The Backlash against Chinese-Canadians amid the COVID-19 pandemic

By: Connie Phung

Bio: Connie Phung is a Ph.D. student in sociology at Concordia University, Montréal, Canada. Her main research fields are cultural sociology, intellectual reputation, and the sociology of knowledge. Her doctorate research dissertation seeks to understand the circulation and reception of Pierre Bourdieu’s books in Hong Kong, as the former British colony attempts to articulate a new social vision. Her Master’s thesis “Bourdieu in China: A study of the Migration, Reception, and Adaptation of Sociological Concepts” offers a preliminary analysis of the above themes.

The anti-Chinese racism that were amplified by the Coronavirus crisis deserves a fair amount of attention. The Trump administration pushing aggressive US foreign policy against China and the rest of Asia has heightened xenophobia across North America, and ‘peace-keeping’ Canada is no exception. The “kung flu,” as President Trump called it, has made all the more apparent the identity politics that Chinese-Americans and Canadians continue to face today. Membership into the Canadian nation is at the heart of public debate where Chinese-Canadians are supposed to pose as a threat to the nation’s health. The virus has become part of our society’s exclusionary practices where we have become “outsiders-to-the-nation” (Thobani, 2000). The virus becomes an additional marker of difference used to discriminate against Chinese-Canadians, which is reminiscent of the SARS outbreak in 2003 (Heng, 2020).

As an Asian scholar in Canada, I am living as a racialized minority. Asian-Canadians are the largest visible minority group in Canada, with South Asians and Chinese as the largest ethnic minority populations. As a Canadian of Vietnamese-Chinese origin, and a doctorate student myself, I am not immune to the microaggressions and internal racism. My family also faced discrimination as Chinese minorities in Vietnam, which they have carried with them through the generations. However, my family’s members, such as my parents, aunts and uncles, have asserted themselves as minorities from Vietnam who immigrated to Canada, thus promoting an atmosphere of suspicion and distrust against the Chinese migrants from China during the pandemic. The effect of anti-Chinese racism on the emotional psyche heavily affects our social relationships with minority groups as well as our intellectual work.

Racialized minorities are confronted with navigating the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion in the field of higher education, and now navigating a contaminated public space. I attempt to bring more attention to the emotional and intellectual consequences that impact our lives as diaspora doctoral students. To begin, what are some resources and solutions for the emotional backlash that hyphenated identities have been receiving? In this reflection piece written in July, four months after quarantine regulations were mandated in Canada, I go over the challenges faced in Canada to debunk the multicultural myth that I believe erases the country’s colonial history and its enduring legacy. I also speak about the emotional consequences we are inflicted with and some possible solutions we can adopt to cope and create structural changes.

Some specific challenges in the Canadian context

It may be useful to reminder that the first Chinese migration came from California during the Fraser Canyon Goldrush to Vancouver Island in 1858. Chinese workers from California and China were brought by ship in the 1880s to build the Canadian Pacific Railway. After the completion of the railway in 1885, the Chinese Immigration Act imposed a head tax on Chinese immigrants. In spite of this long history, there remains a surprise over the existence of white supremacy in Canada due to its international image as a multicultural hub. The multicultural image Canada performs on the international stage consequently masks the inequalities that communities of colour continue to face and consequently erases its colonial past. The fear for others is causing a social breakdown, where Chinese bodies are being pushed out of convenient stores and harassed on public transit (Keung, 2020; Oung, 2020; Woodward, 2020). Aggressive foreign policies and antagonistic newspaper headlines only kindle fear and shape the public’s perceptions of others.

Chinese immigrants or Asian investors who buy up Canadian real estate (most notably in large metropolitan cities such as Vancouver, Toronto, and more recently Montreal) has only fuelled the flame of racism for Chinese-Canadians. Chinese-Canadians have received the backlash from the blame and accusations as being part of the housing crisis (Wu, 2020). Despite possessing a Canadian citizenship, Chinese-Canadians living “in-between” cultural identities have an ambiguous membership in Canadian space (Fang and Huang, 2020). There continues to be a sense that a non-White person is an immigrant, which results in continued microaggressions today.

Some emotional trauma we might be experiencing

The hyphenated identity has always been a double-edged sword. On the one hand, while it signifies us as both Asian and Canadian, on the other hand the hyphen signifies we are never fully one or the other. COVID-19 has become an additional exclusionary marker and practice that declares Asian bodies as source of infection and outsiders. The racism against Chinese-Canadians results in scars and trauma, only to remain unspoken or unvoiced because rendering existent the voices of communities of colour opens an “unfinished, unheard history, which cannot be fully presented” (Ahmed, 2002).

Heightened anxiety, shame of being Asian, and denial or disassociation (e.g. “I’m not even Chinese, I’m born in Canada”) are common responses to racial trauma. Other intense emotional reactions include anger, hopelessness, self-isolation, and depression. More than ever Asian-Canadians have to overcompensate for their Canadian identities, to play hockey, to fit in and integrate into Canadian culture despite having been part of the country for so long. 

Our emotional trauma, however, is complicated by our institutional position as doctoral students – where there is a lack of minority student voices. A fear that arises is the potential of the virus further diminishing minority representation in academia. Due to the anti-Chinese sentiments, the virus risks perpetuating pre-existing exclusionary practices in higher education.

What we can do

In order to flatten the curve, Canada has mandated that citizens are to wear a mask in retail stores and public transit, and to continue maintaining a two-meter social distance. Universities and libraries will remain closed for the summer, and the fall semester will proceed online.

  Images from Connie Phung

As a doctorate student, this has changed my routine in several ways: courses and meetings take place online, and I don’t see my friends and family. Aside from my reliance on email and virtual coffee meetings, I have encountered two other ways to stay meaningfully connected:

Create an online community. Social distancing, of course, has affected our daily activities, making it more difficult to travel to see friends and family. As a result, virtual connectedness becomes important for our mental health, for interacting with our friends and family, as well as staying connected with like-minded scholars, graduate students, and professionals. In spite of these obstacles, we can use online resources to create virtual groups and meetups to maintain relationships with colleagues and friends. I have been indebted to my virtual reading and writing groups as a way to stay connected with fellow graduate students. More importantly, the virtual space can be a place for community-building, knowledge production and action-oriented practices.

Become involved. Document and be intolerant against acts of racism. Join and be allies with other minority communities to create a supportive system and in solidarity. Black and Indigenous communities are also disproportionately affected by the virus (Artiga, et al. 2020). Being in solidarity with other minority groups can be opportunity to create a safe space to share our struggles with one another. The pandemic offers an opportunity to explore digital potentials and alternative forms of solidarity at the national and transnational levels. In our virtual event, “Being Decolonial in a Digital World,” the Decolonial Perspectives and Practices Hub at Concordia University collectively explored how digital potentialities can create tools of resistance. For example, digital transformation includes changing pedagogical strategies within the scope of operational classroom activities and student well-being. In a virtual world, we can create collaborative digital spaces and online methodologies to redirect how the western gaze shapes the view of Asia, which is important to Asian Studies.  

References

Ahmed, S. (2002). “The Other and other Others,” Economy and Society, 31(4), 558-572.

Artiga, S., Garfield, R. and Orgera, K. (2020). “Communities of Color at Higher Risk for Health and Economic Challenges due to COVID-19,” KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation), April 7, 2020.

Coloma, R.S. (2012). “Theorizing Asian Canada, Reframing Differences” Reconsidering Canadian Curriculum Studies, pp. 119-135.

Fang, L. and Huang, Y.T. (2020). “I’m in Between: Cultural Identities of Chinese youth in Canada,” Families in Society, 101(2), p. 205-218.

Heng, L. (2020). “Chinese Canadians facing hate, racism for coronavirus outbreak — much like the SARS outbreak in 2003,” National Post, January 30, 2020. https://nationalpost.com/news/chinese-canadians-facing-hate-racism-for-coronavirus-outbreak-much-like-the-sars-outbreak-in-2003

Keung, N. (2020). “With anti-Asian sentinments rising, Asian people are imagining what life will look like post-pandemic” The Star, May 12, 2020.

https://www.thestar.com/news/gta/2020/05/12/with-anti-asian-sentiments-rising-asian-people-are-imagining-what-life-will-look-like-post-pandemic.html

Oung, K. (2020) “Coronavirus Racism infected my high school,” New York Times, March 14, 2020.https://www.nytimes.com/video/opinion/100000007028034/racism-coronavirus-asians.html.

Thobani, S. (2000). “Closing Ranks: racism and sexism in Canada’s Immigration policy,” Race & Class, 42(1), 35-55.

Wu, R. (2020). “Vancouver’s ‘Race Estate’ Market Has Hurt Many of Us,” The Tyee, July 4, 2020. https://thetyee.ca/Opinion/2019/07/04/Vancouver-Race-Estate-Hurt/

Woodward, J. (2020) “Family of 92-year-old attacked in convenience store speaks out against racism,” CTV News, April 24, 2020. https://bc.ctvnews.ca/family-of-92-year-old-attacked-in-convenience-store-speaks-out-against-racism-1.4911092


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