How COVID forced me to reflect on my Chinese identity and drive across the country to encourage others to do the same
“He’s still filming me.”, I thought, nervously, as I crossed the road to my car.
It’s been two months since the pandemic first began and I was unloading stuff from my car at the neighborhood donation center. A quiet store near where I lived in Greektown, Toronto, which I frequented often and have never felt unsafe at.
Except this time a group of white men stood by the entrance, and one of them has had his phone camera pointed at me for the last five minutes – trailing me as I made my way from the car to the donation center and back.
It wasn’t hard to figure out why, as I was the only Asian person, and the only one wearing a mask at that, on the entire street. I was angry, not just at the blatant racial targeting, but more so at the fact that this was happening in Canada. Two months back when kids were shouting “Corona!” at me on the streets of Morroco I barely batted an eye. When a black van suddenly pulled up next to me on the streets of Argentina, and two men jumped out to yell “Japan!”, I was unbothered. It was just the cost of being Chinese and traveling outside of Canada, I thought, and it would all stop the minute I’m back in the safe embrace of the YYZ.
Coronavirus took away that safety blanket, and subsequently, it made me realize how fragile that blanket was in the first place. Since immigrating to Toronto from China at the age of 7, I’ve experienced countless acts of overt and subtle racism which I’ve purposely “forgotten”. From creepy men yelling “China girl!” at me at the Woodbine Racetrack to school boys calling out “Ching, chong!” at my family in small-town parking lots, I’ve learned from my parents to ignore and forget. We never confronted the perpetrators or discussed these events with each other – we just pretended like they never happened.
Except it did, many times, and as Newton’s energy conservation laws would have it, not talking about something doesn’t make it go away. Instead, the cost of “saving face” and not being allowed to talk about the hard stuff creates shame. Deep-rooted, unconscious feelings of shame associated with Chinese identity. As children are unable to understand racial discrimination, limiting their ability to fight back and vent results in internalization of these events. Kids, myself included, thought that these acts were proof that there was something inherently wrong with ourselves, rather than with society at large.
I subconsciously carried around this feeling of shame for many years until the ugly realities of COVID brought them back to the surface. The sudden onslaught of racism reminded me of other instances of discrimination I purposely “forgot” in order to feel safe in my own country. And there was only one way out of shame, and it was through it.
“Shame dies in the light.”
This realization very literally set me free. In mid-June, I flew from Toronto to Vancouver to drive across Canada and interview Chinese Canadians from every province on their experiences with racism and mental health. It’s been three months of being on the road and I’ve met countless brave souls who were willing to dig deep within themselves. They not only observed, but shared, their own stories of shame and identity on my photo blog for the hope of encouraging others to do the same.
For many, these sentiments were right at the surface when I met them, likely due to increasing COVID-related racism. I spoke to a doctor in Saskatoon who was saving lives during the day but racially targeted by ignorant men in his community at night. I met a new pilot in Kelowna who, despite having the same education, couldn’t get the same jobs as his white classmates because of a lack of “cultural fit”. Finally, I met countless other Chinese Canadians who felt ashamed to be Chinese from being bullied for it as kids. “If you can’t beat them, join them.”, the saying goes. And so, enforced by traditional Chinese values of “non-action” and “saving face”, instead of fighting these bullies, we joined them. Yet the victim was always ourselves.
Recently, I was innocently eating a sandwich, alone, by the Human Rights Museum in Winnipeg. A large man walked by with his family and yelled out “Ni-hao!” at me in a demeaning way, chuckled, and left. I was suddenly transported to my 7-year-old self and felt the heavy weight of shame gluing me to my seat.
I wanted speak up but I couldn’t, like the countless times this has happened before. But this time, I was determined to tell the man that this way not ok. So, I gently took the hands of my inner child and we walked after the man together. If you’d like to read personal stories from Chinese Canadians on identity, racism, and mental health, see here: www.instagram.com/almostchinese.almostcanadian/