Feiya Hu shares insights on protecting mental health, pole dancing, promoting causes and her role models

Feiya Hu is a woman of passion, talent and action. I was thrilled when she generously agreed to chat with me; this courageous, energetic and inspiring change maker is a force to be reckoned with. Feiya is a final year medical school student and is hoping to pursue an exciting career as a junior doctor.

However, in her spare time, she fights against racism and inequality, motivated by a sense of duty, purpose and giving back. She has been featured by platforms including the BBC, ITV, STV and The Tab for her notable activism work. Feiya does not shy away from bringing light to a range of overlooked issues, including the rise of hate crimes against East and South East Asians (ESEAs). Her campaigning is inspiring new ways of thinking about civic participation and showing the power of the collective voice.

Feiya co-founded Racism Unmasked Edinburgh (alongside Allie De Lacy), a community bringing people to bond over shared experiences living in the UK as ESEAs and combat racism. Balancing her time, she is also a mental health advocate, freelance journalist and accomplished pole dancer. I am delighted to have the opportunity to discuss her motivations, as well as her views on effective activism and how racism has been able to flourish in the UK.

YW: Why do you think activism is important to society? How do you define activism and what is effective activism in your opinion?

FH: I think activism is so important because it gives people a voice. Often the people who benefit from activism the most are from disadvantaged or marginalised groups and who have their voices suppressed by the society that we live in. Hence, activism helps create a safe space for people to express their voices and allows them to be heard. It is also so important to set an example for the younger generation who are the future of this society. We need to fight for a better future with equal rights, and this has to start now!

I define activism as advocating for and amplifying the voices of struggling communities, as well as raising awareness and educating the general population. This hopefully leads to action and real change.

Effective activism is something which is engaging with many different demographics. A wider reach means more allies and more ears that are listening. A good way of doing this is creating a range of media types – whether it be appreciation and sharing culture and art and music, to the celebration of successes, creating infographics, posters, articles and so on. There should be something for everyone!

YW: What were your motivations in setting up Racism Unmasked? What is its ultimate goal?

FH: We set up Racism Unmasked following a terrible year of increased COVID-19 related hate crimes towards the ESEA community. There was an attack on a student outside Edinburgh University and we decided enough is enough. There needs to be a safe space and community for ESEA people in the UK; we decided that we would be there for everyone.

Our ultimate goal is to keep uploading infographics and discussing different topics on our social media accounts, develop a support service with a wider reach, take on more big brands and businesses to make them more inclusive, and continue to educate and work with allies who want to help our cause!

YW: You’re a strong advocate of mental health awareness. What does mental health mean to you and why? Do you have any tips for student activists in particular? Are there any differences in how it is perceived in Asian culture?

FH: Everyone has mental health, which is the same as physical health. When you are feeling unwell mentally, it is more than valid to take time out and care for yourself as you would a physical injury. Marginalised groups are more at risk of having poor mental health, purely due to having many more societal barriers to get to where we want to be, compared to non-marginalised peers. Therefore, we need to check in regularly with ourselves and take our mental health seriously – it is exhausting and not sustainable at all to keep going on a low battery.

For student activists such as myself, it can be a huge undertaking to balance activism with full time studying. I maintain my balance by taking breaks from social media/activism whenever I feel like I need it, setting firm boundaries as to what I can and cannot tolerate, and making sure that I have hobbies that I regularly take part in to destress and take my mind off everything! I also make sure I celebrate and appreciate myself and my community; nurturing joy is a form of activism which feels so positive and fulfilling.

Mental health is stigmatised in Asian cultures, and we are here thanks to our parents/grandparents for putting their heads down and working so hard for our futures. However, we need to now take responsibility for ourselves and be open to things such as seeking help from counsellors or GPs when you feel like you need additional support, or engaging in mental health education and content online. Speaking about it and reading about it allows you to realise that many other people go through the same thing and its okay! Doesn’t make you any less worthy or strong, it even makes you stronger because you learn how to take care of yourself!

YW: Who are your inspirations and why?

FH: My inspirations are my grandma and my great grandma. My great grandma came from a time in China where women still bound their feet and stayed at home. She refused to bind her feet and went to university and became really successful all by herself. My grandma and her siblings were born during the Japanese invasion in China, and they started their life fleeing from city to city with their mother. She’s been through many periods of political and economic turmoil in China and the whole time she believed that women can do whatever they want, and they can – and deserve to – become successful just like their male counterparts. She was the only female engineer at her workplace and didn’t take any crap from anyone! Queen of setting boundaries and realising her self worth!

She raised me in my first years of life and taught me to be brave no matter what, follow my passion and speak up for what I believe in. She and my grandpa are the most supportive people ever!

Last but not least, my mum is a huge inspiration for me. She came to the UK with nothing and was able to give my sister and me an amazing childhood, full of interesting conversations and encouraging our creative development. She successfully battled cancer last year, and she is just incredible. We should never take our parents for granted. They go through so much and still put on a brave face for their kids. It’s incredible.

YW: You have been a victim of racial abuse and have bravely shared your story. Why is it important to speak up? What is your advice to those who wish to do so, but may feel hesitant?

FH: Sadly, yes, I have had my fair share of racial abuse and it is only when I started talking about it publicly that I realised how much I have suppressed and normalised over the years. That is what happens when there isn’t a safe space to express and speak up; you end up internalising it and burying it deep in your mind. That’s why I want to speak up because I want others to relate and feel less alone. Since I started doing this, I have received so many messages from other ESEAs who have told me they appreciate it and that they’ve never had the opportunity to say how they felt out loud. If there are more of us who normalise this conversation, then maybe one day we can all speak about things like this openly. At the end of the day, people do want to listen. A lot of people don’t even realise things like this are going on every day and it’s helpful for those people too.

I think posting on social media about your experiences can be very daunting. You can start by messaging a support service like ours (check our Facebook and website for more info), we are always here to talk and provide support. There are also numerous events and zoom calls where you can connect with others who have the same experiences and I started off by going to these. It’s very cathartic to get together and just angrily rant for a few hours!

Most of all, I want to say just go for it! I was terrified speaking publicly at first but from day one, I have had a positive response. I promise, it’s not as bad as it feels like it’s going to be.

YW: What do you think helps to drive racism here in the UK?

Many things. Historically, there is the exotification and Orientalism of the East as a whole, which still exists to this day. Then there is the negative stereotypical/hyper sexualised portrayals or whitewashing of Asian roles in the media. Numerous other factors, many of which are completely ingrained into British culture that we now have to realise and unlearn. Then there is Brexit and the decrease in tolerance for foreign people in general, and then COVID-19 where ESEA people became the punching bags for people’s pent up racism and frustration. We are here to flip the narrative, but changes are coming a bit too slowly.

YW: In a 2020 BBC segment, you mentioned you hope that this period of time highlights the issue of anti-Asian racism as an area of improvement. What are your thoughts about the progress that has been made so far?

FH: I think that a lot more people understand that it’s an issue now, and more people are willing to listen to stories of racism. I had never had conversations with my white friends about racism until 2020. That feels small but it is actually a huge step in normalising the conversation. I think companies are trying in general to be more diverse, albeit some are rather performative with their actions. Our community is finally becoming a bit more visible to the British public.

YW: You are also an accomplished pole dancer and pole dancing teacher! What is it about the activity that you enjoy?

FH: Thank you! I have been dancing for six years and competing for four years. I love the freedom that it brings. When you walk into a class, you see people of all shapes and sizes and colours, genders, etc., and everyone is so different, but none of that matters at all. We are all there to have fun and dance and be together; the positivity is just so contagious. I can fully relax and be myself and not care about how I look because I feel great surrounded by positive people.

I also love the creativity and fitness side of things, you realise your body can do so much for you and it only makes you appreciate yourself more! Self care and self love to the max!

YW: What is your advice for people who would like to get into activism but do not know where to start?

FH: Follow and engage with grassroots communities that you are interested in and want to be an activist for. Read and educate yourself too, I learned so much in the past 7 months and it has contributed to a lot of unlearning and growth. You can do anything you want! Write songs, articles, make art, post infographics, or make a magazine… you name it! If you are passionate about something, people will be drawn to you and want to hear what you have to say. Surround yourself with likeminded people and supportive family and friends. You’ve got this!

YW: What are your hopes for the future?

FH: I hope to become a doctor at the end of this year. Also, I really want to bring my activism into the healthcare world because it is so needed. I hope to help diversify the medical curriculum so that we are not centred around white, neuro-typical, able bodies all the time. We can’t be good healthcare workers until we adequately know how to treat everyone. I am interested in psychiatry and mental health in general, so maybe considering a GP role too, but I am not sure! Those are the two contenders right now in what I want to specialise. Last but not least, I hope to keep Racism Unmasked going and take it to new and exciting heights!