It started small.
“Be mindful when you’re back,” my Asian friend messaged, when I told her I was flying back to London from Hong Kong in early 2020. “People are acting a bit funny around Asians.”
I shrugged it off, not thinking about it too much. After all, what did I have to worry about? English is my first language – and even when I do speak Chinese, I am embarrassed to admit I still have an English accent, something my parents occasionally tease me about.
In retrospect, I was naïve. As soon as I touched down at Heathrow, I felt something was wrong.
In Hong Kong, most people had started wearing masks in late 2019 in response to growing concerns over a new virus. It was strange to suddenly arrive in the UK and see everyone without any face coverings. Wearing my mask, I felt out of place and ‘stared at’. Not wanting to attract further attention – and remembering my friend’s earlier warning – I hastily removed my mask.
Even amongst old school friends, interactions became increasingly uncomfortable. During one group chat, someone shared that she had ordered food from a familiar takeaway, jokingly adding “… wish me luck!”
What? Was she really worried about getting coronavirus from her sweet and sour chicken simply because it was from a Chinese restaurant? Her off-hand comment – and the fact that no one in the group raised an issue with it – exposed a deep-rooted belief that Chinese food has always been seen as “dirty” and “unhygienic”. For many people, making fun of Asian food is socially acceptable.
I stayed silent, not wanting to cause drama over an “innocent” joke, a “passing comment” among friends – it was only in the last week that I found the courage to raise the conversation with my friend.
I’m glad to say she apologised, took accountability, and we had a constructive conversation on moving forward. But, looking back, I wonder how many other times my silence was complicit in normalising this form of casual racism.
“One friend was told to “get the fuck away” from a stranger en route to a supermarket, and to “go back to your own country””
During that early pandemic panic buying period I ventured out to get food for my elderly parents, but will never forget the feeling of having more anxiety about getting verbally abused or physically attacked than actually catching coronavirus. I can wear a mask, wash my hands, socially distance to protect myself against this disease, but I felt absolutely powerless to protect myself and those I cared about from this other malevolent disease.
Over the next few months, I experienced escalating levels of discrimination as I went about my daily errands. At the bank, a clerk ordered me to stand further back from her than previous customers. When I insisted I was doing exactly what the people before me had done (and that’s not to mention there was a glass barrier and I was wearing a mask), the clerk rudely responded that it was “for her safety” and she “had to look after herself”. I contemplated challenging her because I was being singled out for one very obvious reason, but I decided that exiting a closed space was more critical, ironically, “for my safety”.
Unfortunately, I was not alone among family and friends in my experiences. One friend was told to “get the fuck away” from a stranger en route to a supermarket, and to “go back to your own country” – before being spat on. When my friend responded, the man warned him that he had a knife and would stab him. Deeply shaken, my friend reported the incident to police but, due to the lack of any CCTV footage, the case was dropped.
I was speechless. Who could have thought that for Britain’s East Asian population, doing something basic like your weekly shopping would become such a dangerous activity? More and more, London no longer felt like the home I remembered.
It became too distressing to read about the skyrocketing number of East Asians – such as Jonathan Mok, who was subject to racist abuse and violently attacked by a group of men on Oxford Street and sustained facial fractures and severe bruising – experiencing unprecedented aggression in public.
Worried for me, a friend bought a rape alarm for me to carry around in case of emergency. The alarm emits a high decibel blast and a very repulsive odour, but I would need a few seconds to grab the alarm from my bag and remove the safety cap. Every time I leave my house, I have to remind myself to be alert and preempt being attacked if the alarm is to be effective.
“Leaving your home with the knowledge that you, your family and friends might be attacked is no way to live. How are we meant to move past this?”
These experiences have been emotionally challenging and difficult to process. Leaving your home with the knowledge that you, your family and friends might be attacked is no way to live. How are we meant to move past this?
With cases of hate crime involving physical violence or threats of violence, report this to the police. If you see or hear something happening that does not feel right, say something. If someone is a victim of racist abuse, speak up. Words matter. Actions matter. East Asian businesses have also suffered the additional burden of unjust prejudice during lockdown. Help out by supporting your local East Asian businesses.
However, my hope is that we can come together collectively and work on finding solutions to a very serious problem that has plagued our society for too long, but has only now drawn wider attention because of the exponential numbers of pandemic-related hate crimes against Asians. We cannot afford to miss this point in time to fight the intolerance and discrimination that has affected the livelihoods, mental health and personal security of so many.
Natalie Wong is a mixed-media creative. Follow her on Instagram at @papersneaker.
For free mental health counselling, contact the Chinese Community Health and Wellbeing Services on 07464 890902. To see how you can help, visit The Chinese Welfare Trust at chinesewelfaretrust.org.uk
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