An old reality amplified in the face of a global pandemic

I’m scared. I’m pretty sure that we’re all scared in our own ways. The modern world is facing the worst public health crisis since the 1918 Flu pandemic and despite medical experts and others warning us that another pandemic would have been inevitable, the world it seemed, was woefully unprepared.

Even with warning, everything happened so quickly. Suddenly millions are without work or have had their opportunity of income trounced. Others find their home lives and work lives being abruptly brought together as they struggle with the new reality of working from home.

Thousands are getting sick and healthcare systems across the world are being stretched to their limits. The injustices of our social structures are coming to light with statistics showing that ethnic minorities are being disproportionately impacted, and where workers on the frontline battle for basic equipment to do the job of saving the lives of many of our loved ones against overbearing odds, with courage and conviction.

Everything has changed all because of this miniscule, microscopic pest of a virus which attacks indiscriminately, with brute force and division and without process or reason, and this new reality does indeed scare me.

But I’m scared and I’m angry. I have no doubt that the modern world will and can pull through this and there are some encouraging signs that we are doing just that (please don’t get complacent. Wash your hands, stay inside and listen to the public health experts), however my anger I’m sure, is the same variance of anger many others experience. We ask the same questions about whether or not this virus was avoidable, what could have been done to stop it and whose fault this is.

Where should my anger be directed? And is it appropriate at all, at this very moment that my anger find a target when I have loved ones and a community around me to worry about?

I don’t know, but I understand the fear and anger people are feeling because when we do come out at the other end of this, there will be an abundance of scar tissue in all facets of society which we must work to reconcile.

Some of that scar tissue will be over racial animosity. In their fear, anger or whatever motive they may have, some people have taken the point to use this pandemic as a political cudgel in an ideological and cultural battle without due regard for the millions of ethnic East-Asians like me and for those living in China.

We hear the term “Chinese Virus” bartered around by those in positions of power, with some claiming that this is to hold the Chinese Government to account and that the term is geographically correct; yet ignoring the logic that there are enough words in the English language to call the virus by its scientific name, hold policymakers to account, and to not throw those of Chinese descent under the bus.

Yes, this virus has origins in China but if there are lessons we can learn from past catastrophes, it is that words have power, and some of that power can be used to unjustly galvanise racial animus towards minority ethnic groups like the Muslim community after 9/11.

Photo of said adorable dogs

Some claim that we must call it the Chinese Virus because we should hold barbaric, and out-dated cultural practice to account. Now, this is a tricky one because I have also seen the videos of the wet markets and the notorious Yulin dog festival and I note my reaction is one of disgust too, especially when I have two adorable dogs myself.

On one hand, I don’t think it fair to criticise the practice of another culture without reconciling that I can come across as a hypocrite particularly when the logical end is to claim our culture is one that is superior; but yes, I can accept the argument that the way these animals are treated in the videos that I’ve seen, isn’t exactly humane.

However, when I hear “All of you Chinese eat dogs. You eat anything that moves. You brought the virus over” it’s not hard to resolve this personally because it is factually clear that myself and millions of other Chinese and East-Asians in the UK and around the world have never eaten a dog, bat or pangolin despite some thinking it is coded into our DNA. I doubt we even have the stomach for it.

In fact, according to the International Humane Society, animals such as dog are eaten infrequently by less than 20% of the population of China, and the majority of China want to see an end to the notorious Yulin Dog festival.

This does not mean that two truths cannot be self-evident at the same time, but the truth here is that yes, a minority of our ethnic group partake in the wild animal trade, which I do not condone myself. But it is also equally true that a majority of East-Asians are just as compassionate towards animals as any other ethnic group and these are the points of commonality that are lost to the racists and xenophobes.

Because in as abrupt a manner as I can imagine, my ethnicity has suddenly become inextricably tied to a global pandemic that has pulled us all out of our comfort zones and into a new world; and for some that have heard these dog-whistles (no pun intended), there is no political motive, instead there has been a kind of empowerment to act out upon the negative stereotypes which our community have endured for years.

To those people that believe statements like the above at their core, these are stereotypes that have found corporeal form. Since the impetus of the pandemic, we have seen a significant rise of racial abuse with some monitoring groups reporting over 1100 incidents in the US, at an average of 100 incidents per day over a span of two weeks.

In the UK, those of East-Asian backgrounds have also experienced a rise in racist abuse with some being attacked on the street, spat at in supermarkets or assaulted in their places of business. This spike in racist abuse has also triggered an exodus of student’s returning home fearing for their safety. The rise is so alarming to some that policy-makers on both sides of the pond in the US and the UK have been mobilised to take action in a bid to promote awareness and condemn racism.

Credit: Henry Be

Now apologies if this comes across as dramatic, but this is an article about racism and without discounting the inequalities other people groups face, it is pertinent to highlight that for some of us, there are two realities at play here.

The new reality this virus has brought upon us, and the old reality of living as an East-Asian in the West and bearing with the underlying racism we experience day-to-day.

To some of us, this is an old reality amplified.

My point is that this racism is not new to a lot of us. It just feels different. Where before there was an ignorance behind such petty microaggressions, there now feels like there is a hatred, or a violent undertone giving energy to such bigotry.

Growing up in the UK, as a wee British Born Chinese with a bowl haircut and oversized jumper, I remember the first time I was called a “Chink” and had the “slitty-eyes” gesture pulled at me. It was in primary school where I was one of maybe 4 other East-Asian kids.

I remember being upset despite not understanding the context of the word or the gesture, but I was likely more upset because I felt singled out. As I got older and especially from working in the service sector, I began to learn about the power of that word and gesture, in how that these actions made me feel like an “other” in a society wherein it was already clear that I did not look like the majority of my peers.

Other societal issues become more evident as your cognition of them matures, for instance, why, for some, is the term “Chinkies” still part of the British vernacular to describe a takeaway? And why has this become a point of political contention for a minority to fight for their right to use that term when it is so obviously offensive to the East-Asian diaspora.

Why, with the stereotypes circulating that the Chinese eat anything with legs, was the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak attributed to the British-Chinese community despite a lack of evidence? And why was an apology only issued after mass protests?

Why, where according to a University of Essex study published in 2017, have the Chinese community in the UK reported the highest levels of racial harassment with an estimated 15% of Chinese men and women reporting to have experienced racism in 2016.

And in 2009, a qualitative study by the Monitoring Group in conjunction with 3 universities also noted the same stating that:

“The UK Chinese people are subject to substantial levels of racist abuse, assault and hostility…. The failure of many statistical and research reports to identify the experience of Chinese people separately from that of ‘other’ minorities has meant that their experience of racism remains hidden from view.”

But again, this isn’t new to us, it is just clarification of our position and we can trace this kind of racial animus further back in British history.

In Gregor Benton and Edmund Terence Gomez’s book, “Chinese in Britain: 1800-Present Economy, Transnationalism, Identity”, the history of Chinese immigration to the UK is analysed and the conceptualisation of what it means to be “British-Born Chinese” as a unique identity is deconstructed in the context of racism and transnationalism.

Credit: British Library

For laymen like myself, a point they make is that despite being in the country for generations, and influencing many parts of British society, they state that:

“In spite of their entry into mainstream society and economy, British-born Chinese are still commonly viewed by white British as ‘outsiders’, ‘migrants’, or members of a ‘diaspora’ who occupy ‘spaces’ in British society.”

Growing up as a British Born Chinese, and only understanding that you are both Chinese and British, hearing such stories do make you question your place in society and you ask, if there are powers that work to demagogue you based on some misunderstanding or embedded stereotypes, can I ever really be part of this society?

If racism is so embedded at the core of society to all ethnic groups, not just Chinese, how do we combat it especially in the face of a global pandemic which looks to exacerbate such stereotypes?

Well, it may be cliché to say that we are all in this together, and this is simply a resonance of basic human decency. Regardless, reminding us that we are all in this together has power, and even though this article highlights the rise of racism towards my people group, this kind of racism has a pattern and will ripple outward if there is no collective action to stem it.

I do not have dual loyalties to being British and Chinese. I am unapologetically British-Born Chinese and have no cause to prove my Britishness to separate myself from my ethnicity. Instead, because I have experienced the feeling of being pushed out of a society in which I was born, due to my physical traits, I should work to make sure that no other group experience the same.

We combat racism by challenging it in all forms, wherever it arises. Like with the recently reported incidents of racism towards the African community in China.

Only in doing this and shedding the imagery of “us vs. them”, can we stem the racial divides between us and leave such dissension in the old world.

Racism may take years and more generations to eradicate and even then, I’m sure we humans will find reason to distrust each other, but here we remind ourselves of our collective humanity, of our shared fears and anger, and of our common good.

You are part of my society and I want to be part of yours, and I will take this sentiment with me into the new world.