and found it funny to spread this around. So can you blame me for worrying about what they would say to my face?
* * *
The outbreak has shed a light on the prejudice that people actually feel about us as Chinese people. Chinese people do experience racism though sometimes people don’t think we do. Due to mistrust in police, we tend to not go to them even if we experience racism as in our culture, we hate worrying other people and would rather deal with it ourselves within our community. Those are the people we trust with our lives. The jokes that are made such as the circulating memes are meant to be casual and funny when they are actually offensive and we are just meant to brush it off. And I totally get why.
I live with my parents and my younger brother. Every evening (and now midday due to lockdown), we sit down together for a family meal. It’s where we have our ‘so what did you do today?’ kind of chat. Our once uplifting daily catch-ups have now become serious. One particular night, my dad asked if my brother or I had experienced any racism. We looked at each other, the way that siblings do when they are on the same page. Since we are so close, we share pretty much every aspect of our lives together. So we knew, for a fact that we had both experienced racist ‘jokes’ throughout our short lifetime. Even before the global pandemic.
My dad had asked this question because he was worried. We were brought up to not make trouble. Our submissive and non-aggressive type of character made us easier targets for racism because a lot of the time, we tend to let things slide, even if we shouldn’t.
He hoped that nothing was said, so nothing had to be done.
He instead, started telling us about incidents that happened to some of our family friends. How my dad’s friend and his son weren’t allowed on a bus in Edinburgh because the bus driver said that they ‘have the virus’, whilst the people on the bus just watched and laughed. How one of my old colleagues who is also Chinese got shouted at in the supermarket because ‘if she got too close, they would spread the disease’ even though she was nowhere near. How groups of Chinese students are completely avoided when noticed because they are cliquey and since they stay together is why the virus is spreading faster. In our culture, it is common to wear masks and no one ever questions it. Here, anyone but Chinese people are left alone for wearing one. They get a certain look which segregates them further, with more racism being said to their face such as one man who was asked to leave the bus by the driver. I get it too, even if I’m just going for a short drive I have noticed more people starting to take notice of me. This is where some people will say that I am overreacting and that I must be pretty self-absorbed to think all these people are looking at me funny. But I’m used to people smiling at me when I go for a walk, or a little nod of acknowledgment. Now, it’s more of a death-glare, and it’s very uncomfortable considering I’m completely innocent. But unfortunately, not innocent of any racism.
* * *
This whole thing has made me more worried about the people I will encounter from now on and who I want to be around myself. Because a proportion of us will believe the worst, and I’m just going to have to take the hit. If people were already being racist before they were using us as a scapegoat, I don’t know if I want to know what people will say to me now. How am I expected to act normal, when other people won’t? I can’t control what anyone will say or act around me and it turns out even those that are close can be just as bad.
Whatever you choose to believe, Chinese people are not the virus.
Just because it started in China does not mean we as the Chinese community automatically carry the virus. Had you ever stopped to think that just because it was first identified in China, that it didn’t mean that’s where it started? Unfortunately for us, people love a scapegoat, so instead of looking into how the virus is spread, they look for someone or something to blame. Just look at the time of the Black Death, when Jews were blamed for causing it. Now, because it happened to have started in China, the whole population has to suffer from (more) racism. But the world did not need a global pandemic to show us the real prejudice against us as a whole.
* * *
I had a pretty racist teacher at school. She taught me Business Management and taught both me and my brother Economics. One time, when she caught me waving at my friends through the window of the classroom, she said I looked like the Chinese lucky cat which is a cat figurine that waves. This same teacher also called my brother kung fu panda. Just this year at university, a postgraduate teaching a philosophy module I was taking said that the reason why Americans didn’t get as much attention for the swine flu outbreak is that ‘American people are cleaner’. So is our whole race just dirty, unhygienic people? Unfortunately for us, some people stereotype us this way. But the fact that anyone— especially a teacher — felt like they could say this and not have any consequences is astonishing. And I am even more mad that I didn’t speak up for myself or my brother at school, or when the postgraduate said that to the class. Sometimes, I am just so shocked at the time that this was even said to me that I can’t think clearly of how to respond. But I hope that the next time it happens (because let’s be real, it will), I will be able to stand up, not only for myself but for my race.
In my school, I was the only Chinese girl except for one boy who was half Chinese, and in my last two years of school, a Chinese girl and boy joined my class. I had spent almost 16 years of my life never surrounded by similarly aged people of my race. It made me hold on tighter to my family friends because although they didn’t go to my school, it was comforting having like-minded people to speak about things with, without having to explain your entire culture because they already know. Because of how I grew up, I was quite westernized in my beliefs but there was still quite a lot of culture clashes. I was always the ‘token Asian friend’ — and because of that, I just didn’t really get as many racist ‘jokes’ said to me, because it was almost as if people forgot I wasn’t one of them — which was white.
However, I do remember vividly the first major racist ‘joke’ that was made to my face. A girl asked if what I had in my fried rice (yes I took fried rice to school sometimes) had dog in it. I was taken aback. How do I answer such a rude question? The answer was obviously no, but this girl decided it was funny to ask the question because it was a racist assumption. It was fair to say that I was unhappy with what was said, and although I had spoken up about it at the time and said that it wasn’t funny, I didn’t get much of an apology. I got one of those ‘I’m apologizing because I have to’ kind of apologies, where the girl laughed as she said it, clearly not getting the message that her actions were wrong. Looking back now, I wish I had said more because it was just plain bad. But I do remember, that I never took fried rice with me into school ever again. And the fact that I had to do that, is horrible. And most of the racist jokes I had received was even before the pandemic.
The first one I got during the pandemic was an indirect one when my friend made an inappropriate ‘joke’ whilst he was in an Asian supermarket, saying that ‘he must have corona now’ and put it on his private Snapchat story. I remember contemplating for the entire day, trying to figure out whether I should speak up. I remember speaking to my brother, who didn’t think it was a big deal but that actually made me angrier, because it meant once again we were just expected to let it slide. I would definitely say that it would be harder to speak up and control how strangers act, but I know for a fact that I would hate to be surrounded by people who stooped as low as these ignorant fools. I remember finally deciding that I was going to confront him — but in a nice way — telling him that I didn’t think the joke was funny. I remember wondering if it was the right decision, whether I was just overthinking or if I was just making a big deal out of nothing. Because it’s ‘just a joke’, right? I knew him so I knew he meant no harm, I knew he didn’t mean it to be offensive because it was meant to be ‘funny’. But it wasn’t, because if he was in any other supermarket, he wouldn’t have thought twice about saying it. I remember feeling worried for his reply. Thankfully, he immediately took down the story and told me that he now understood how that was disrespectful, feeling bad for not even thinking. It made me relieved, knowing that some people are willing to listen and learn from their mistakes. And it made me realize that I have to be able to make these calls and stand up for not only myself but for my people because if he didn’t think he was wrong, I definitely did not need him in my life.
* * *
I am grateful that I have only had a few racist encounters in my life. I know, I’m not supposed to have any, but compared to other people, I consider myself incredibly lucky. As a young Chinese girl, it’s something that I’ve learned to accept as a real issue that we as a community must face together. I fear what it will be like when I can finally go out like normal again as I know in my heart that people will be more likely to say something racist to my face. An even bigger chance now will the reason be virus-related. It becomes our job, my job to educate people, whether or not they are willing to listen. I am proud of my culture and heritage, I should not be ashamed or held accountable for a pandemic because of it. I will teach people about my culture, I will correct people on misleading facts and I will inform people when they are being racist even if it’s meant to be a ‘joke’. If we continue to let the small things slide, they will lead to bigger things.
We have to push as a community as the more of us press for change, the faster the word will spread, the more movements will be won and the more minds we can persuade into saying and doing the right thing. And that’s the goal, isn’t it?
So forgive me for being worried about what people say or think, forgive me for being too scared to speak up, forgive me for not speaking up sooner. But I would never forgive myself if I don’t speak up now.
Previously published on “Equality Includes You”, a Medium publication.
If you believe in the work we are doing here at The Good Men Project and want to join our calls on a regular basis, please join us as a Premium Member, today.
All Premium Members get to view The Good Men Project with NO ADS.
Need more info? A complete list of benefits is here.