‘I Know You Chinese People’

COVID-19 flips us from 'model minority' to 'yellow peril' yet again

The screen lit up, and the audible notification woke me from an uneasy sleep. It was a routine I was just getting used to. Spring was here, and sorting out the junk lying around the house and jettisoning some of it through social media seemed a quick and easy way to reclaim some shelf space and square footage. Besides, there wasn’t much else left to do in the eighth long week of virtual house arrest during the COVID-19 shutdown, and I needed to distract myself from the disturbing stories of anti-Asian racist incidents that had begun appearing in the news. I remembered the sender of this latest message. Mr. G* had made an offer on an item the previous evening, but since I had gotten swamped by a deluge of interest earlier that day and secured a committed buyer, I had politely declined his offer and gone to bed.

“I know you Chinese people.”

I sat bolt upright and felt an all-too-familiar knot begin to form in my gut. Almost instantly, a fire drill went off in my head, a mental exercise I have subconsciously rehearsed since I was a child: that I was being oversensitive; that I was being paranoid; that what I was hearing or seeing was not what was happening; to not draw attention to myself. This self-inflicted gaslighting served the short-term purpose of defusing imminent threats, ensuring survival to fight another day, and it was by now instinctive. I fumbled for my glasses, in case my eyes were playing tricks on me. You’ve got this all wrong, I told myself. There is absolutely nothing wrong with Mr. G knowing some Chinese people. The knot in my stomach began to relax. Still, I was curious. I typed in a single question mark, hit send, and was instantly rewarded with a non-delivery error. In other words: blocked.

SARS-CoV-2 has brought with it a surge of hate crimes against Asians: an elderly man forcibly thrown out of a convenience store by an assailant uttering COVID-19-related epithets; a young woman waiting at a bus stop sucker-punched by a passerby; buildings, memorials, and property defaced with racist graffiti. It doesn’t matter that I was born here, or that before any of this happened I had no idea what a “wet market” even was. I have a bullseye on my back, having been lumped in with all Asian-appearing people as foreign, savage, dirty, disease-ridden, and therefore unwelcome. The same tired tropes we've been slandered with for centuries now reverberate in social media, cable news, and talk radio echo chambers, amplified by people in positions of power and influence. The message is clear: My presence pollutes this otherwise clean, civilized society, and I am to leave—or else.

Even grocery shopping, already beset by shortages and social distancing measures, requires a risk assessment beyond just the danger of infection: Is the fact that the kids are running low on milk worth taking the chance of being shouted at, spat on, punched out, or returning to the car to find it keyed or the tires slashed? Do I wear a mask to protect others, or will wearing one make me even more of a target? What will I do if I’m attacked? Will an altercation end with one or the other in the hospital, or worse? What if my wife or our children are attacked? This constant hypervigilance is exhausting. I can forgive the virus. Dispassionate, mechanical, not quite alive yet clearly not inert, it acts only as instructed by its program; horrifically but matter-of-factly, without animosity or remorse. But somewhere out there, right at this moment, is a thinking and feeling human being, who has consciously decided that I am the enemy.

Model minority is a placeholder slur that in the best of times merely affords Asian North Americans a guest pass at the cool kids’ table even as its very name is weaponized to shame and exclude other minorities, in particular Blacks, as being implicitly substandard. It is one side of a coin that faces up or down according to the status du jour of China-Western relations, and whose flip side—yellow peril—attempts to justify anti-Asian racism by shifting responsibility for China’s transgressions, real or perceived, onto Asian-appearing people. When an unflattering news story breaks that can expediently be laid at our feet, “model minority” is stripped from us and replaced with sneers and disgusted looks, shouts of “chink” and “go back to your country,” property damage, and physical violence.

But this coin spins on its edge, too. In the space between suspicious acceptance and outright assault are the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of insults and microaggressions: the classmates who drew and passed around caricatured Chinese with buck teeth and conical hats; the English teacher on the very first day of class who, after I told him the correct pronunciation of my last name, started using the past tense of ‘sing’ in random sentences in the middle of roll call as the class laughed; the toothpaste smeared on the inside of the gate handle of our house in the majority-White Point Grey neighbourhood we had just moved into. The clucks of feigned outrage and token repudiations of violence in response to the recent surge in xenophobic incidents come with the consensus—most notably among self-professed not-racists claiming many Asian friends and in some cases even an Asian partner—that if Asian-appearing people don’t like being targeted, perhaps we should stop laundering drug money, being bad drivers, and triggering pandemics.

How do we address racism so entrenched and insidious that people have trouble recognizing it for what it is? By calling out prejudice whenever and wherever we encounter it, even if it's not directed at us, for one day it may be. By checking ourselves and identifying and confronting our own privilege and biases, because we all have them. By having the bravery to engage in uncomfortable conversations, because while being wrong hurts, it is an opportunity for learning and growth. By standing up for all marginalized groups, especially Black and Indigenous people, who have paid and continue to pay the heaviest price in the struggle for equality. Staying the quiet and obedient minority is no longer tenable; conditional acceptance by the majority, no longer acceptable. Either we all fully belong, or none of us truly do.

*Name withheld to protect privacy.


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