ZOOMER Magazine

The Burden of Hate

One woman’s view of the history and rise of anti-Asian racisim


IREMEMBERT­HEFIRST time someone made fun of me for the way I looked. I was seven or eight, and my class was in the school library hanging up our drawings. A girl came up to me and started saying, in a singsong voice, a racist rhyme that I had never heard before and didn’t understand. I remember smiling at her, happy that an older girl would play with me.

She ended by pulling her eyes back into slits, a gesture I didn’t understand either, and then she laughed. At first, I laughed with her, but I recall vividly the realizatio­n that I was the joke. I remember the heat on my face, how I was embarrasse­d and didn’t know why. She laughed and shouted more things I didn’t understand and I no longer wanted to hear. I took a book off the shelf and opened it, pretending to read, so she couldn’t see me cry.

I spent my early years in a Halifax working-class neighbourh­ood with a heavy sprinkling of immigrants. The kids in my school were mostly white, but I didn’t notice and, for the most part, neither did they. I asked my mom and dad – who still live there – if they had experience­d racism since they emigrated from Taiwan more than 40 years ago. “No, we didn’t,” my mom, Pi-Yeng Chen, said over a FaceTime call, “but we would never tell you if we did.” And that sums up the general Asian experience: Keep a low profile, don’t complain, don’t make a fuss and try to fit in.

I didn’t see many faces like mine on TV when I was growing up, so I didn’t think working in front of a camera was a viable career goal. After graduating from Ryerson University in 1998 in Radio and Television Arts, I went on to work behind the scenes as a writer and researcher while applying for on-air positions, joking to my friends about whether the Asian quota was already filled on a show. Sometimes I would be told they were looking for someone “ethnic,” but a different type of ethnic, or that they already had someone of colour on the show (filled that quota!) so I wouldn’t be necessary.

Thankfully, the media landscape has evolved over the decades (although it still has a long way to go), and my first big opportunit­y was as a TV host on Omni Television – go figure, a multicultu­ral channel is where I would be welcomed. I have since worked on-air as a host or guest expert on shows for the CBC, Global, CTV, CityTV and the Food Network, as well as acted on programs like Degrassi: Next Class, Ghostwrite­r, Star Trek: Discovery and Kim’s Convenienc­e.

The recent spike in anti-Asian racism has garnered mainstream attention, but it’s not new; it’s just newer to people who aren’t Asian. Following the path of awareness and activism paved by the Black Lives Matter movement, racialized groups are coming together to raise their voices, demanding social justice. To see constant stories about violence toward Asian elders is particular­ly heart-wrenching, because I see my parents, aunties, uncles and grandparen­ts in the victims. No matter their race, there is something particular­ly cruel about targeting the weakest and most vulnerable in society.

The latest rise in anti-Asian racism started with COVID-19 and its origins in China, with the stigma cemented when then-U.S. president Donald Trump referred to it as the “Chinese virus.” It became more difficult to shrug off when a gunman targeted three Asian businesses in Atlanta, Ga., on March 16, and murdered eight people, six of them Asian women. People have spoken out, saying things like, “we don’t condone racism here,” “racists are terrible,” and “I would never say or do racist things.” I don’t believe most people are racist, but I do believe most people have unintentio­nally said, done or thought racist things due to unconsciou­s bias.

I’m grateful my parents landed in Canada, but many Canadians have a feeling of smug superiorit­y when it comes to acceptance and tolerance. The implicatio­n that we are “better than” means we are quick to ignore the country’s troubling history of racism, including heinous treatment, discrimina­tion and violence against Blacks going back to slavery in the 17th century,

Indigenous Peoples that dates to European contact, Jewish people, Muslims and, of course, Asians.

AFTER SO MANY YOUNG Chinese men laboured (and died) building the Canadian Pacific Railway in the 1880s, Canada passed the Chinese Immigratio­n Act in 1885 before the last spike was driven, imposing an exorbitant $50 head tax on those who wanted to move to this country. In essence it said: Break your backs, your spirit and your bodies to work on the railway that physically and symbolical­ly united our country, but we will not accept you – you are not welcome here. The head tax was increased to $500 in 1903 – roughly the price of a house at the time – and on July 1, 1923, Canada passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned most Chinese immigrants. This is why some Chinese Canadians refer to Canada Day as “Humiliatio­n Day.”

Growing up in Nova Scotia, I never learned about the anti-Chinese riots in 1919, where several thousand soldiers and locals destroyed Halifax businesses owned by Chinese immigrants. The violent looting sent 100 people to hospital and, while businesses asked the city to cover more than $8,000 in damages, they never received a cent in compensati­on.

After the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941, Canada responded by invoking the War Measures Act in 1942 and detained more than 20,000 Japanese Canadians in British Columbia whose possession­s, properties and businesses were sold to pay for their forcible confinemen­t in internment camps until the end of the Second World War.

To see constant stories about violence toward Asian elders is particular­ly heart-wrenching, because I see my parents, aunties, uncles and grandparen­ts in the victims

THOSE WERE DIFFERENT times. We’ve come a long way and we now see the benefit of a multicultu­ral society. But let’s not turn away from our problems, because ignoring them allows them to continue. Lest you think antiAsian racism is an American phenomenon, let me remind you of the 92-year-old Asian man with dementia who was shoved out the door of a Vancouver convenienc­e store in March 2020, where he fell and struck his head. In April, police in Markham, Ont., arrested a 33-yearold man in connection with at least six hate-motivated attacks against Asian men and women between January and March.

A week after the Atlanta attacks, the Toronto chapter of the Chinese Canadian National Council released a report that detailed 1,150 antiAsian racist incidents in Canada, mainly in Ontario and B.C., between March 10, 2020 and February 2021. The majority – 76 per cent – involved verbal harassment, while one in 10 victims was coughed or spat on.

“An enduring t heme of the racist attacks is that some, if not all, Chinese and Asian people are somehow responsibl­e for the origin, let alone the pain and arrival, of COVID-19 in Canada,” the report states. “Irregardle­ss (sic) of where it originated, pandemics represent the growing challenges of human developmen­t and the natural world – not any particular race or ethnicity.”

When I ask my mother, 69, about the increase in anti-Asian violence, she argues it’s not “most” people. She’s right, but this is the same woman who repeatedly had tips stolen from the food business she operated with my father, 82, in the decade before they retired this year. I would react with outrage, saying, “How could someone steal a tip jar from a business run by seniors?” And my mother’s reply was always forgiving: “They needed the money more than us.”

“Microaggre­ssion” has become a big word for me and my BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and people of colour) friends this past year. Until I read more about it and the “model minority” myth – a problemati­c stereotype that ranks Asians above other minorities due to our perceived success, willingnes­s to work hard, and not raise our voices or push back – I had no idea how to describe the assumption­s, questions, comments and stereotype­s I’d become desensitiz­ed to in my lifetime. “Your name is hard for me to pronounce,” puts the onus on the other person to ease their discomfort, when learning how to say someone’s name is a sign of respect. “Where are you really from?” implies that the person, usually nonwhite, must be a foreigner when they – like you – might have been born here.

My father, Yi-Chiao Chen, adopted the English name Steven in his late 40s at the suggestion of a customer at the Halifax Farmers’ Market. It was just easier: He didn’t have to repeat it, spell it out or try so hard to say it clearly in his heavily accented English. I remember giggling with my younger brother when we heard people call him “Steve,” and he would occasional­ly answer, “Who is Steve?” When I posted this story on Instagram, one woman commented, “If we can pronounce names like Schwarzene­gger, then we should be able to pronounce Asian/African names.” My mother, who goes by Yen because that, too, is just simpler, would say, “It’s easier for everybody.” Meaning if we make it easier for others, it becomes easier for us.

I have felt both heavy and uplifted this past year. On Twitter and Instagram, I started following accounts by those who summarized the history of racial bias and the weight it carries. Isolated from my family because we live in different provinces, and realizing the world is full of more hatred than anyone wants to admit, I felt devastated when the victims of racist violence were so often people like my mom and dad – just minding their own business, trying to make an honest living. I feel hopeful when I see people of all background­s speaking up, taking action and learning from their unintentio­nal mistakes. That’s key. I hope you look up at least one significan­t piece of Canada’s racist past that I’ve referenced here. You don’t need to be interested in history or anti-Asian racism to learn from this. You just need to have an interest in humanity, and I have to believe that’s most of us.

I feel hopeful when I see people of all background­s speaking up, taking action and learning from their unintentio­nal mistakes

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 ??  ?? The author's parents, Yi-Chiao and Pi-Yeng Chen, at their Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market shop, 2015
The author's parents, Yi-Chiao and Pi-Yeng Chen, at their Halifax Seaport Farmers' Market shop, 2015
 ??  ?? Chen, who lives in Toronto, feels hopeful when people speak out against racist violence.
Chen, who lives in Toronto, feels hopeful when people speak out against racist violence.

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