Ultra Vires


Anti-Asian Racism: This Ends Now

Reflections on experiences of Anti-Asian racism from childhood to the pandemic 

One evening a few months ago, I was riding a streetcar from Bathurst to Queens Park in downtown Toronto. The streetcar came to a halt as a white man in his late 40s walked on without a mask and sat in the blocked-off seat right beside me. I looked at him, confused, uncomfortable, and honestly, a bit annoyed. He immediately noticed. 

“What are you looking at?” he said to me. “Your people brought the virus into this country. It’s you that shouldn’t be allowed on this streetcar.” Audible gasps filled the air and people shook their heads, but none of the other passengers said a word. We rode the rest of the way in silence. 

I wasn’t born in Canada, but I grew up here. My family and I moved here when I was four. I became a Canadian citizen when I was eight. I was raised here, educated here, and I speak English and French fluently. I am Canadian. But these facts were completely lost to the man without a mask on the streetcar that night. Like many other Asian-Canadians and visible minorities, I found myself defending my Canadian status and membership in this country, yet again. 

Growing up, I didn’t want to be Chinese. I wanted to fit in. 

When I was five, I picked an English name for myself after learning that I was the only kid in my kindergarten class with a Chinese name. When I was seven, I stayed quiet when a group of classmates mocked my dad’s Chinese accent while he volunteered as a chaperone for a school field trip. When I was eight, I threw out the chive dumplings my mom packed me for lunch, ones that she made herself from scratch that morning so they would be fresh for me, and begged her to pack sandwiches or Lunchables instead. I hid the fact that I went to Chinese school on weekends to learn Mandarin. I only spoke English at home. And whenever someone made a joke about my eyes being small, my supposedly superior math skills, or yelled the oh-so-clever “ching chong” insult at me, I kept my head down. 

But worst of all, I beamed with pride whenever someone said I was “white-washed” or that I was outgoing, fun, or cool “for an Asian.” In my head, this meant that I had succeeded. That I had been accepted. That I wasn’t like the other Asians. I was normal. 

I once thought these experiences were unique to me, but when my younger sister came home crying because the other kids in her third grade class said her Chinese food was “stinky,” I realized I was wrong. The truth is, almost every Asian-Canadian I have met or spoken to throughout my life has the exact same story or a variation of it. It may have been Vietnamese congee instead of Chinese dumplings, or their mom’s accent instead of their dad’s, but the effect was always the same. Learning that I wasn’t alone and meeting others who were proud of their Asian heritage gave me the confidence to embrace my own. Nevertheless, the homogeneity of these shared experiences is absolutely terrifying.    

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, hate crimes against Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians have been on a rise in Canada and the US. Most recently, a 65-year-old Asian woman in Manhattan was beaten in broad daylight while three bystanders watched. In March of last year, a 92-year-old Asian man with dementia was assaulted in a Vancouver convenience store. The same month, a Filipino-Canadian woman was attacked in a Toronto subway station and told to “go back to China.” Statistics Canada confirmed that hate crimes against Asians have increased three-fold during the pandemic. “Kung flu” and the “China virus” have become well-known nicknames for COVID-19. Vancouver reported a 717 percent increase in the amount of hate crimes since last year. The list goes on.

When I hear about these statistics or read these stories, I don’t just see numbers from the reports or victims from the stories. I see my own mother being in the position of the 65-year-old woman beaten in broad daylight. I imagine my father being spat on and yelled anti-racial slurs to. I think about my sister, my grandparents, my friends, my classmates, and every Asian-Canadian, or visible minority I have ever known. These tragedies are not just stories to me. They are personal. 

On Tuesday, March 16, a white gunman entered three massage parlours in Atlanta and killed eight people, six of whom were Asian women. Police have refrained from labelling this incident as “hate crime.” Whatever the merits or non-merits of doing so may be, I will not speculate. However, as I sat in my room reading the New York Times, I thought back to my school field trip from all those years ago. After that day, I never asked my parents to volunteer as chaperones ever again out of fear that they would be mocked. As a seven-year-old, I didn’t know how to add, subtract, or even write full sentences. Yet, I knew about racism. I knew about hate, and I could see both of these things as clear as day. 

What happened in Atlanta was not an isolated incident but a horrific example of a narrative that Asian-Americans and Asian-Canadians have been familiar with for far too long. Whether it be the “model minority” myth, the perception that Asians are emotionless functionaries, or the fact that there are no inherent symbols associated with anti-Asian hate, Canada has a deeply rooted history of anti-Asian racism that needs to be acknowledged. It is our generation’s responsibility to advocate for the protection of our friends, our elders, and our communities. We all have a role to play, and we all need to do more. 

So, to the man without a mask on the streetcar and everyone like him: I will no longer apologize, I will no longer stay silent, and I will no longer hide. 

Today, I am proud to be Asian. This ends now.   

Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this article appears in the Toronto Star.

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