By Rae Chen Elliman
’ve been confiding in friends about my concern over the insidious rise in anti-Asian racism since this time last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic began, and political figures such as then-President of the United States Donald Trump, began referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” or “Wuhan virus.”
Almost exactly a year ago, a photographer from the Washington Post even captured a photo of Trump’s notes during a press briefing, where the word “Corona” had been crossed out and replaced with “China,” making explicit his intent to falsely implicate Chinese people in the spread of COVID-19. Now, a year later, the impact of this kind of placement of blame can be found spat into the face of an Asian mother in Queens, NYC, or the bloodied nose of a lecturer in Southampton, England. It can also be found in the words of abuse hurled at my mother and sister on the streets of East London.
While the term “anti-Asian racism” is new to headlines and hashtags, racism towards Asian people, much like other forms of racism, is not new. European colonisation of Southeast Asia began as early as the 15th century, and most of the European colonies in Southeast Asia were not decolonised until the 20th century.
“While these experiences are not acts of violence, they are violent in nature”
This means that much of Southeast Asia endured hundreds of years of European (and North American – the USA purchased the Philippines in 1898 for $20 million) rule. Colonization enforced tenets of white supremacy and Orientalism that continue to reverberate in Asian communities, and instil themselves within Asian bodies across the diaspora today.
In 2004, 23 lives were lost in the Morecambe Bay cockling disaster, when immigrants hired by white British men were forced to work in dangerous circumstances and became blocked from the shore by incoming tides. In 2019, 39 Vietnamese lives were lost attempting to migrate to the UK in an airless lorry. These men, women and children were seeking a better life. How would these tragedies be imprinted in our memories if the victims were white?
Of the most haunting and familiar accounts of a lifetime punctuated by anti-Asian racism in recent years is Ocean Vuong’s exquisite and heartbreaking novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, written as a letter to his illiterate mother (who is the daughter of a Vietnamese woman and an American soldier, conceived after escaping an arranged marriage during the Vietnam War).
Although there are countless accounts of explicit acts of hatred that are impossible to forget, it’s the protagonist’s recollection of an article from a 1894 printing of the El Paso Daily Times that remains at the forefront of my mind. A white man is arrested, accused of killing a Chinese man. But, according to Texas law, the murder of a human being was defined as the killing of a white man, an African American, or a Mexican. The Chinese man is not considered a human being. The white man is released.
The story comes from a fictional novel, but it speaks to the dehumanisation of Southeast Asian people in the West, whose lived experiences have always been a heady cocktail of abuse, fetishisation and microaggressions. A primary school memory of my mother being told she looked “too healthy for a Chinese person.” She’s been called anti-Asian racial slurs throughout her life in London. In 2017, my sister (who was 13 at the time) received an email from a fellow student out of the blue – an ominous photo of a pile of dead dogs and the words, “you hungry?”
“My grandmother, who emigrated with her young children from Singapore in 1963, spent the past year in the house without leaving once... I couldn't help but feel some relief that she might avoid the insidious abuse and danger the world could have in store for her.”
She has been accused of eating snakes, rats and cats, and called “ling ling,” “ching chong” and “sushi.” In 2018, a nutritionist advised that I might be allergic to dogs and commented that it was “ironic considering what your people do to them”.
In 2019, my sister and I were walking along Brick Lane when a man charged at us and shouted “konichiwa” in our faces. In 2020, my sister endured the first of multiple instances of being abused in the street for her responsibility for the COVID-19 virus and, in 2021, my mother and a friend were walking in Bethnal Green when a man accused her of bringing the virus to the UK.
These experiences do not feel shocking to me; they are commonplace. And, while they are not acts of violence, they are violent in nature. These aggressions pave the way for crimes as horrific as that which took place in Atlanta on Tuesday.
Until now, racism towards Southeast Asian people has never felt polarising – it has never felt to me like a thing someone else is willing to stand-up and fight against, it has never been truly condemned by either right or left wingers. In 2005, Matt Lucas played “Ting Tong”, a Thai bride, in Little Britain, and later in Come Fly With Me, he and David Walliams played a pair of Japanese tourists, each character portrayed with grotesque accents and caricatured gestures. At school, people regularly called me names like “chinky”. They weren’t scared to. In fact, they probably thought it was a term of endearment, a sense of ownership over another's identity no doubt instilled into their subconscious, and an inability to rock the boat instilled in mine.
This mockery, appropriation and fetishisation of Southeast Asian culture seems universally accepted, it’s palatability enforced by assumptions about Southeast Asian submission. While those aggressions and stereotypes may seem harmless, the comfort that allows them to exist is easily weaponised – something that is now impossible to ignore. The recipe for this kind of hatred and dehumanisation is formulaic: we’ve long seen it at work in the systemic prejudice against black and brown people. Anti-Asian rhetoric may be pushed by out-and-out white supremacists, but it’s the silence and complicity of the masses that allow Southeast Asian people to be reduced to subservient virus carriers who are entirely disposable.
Over the past few months, anti-Asian racism has come into a new light, as thousands of anti-Asian hate crimes are reported and eight more innocent lives are taken, six of them Asian women. My grandmother, who emigrated with her young children from Singapore in 1963, spent the past year in the house without leaving once. Though the reason for her isolation was to protect herself from the virus, I couldn't help but feel some relief that she might avoid the insidious abuse and danger the world could have in store for her. Yet a year of total isolation is something I wouldn’t wish on anyone. I fear for the safety of my grandmother, my mother, my sister, my brother and my friends. So what now? There is learning and unlearning to do, for me and for you.
The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a spike in anti-Asian racism, including hate crimes on the streets of Britain. Unless we act now this could have dire consequences for far too many.
By Rae Chen Elliman
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