Until 2020, being Chinese was my superpower. Growing up in Singapore and Hong Kong, it was my all-access pass to making friends, finding community and having the confidence that I’d always belong. From my undergraduate days in London, being Chinese opened doors to conversations with people across backgrounds: I am “exotic” and trilingual, I am what happens when East meets West all in one 5’1 package.
In 2020, this changed along with the entire world: my superpower became the greatest weapon used against me and my community. This is my story of what it was like to be Chinese in London during the Covid-19 pandemic: the ugly and the bad, the good and the awesome.
The Ugly and the Bad
Many things happened on the day I first heard about coronavirus: a worried text from my family in Hong Kong about face masks and hand sanitiser, a sad text from my boyfriend that Kobe Bryant had died in a helicopter crash. In this week, the first confirmed UK victim of the disease died. That was 27th January 2020.
I started wearing face masks indoors in shops and outdoors from February and to this day, I’m not sure whether mask-wearing has inflamed or calmed the multiple incidents of “coronaracism” I’ve faced. When Boris Johnson told the country we would “turn the tide in 12 weeks”, I desperately hoped so too. I’d faced an epidemic before (the SARS outbreak) and knew how bad it could get. That was 19th March 2020.
In the next ten weeks as everyone clapped for the NHS, I was coughed on deliberately while queuing for over 30 minutes for groceries. I got out of the queue immediately to go home and shower, even though I was nearly at the front, while he yelled after me, “What are you so afraid of ch*nk? This all came from you!” No one spoke up or reacted; suddenly everyone had text messages to respond to. I felt violated but didn’t think it worth telling him that when he claps for carers every Thursday, he’s also clapping for my Chinese family who are NHS workers.
I thought staying home would keep me safer, but in a Whatsapp group, someone I thought was a friend said, “All Chinese people should just stop eating wildlife.” I felt betrayed but didn’t have the energy to tell her that I’m deathly afraid of pigeons, rats and definitely bats, and nearly 50 million people from China are vegetarian. That’s approximately 75% of the UK population.
While our employers told us to “remember to take a walk during these unprecedented times for your mental health”, my daily walks were late at night, when I was sure I wouldn’t bump into the same lady who tells me to “go back to where I came from” without fail, whenever she sees me. I wonder whether she means back to my flat to stop the spread of coronavirus or to my mother’s womb. The latter is as scientifically impossible as every Chinese person carrying the coronavirus simply by virtue of being Chinese.
I was constantly sent news about how violence against East Asians had increased exponentially, including violence at Oxford Circus. As a Londoner, “coronaracism” was on my doorstep. Suddenly, being Chinese put a target on my back. What used to be microaggressions, the classic “Where are you really from?” or “You speak English so well!”, now included physical violence.
The question I asked myself throughout 2020 was how all of this could happen in London, a city that celebrated its diversity and multiculturalism. When we don’t weed racism whenever we see it, we start to let it slide. Then it happens again, and we let it slide again. Eventually, we’re cha-cha-sliding our way out of every racist incident, and we’re so desensitised we don’t believe Donald Trump calling it the “China virus” will result in any actual harm…right? But this is how racism works: building from microaggressions and side-eyes to confrontation and violence. However, just like a virus, you can’t pretend it’s not there or hope it goes away: you have to do the work.
In June as the Black Lives Matter movement resurged, I learnt some of my toughest lessons about racism, systemic oppression and my identity as a Chinese woman:
- How to use my voice to stand up for what I believe in even if I was scared of going against the status quo, while knowing when to listen and make space for the Black community
- How to rely on my empathy to build connections via our shared experiences of facing racism, while unpacking the anti-Blackness that exists in my family and friends
- How to sustain my belief in an important cause, while learning that we are all imperfect and messy and require nuance, duality and grace in difficult conversations
- How to call out organisations firmly when they perpetuate oppression, while calling in individuals compassionately, without shaming them
The uncomfortable conversations with friends, internet strangers, colleagues, and family have helped me affirm what I believe in, who I am and the space I deserve to take up in the world.
Despite the racism and discrimination I’ve faced, 2020 made me prouder than ever to be Chinese in the UK.
Via Instagram, I’ve connected with an amazing British East Asian and South East Asian network: they inspire and empower me, and we stand together to make our voices heard against racism online and offline. They’ve created beautiful content that has brought me joy and sadness, lent me strength or sometimes all of the above, as @miss_enxi’s powerful spoken word poem “crying no more” has.
Led by Viv Yau, a petition was started to ask the “UK government and media outlets such as The BBC and The Guardian to stop using photography depicting East & South East Asian related imagery when discussing Covid-19”. Having rarely seen representation of my community on UK television, this sudden increase felt insidiously well-timed. This petition, amongst many other conversations and initiatives, has resulted in racism experienced by Chinese and East Asian communities being discussed in Parliament for the first time.
As attacks against individuals identifying as Asian rose sharply every time lockdown restrictions were eased in 2020, I fear the harm my community could suffer at the end of lockdown. However, the non-profit End the Virus of Racism gives me a place to feel safe.
Staying home with my family has given me the opportunity to learn more about my culture’s food and practice speaking my mother tongue. While bat-eating accusations fly and Asian food is being branded as “dirty”, the act of making and enjoying traditional meals every day is my defiance against these racists, creating a joy that they can’t take away. Whenever I feel nostalgia towards a childhood dish, a search for #ESEAeats on Instagram gives me the recipe and a ton of inspiration for my meals for the rest of the week. After all, in most Chinese families, food is our love language.
So, what now?
For me, 2021 brings hope that if we’re all in it together, we can keep each other safe from coronavirus and racism.
For you, I hope you learn that your words and actions have an impact on people around you, especially in this difficult, often isolated landscape.
As the new year begins, I invite you to reflect deeply and specifically on racism, in relation to you. There are no prizes to be won, no end date, but the promise of a fairer and more equitable world for our future selves and future generations. The world isn’t a zero-sum game and is incredibly complex: we have different forms of privilege so there will be moments when you aren’t put first, or others are given more. However, if you take a step back to look at the bigger picture, you will realise that uplifting those less privileged than us uplifts us all. So we must listen when marginalised groups call us in for the harm we perpetuate. We must take their words on board with humility and listen to what they really need from us. We must put it into radical action and drive accountability with radical empathy.
I ask you to stand up for marginalised groups who need to be heard and help alleviate their emotional labour. I ask that when someone who looks like you gets called out, you take a second to examine if your defensiveness stems from projection. I ask that you support Black Lives Matter – because we can’t talk about racism without understanding the hierarchy of white supremacy, and if you want to support the ESEA community you must tackle anti-blackness too. We need all hands on deck so when we emerge from the pandemic, we are a better, more equitable and safer world.
In 2021 and beyond, may we be brave and remember that when we’re together, we’re greater than the sum of our parts.
For resources on Black Lives Matter, find an easy-to-use list here.
To support the ESEA community, do follow @besea.n, @endracismvirus, @seeac_uk, and @kanlungan_uk. You can also find a directory of ESEA businesses that you can support at either @britishchinesebiz or @seaandeast.