Editor's note: Susie Lau wrote the following article before the mass shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, which claimed the lives of six Asian women on Tuesday. For information on what you can do to help, scroll to the bottom of this article.
Last year in April, just after we had gone into lockdown, I heard something that made me feel like I was nine years ago again, in Caledonian Road pool, with a group of older girls saying that I should “Go back home to China.” On the bus with my half-Chinese daughter Nico, I was told by an elderly woman that I should stay home with her. I looked around and I had assumed it was because Nico was a child and reluctant to wear her mask. But there were other maskless kids onboard. Then I realised what she actually meant was that I, with my Chinese face, shouldn’t be out and about in public and neither should my half-Chinese daughter. My face got hot, but I had no reply. I was stunned and just automatically hailed to get off at the next stop. “Stay home”, “Go home”. The clear subtext? You’re not welcome. You don’t belong.
Fast forward a year and hate crimes towards ESEA (East and South East Asians) have taken a heinous turn, fuelled by Trump repeatedly referring to Covid-19 as “kung-flu” or the “Chinese virus”. In the USA, just in January 2021 alone, there have been a shocking spate of violent crimes against Asians across the spectrum . Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old Thailand native, died after being pushed to the ground in San Francisco. In Oakland in the Bay area, shocking CCTV footage emerged of a man shoving three elderly Asians to the ground for no apparent reason.
Similarly in the UK, police records have revealed a 300% increase in reported incidents towards ESEA people at the beginning of 2020 compared with 2019. Last February, Singaporean student Jonathan Mok was beaten up on London’s Oxford Street in an unprovoked attack. And there will be so many more that go unreported.
Together with a group of Asian-American friends in fashion, we started the hashtag #StopAsianHate a week ago and I’ve been overwhelmed with DM’s and messages from ESEA in the UK opening up about their suppressed anecdotes of racism.
But beyond the visceral footage or these acts of violence - where justice should be sought - we need to also understand the often-hidden racist rhetoric towards ESEA in the UK, ranging from the casual to overt racism that has been so omnipresent all my life.
I grew up in what is ostensibly a multi-cultural haven, with my parents from Hong Kong running a Chinese takeaway in Camden. But even in London, your “different” appearance would still be made apparent to you continuously - even without the intentions of overt racism. It starts in the playground when kids used to make eye gestures and sing “My mum’s Japanese, my dad’s Chinese and this is me” to poke fun of our features. Or when I would bring Chinese food into school and friends would express their disgust or make yucky-faces. Then you begin to question your identity and whether you belong or not in this country you call home, when incidents like the one I've mentioned in the swimming pool occur.
It progressed into my teens when guys would persistently accost you on the streets or on the tube with “Ni-hao! Konichiwa! Where are you from? No, but where are you from-from?” which is just a way of placing you in the box of “otherness”. Even the seemingly innocuous statements like, “You must be good at maths” or “I love chicken chow mein!” upon hearing you’re Chinese become burdensome. Positive or neutral stereotyping is just as harmful as the negative ones. And yet you learn to brush them off, ignore, and even as you walk away, you wish you had a sassy retort ready.
Our collective silence is connected to the model minority myth – something that isn’t often discussed in British media. 1st generation ESEA immigrants to the UK instilled this idea that you should stay quiet, you shouldn’t complain and put your head down, to rise above in society. We were taught to assimilate and to my shame, I was complicit, eager to minimise my own culture when I was starting work in fashion, in a bid to impress upon others that I’m “one of them”. The model minority myth is a construct that is harmful to everyone. It’s the notion that because Asians – and I refer to both South Asians and ESEA – are successful, do well at school and have a strong work ethic, white people can use this as their trump card to say, "Racism doesn’t exist if a minority can enjoy success". It is deeply harmful for black people and places stereotypes on Asians when we veer outside of those lines. When I learnt about the model minority myth in later life, it was like a lightbulb smashed inside my head. Why have we been taught to be silent? What happens if we don’t meet those “model minority” expectations? What have I sacrificed in my relationship with my culture and roots in order to fit a mould?
The pandemic has exacerbated these underlying tensions to the point where, when Boris Johnson made a video wishing British Chinese people a Happy Chinese New Year, the comments below the line revealed a swathe of anti- Chinese sentiment that conflates the origins of the virus with an entire ethnic group. “Sod the Chinese after our lives have been ruined this year,” one person wrote. The most hurtful thing about these comments is the hidden and latent nature of them. Who else is giving you the once-over and reducing you to merely “virus” as you walk down the street? Did a colleague or a peer like that meme about bat-eating Chinese people? Your perceptions shift and you begin to question once again why your skin colour becomes a signifier for lazy stereotyping.
Starting the #StopAsianHate movement has been an emotional rollercoaster, but just as Black Lives Matter opened up a much-needed floodgate of self examination, learning/unlearning and action towards diversity and representation in all fields, we need to also understand the nuances that affect ESEA in this country, especially in light of the pandemic. We’ve only just begun to vocalise this and speak out. It’s a vital step in that collective journey in the fight against racism towards all minorities.
#StopAsianHate has a dedicated hub on gofundme.com where you can donate money to the families of victims involved in the Atlanta-area spa shootings, as well as supporting local AAPI neighbourhood fundraisers. You can also sign the change.org petition asking the government to explicitly condemn the racism and hate crimes targeting the UK's ESEA community.