I remember a year ago, when the pandemic fear and anxiety was finally hitting Canada, going to Costco and Walmart with my mom was an awkward and uncomfortable experience. Not because of the stress of needing to buy the essentials for a (then) 2 week stay at home period — but because I could feel people staring at us as two Chinese women in the store. At this point in time, mainstream media was still calling COVID-19 the ‘Wuhan virus’ and Donald Trump was calling it the ‘China virus’ and ‘kung-flu.’ Every stare felt hostile — as if we were personally to blame for this global pandemic simply because we were Chinese. I remember feeling deeply uncomfortable and worried that the hostile stares might turn into yelling and even physical violence.
I know it might sound crazy and hard to believe. I know it might be difficult to understand why I would be so scared. Aren’t I just overreacting and being overly sensitive to passing glances from strangers? Sure, I was relatively confident that the stares wouldn’t end with being punched in the face. But when you have the privilege of knowing for sure that a dirty look won’t end in violence because of how you look, of course it will sound crazy that others might not feel the same safety and security.
And now a year later, 6 women of Asian descent have been killed by a White man who drove specifically to Asian-owned spas in Atlanta with a gun in hand to shoot them dead. He deliberately chose businesses where the employees were Asian women in a fetishized profession.
I could go into the complicated history of how Asian women have been hyper-sexualized and how it’s the result of race, class and gender discrimination tied together. But that could be a whole other essay. There are many other eloquent and thoughtful pieces you can and should read, including this Washington Post piece by Monica Hesse.
What has been on my mind for the past few days as I tried to process the news of the shootings and the rise in reported incidents of anti-Asian hate and violence over the past year is the model minority myth.
Chinese-Canadians like myself have a complicated hyphenated identity and experience. I have never been ashamed to be Chinese but growing up I wasn’t necessarily proud of my culture and heritage either. Because of the model minority myth, we are taught to not complain, to not make a scene, to keep our heads down and just keep working harder to fit in. When others made jokes, we laughed along and pretended it didn’t bother us. We are taught to believe that our academic success, degrees, diplomas, lack of an accent when speaking English and white collar jobs would prove our worth.
We wanted to be seen and treated as Canadians.
We forget (or ignore) that Canada has a complicated relationship with Asian immigrants. We love to say that we are more welcoming than our neighbours to the south. We shake our heads with disgust at the countless headlines of anti-Asian hate crimes.
But we’re really not much better at all. In fact, Canada has a higher number of anti-Asian racism reports per Asian capita than the United States, with the largest number of reports per person in all of North America coming from British Columbia. (Source: project 1907)
In the days following the shootings on Tuesday, my social feed was filled with posts decrying the senseless acts of violence, the baffling response from local law enforcement refusing to call it a hate crime and a broader call to action for everyone to #StopAsianHate. Nearly every brand account I follow put out a generic “we stand in solidarity” post.
Less than a week later, those posts have mostly stopped. #StopAsianHate isn’t even trending on Twitter anymore.
But the hyphenated experience, model minority stereotype and all the anxiety and complicated emotions that comes with feeling like a perpetual foreigner in the country you were born and raised in hasn’t stopped for myself and others like me.
I get it. It’s exhausting and emotionally draining to only hear negative news stories. It’s unsettling to know you might have played a part in making your Asian friends and peers feel unwelcome or unsafe. These are difficult conversations to have. And I’m not perfect either. I struggled for awhile trying to figure out what I can and should say. If what I said would make people uncomfortable. I worried if my words would be eloquent enough or if they would matter at all.
But my thoughts and feelings matter. My story matters. I matter.
And I truly believe we can and must do more than #StopAsianHate. We also need to celebrate being Asian and being hyphenated. We need to uplift Asian voices. We need to share our stories and speak our truths and we need others to listen to them, no matter how uncomfortable it might be.
We can all do more than just sharing a post on Instagram.
To my fellow Asian-Canadians: I hear you. I see you. I feel all the feelings with you. There is no right way to do this and we don’t need to prove our lived experiences but we must find the courage to speak up and demand change. Our voices matter. We matter. We must stop being ashamed of our culture, heritage and hyphenated experiences and stop trying to hide these parts of us in the hopes that we’ll be accepted by the majority. We must be proud of being Asian AND Canadian and celebrate the wonderfully diverse experiences that make up our unique identities.
To non-Asians reading this: Reach out to your Asian friends. Tell them you care but more importantly, do the hard work of educating yourself. Your Asian friends do not owe you their stories to prove their trauma is real. Don’t discount our fears when we feel those stares and laugh it off as us being too paranoid. Shut down stereotypical jokes and micro-aggressions when you see them happening to your Asian friends, colleagues and even strangers — don’t assume they will be comfortable standing up for themselves. Stop holding us up as a ‘model minority’ to support your beliefs that racism does not exist in Canada. Make space for Asian voices in all their various forms. Support Asian businesses that have suffered financially due to COVID-19 and xenophobia (seriously, what Chinatown restaurant or Vietnamese pho restaurant or Korean BBQ restaurant do you know has a patio?).
If you can enjoy matcha lattes or bubble tea, post about how gua sha has changed your skincare routine, or listen to Kpop music, you can show support for the Asian community. If you’re going to appreciate our culture, please read the news and speak up about it too.
If we can listen and understand one another better, we can appreciate all of our unique stories and how we can make the world a better place for all of us. At the end of the day, we’re all just humans that want to be heard and seen and feel important and be loved.
We can do that for each other, right?