As a kid, I grew up blissfully unaware that my race would make me a target for discrimination. I was born in Richmond, a city in the Greater Vancouver Area that, in 2016, reported the second-highest visible minority population in Canada. I never experienced the kind of racism that I hear about all too often within the Asian-American and Asian-Canadian community. No one ever made fun of my eyes or told me that my lunch smelled at school. I never felt different or out of place because of how I looked. Sure, as I got older, I would hear the occasional racist “joke.” But the racism I saw around me growing up was never directed at me.
Then, at 17, I moved overseas and lived alone for the first time to attend university in England.
“Did you go to an American school in your country?” That was the first thing my French professor asked me upon hearing me speak English after class one day.
“Actually, I’m Canadian,” I said, a little taken aback by the casual microaggression.
As if Asian people only live in Asia.
I wanted to ask where exactly he thought “my country” was, but I let it go. The last thing I needed was to be immediately put in my professor’s bad graces. I convinced myself that I was overreacting and tried not to let it bother me.
I know that the overwhelming majority, if not all, of my fellow Asians-living-outside-of-Asia have had similar experiences. We’ve all been asked at some point in our lives where we’re really from. We’ve all suffered silently through the racist “jokes,” the insensitive offhand comments and the casual use of derogatory terms. A lot of us have been harassed on the street and had some badly pronounced version of “Ni hao” or “konnichiwa” yelled in our faces. Some of us have faced violence, been beat up or even killed for nothing other than the colour of our skin.
When a stranger is racist, I usually assume that it’s because they’re uneducated, that their comment was unintentional or that they’re the one bad apple in an orchard full of sweet, ripe, organic fruit. But when a racist comment is made by someone who is well-educated and respected in our society – like my professor – it’s deeply hurtful.
Recently, a fellow law student published a racist, sexist, ableist, homophobic and transphobic post on his Facebook page. How he managed to belittle and mock such a diverse range of people in one sentence still astounds me. When other students pointed out how offensive his post was, he continued to stand his ground until the law-student community forced him to apologize. In his initial apology, he “clarified” (his word, not mine) that he was upset that he had been passed up for a job and that his intention with the post was to show the “drawbacks” (again, his word) of the alleged affirmative-action hiring practices he blamed for his unemployment. The irony of a white man complaining about hiring practices in a white-male-dominated industry was not lost on me.
This student’s post especially bothered me because of the recent spike in anti-Asian racism and anti-Asian hate crimes. In 2020, the Vancouver Police Department reported that anti-Asian hate crimes increased by 717 per cent. Overt racism toward Asians existed before COVID-19 but it’s never felt so open and daring. It’s scary to read about the hate crimes on the news but it’s even scarier to see how confident racists have become in expressing their views. Law school was the last place I expected to encounter racism. Perhaps I was naive to think that the rigorous admission process would weed out anyone who harboured such hateful sentiments. Or perhaps I was naive to believe that anyone who wanted to pursue a career seeking justice for others would not themselves be the perpetrators of injustice. Either way, the student’s Facebook post was an unwelcome reminder that there’s racism everywhere – even within what I thought were the safe confines of law school.
A phrase that I keep seeing in the media when anti-Asian racism is being discussed is “swallowing bitterness.” It comes from a Chinese saying that translates literally to “eat bitterness.” Essentially, it means to swallow our pain – to endure it without complaint. Many in the Asian community, myself included, have been swallowing our bitterness for a long time. We’ve never really talked openly about our racist encounters, about feeling unwelcome or having our accomplishments minimized by the model minority myth. But how can we continue to swallow our bitterness when the threat of falling victim to a hate crime is so real?
I envy how the pandemic will be nothing but a distant memory to most people when it’s finally over. Many will no longer have to worry about contracting the virus or wearing a mask. But the Asian community outside of Asia will still live in fear of a different kind of virus: racism. We’ll still be worried about being assaulted in public. We’ll still be worried about being harassed if we travel, that the world will continue to scapegoat us for a pandemic that was never our fault to begin with. Because from the way things are going now, anti-Asian hate is going to outlive COVID-19.
And there’s no vaccine for racism.
Anneka Oh lives in Ottawa
First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.