The COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly altered all of our lives thus far in 2020. From cancelled plans to job losses, heightened anxiety to discovering things we didn’t know we adored, it’s been a rollercoaster ride. For the most part, it’s been somewhat of a grim comfort to know that we’re all in this together. Staying put and weathering the storm and murky unknown waters without quite knowing what to expect next. But I’d be doing myself and the rest of my British-Chinese community a disservice if I didn’t fully acknowledge just how traumatic and terrifying it has been to be who we are through this time of uncertainty.
Racism is a virus too.
My family suffered the repercussions of this pandemic in late January, weeks before the first case hit the UK. Our family takeaways, small as they may be, were hit with a 60% or so drop in sales. I don’t think I need to spell it out to you how damning this is for any small business. Disgusting racial slurs were shouted through the doors. I’d sit on the train platform (doesn’t that sound strange now?) and see fellow commuters covering their faces dramatically with a scarf wrapped around themselves. It’s ironic now, really, that so many people are refusing to wear a face mask or covering. People, including our solicitor and cashiers in Tesco, openly asked if I had coronavirus. My heart broke when my Mum tried to laugh it off, to be met with ‘maybe you should eat your own sort of food, you know, ethnic stuff’ as the Tesco cashier scanned and handed over Mum’s groceries (some asparagus and baking potatoes…).
My stint on radio stations to share our plight and try to shift the narrative may have helped boost Chinese takeaway sales and remove the stigma for a moment. But now, in August, what is our reality?
For starters, I detest leaving the house. Stared at in the street, talked about behind my back at the Post Office. Actually, what feels oddest is the heightened sense of being ‘othered’ and noticed all at once. You see, British-Chinese and East Asian representation in the UK has been historically bad. (I wrote about it here.) I dare you to name 10 prominent Chinese people in the media. Yet since the pandemic went global, the British press have been hellbent on using all East Asians as a scapegoat. Suddenly Chinese people, always in masks, began appearing as the hero image, perpetuating the unfounded, misguided thought that all Asians are carriers of the virus.
It’s felt really difficult to exist in these spaces lately. I don’t think I’ve made any secret of that. And many of my fellow British-Chinese feel the same. The burden of trying to work throughout a pandemic, from home, has been immense. Many of us live in multi-generational households with parents and grandparents, as it’s extremely common for Chinese people to live at home until marriage. As such, we’re sheltering and isolating as much as possible to safeguard them from the virus. On top of that, we’re safeguarding them from overt and covert racial abuse that they may not quite notice or understand, with English not being their first language. It’s painful to read casual racism thrown about online, and that our plight is yet to be acknowledged — the Guardian and BBC continue to use Asians in all of their imagery.
But we refuse to be quiet this time. My wonderful friend and fellow activist Viv has started a petition forcing British media outlets to assess their use of East Asians to perpetuate hateful stereotypes. This could be one incredible step forwards for our community that has always been here, unheard. You can sign it here.
Racism is a virus too.