Our home and native land? The ‘paralyzing fear’ of being East Asian amid a year of anti-Asian racism in Canada

East Asians report physical assault, racial slurs, being told they are unwelcome — in their own country.
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In the wake of the tragic shooting in three spa locations in Atlanta, Georgia, that left eight people, including six women of East Asian descent, dead, the East Asian community and allies have galvanized to address, educate, and protest against the explosion of anti-Asian discourse and attacks accompanying the COVID-19 pandemic.

The spiteful terminology such as “Chinese virus,” “Kung flu” and conspiracy theories that scapegoated East Asians as viral carriers continue to circulate, and after months, such venomous sentiments have culminated in physical or verbal assault that injure real people and families.

From March 19, 2020, to February 28, 2021, the Stop AAPI Hate reporting centre received 3,795 incidents of anti-Asian hate in the form of verbal harassment, shunning, and even physical assault. That is nearly 4,000 acts of violence in less than a year.

But quantitative and qualitative data reveal that Canada — despite its diverse population and the government’s multiculturalism rhetoric — is far from faultless.

Spike in anti-Asian racism in Canada

On March 15, 2020, a 44-year-old Korean man was stabbed in Montréal, Québec — just three days after the province declared a public health emergency — triggering anxiety of anti-Asian racism among the East Asian community in the province and beyond. The Korean consulate in Montréal also issued a warning for those of Korean heritage to exercise caution the following week, according to CBC News.

The Montréal stabbing was the first recorded incident of anti-Asian violence in Canada since the COVID-19 outbreak, according to Fight COVID Racism, a government-funded resource that offers an interactive timeline illustrating the innumerable incidents of East Asian hate since March 15, 2020.

On March 23, exactly one week following the Atlanta tragedy, the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) released a report on the racist attacks against East Asians in the country since the start of the pandemic.

Combining surveys from Fight COVID Racism and Elimin8hate, the CCNC found 1,150 incidents of racism against Asian Canadians from March 10, 2020, to February 28, 2021.

The majority of these attacks — self reports and witness reports — occurred in Ontario, with 40%, and British Columbia, with 44%. Some cases were as severe as physical assault, which made up 11% of the attacks, and spitting and coughing by the assailant, which made up 10%. Looking at the age demographics, 7.6% of those who reported incidents were children and adolescents 18 and under, 47.6% were young adults between 19 and 35, 34% were middle-aged adults 36 to 55, and 10.7% were older adults 55+.

“We must also remember that behind every number is a flesh and blood human being whose life, and the lives of those around them, have been changed forever by this dehumanization and the gross violation of their rights,” Avvy Go wrote on behalf of the CCNC in a press release demanding Prime Minister Trudeau and the Canadian Parliament to take concrete action and “unreservedly denounce anti-Asian racism in all forms.”

On March 24, a video emerged showing a white man in his 20s or 30s yelling hateful verbiage to an elderly East Asian man in CityPlace, Toronto, threatening to physically assault the older gentleman.

“I’ll beat the sh*t out of you, you’re like a 50-year-old Chinaman,” the assailant said in the footage. “Go home. You’re not welcome here.”

The altercation was captured by a condominium resident, Isabel Ng, who was telecommuting when she heard the verbal abuse outside her apartment, a floor below, at around 4 PM.

Ng told blogTO that the elderly man walked away to defuse the situation. She also said that she gave the footage to a CityPlace employee, who promised to forward it to the building manager.

As Go points out, though, not every incident is reported, nor has an eyewitness who can provide videographic evidence, like the Toronto incident.

For every reported incident, she said, there are “countless more” that have gone unreported, where victims “suffer in silence.”

"A white woman in a cannabis store not realizing I'm Chinese, says to me, 'I'm glad you're wearing a mask. We need to protect ourselves from these dirty Chinese.'"

Incident report on COVIDracism.ca

“Collectively and individually, these racist incidents have resulted in deep and long-lasting impacts on the Asian Canadian community as a whole.”

The report also found that those who identify as women represent nearly 60% of all reported cases, and those who identify as men were twice as likely to report physical assault. Public spaces, especially in the food sector, were prominent arenas of racist attacks, making up one-fifth of all incidents, the report stated.

The report included incidents that occurred in mundane, everyday settings: a TTC driver behind the wheel, Shoppers Drug Mart,

"Will it get to the point that I will one day need to escape from my beloved Canada to save my life? Seeing how things are unfolding, I fear that it might eventually happen. This has led to immense anxiety, deep depression, and sleeplessness. Very painful to feel hated by everyone in one's own home country."

Incident report on COVIDracism.ca

“As the report has confirmed, these racist verbal and physical attacks can happen at any time to anyone who is Asian Canadian or who looks like one,” Go wrote.

“No one, no matter how old or young, is spared. As Asian Canadians, our lives have been taken over by a constant sense of paralyzing fear.”

It is important to note that the East Asian community were not the only targets of racially motivated attacks: the report showed that Southeast Asians accounted for 6% of all reported incidents as well.

Recommended solutions: support programs, intersectional equity, and more

Go said that the CCNC report is a call to action for citizens and the federal government to effect material change for the East Asian community. She called on the Trudeau legislation to eschew “empty rhetoric” and include anti-Asian racism in anti-racism policy and programs as well as enact the pending national anti-racism implementation plan.

“This report and the racism that it documents is a testament of not only how anti-Chinese and anti-Asian racism has long been present — even historically foundational — to Canadian society,” the CCNC wrote, “but also how it simply takes one tragic pandemic to resurrect the everyday racism against Chinese and Asian communities and drive it into a full-blown tidal wave of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian attacks across the nation.”

The report pointed out that anti-Asian racism is not a new phenomenon, but one entrenched in the Canadian genealogy of discriminatory institutions and legislation and damaging social conceptions of East Asians.

“Constructions of East Asians as the “Yellow Peril” and as bodies that were to be excluded and perpetually diseased, were seen as early as the 1800s through the head tax on Chinese immigrants from 1885 to 1923, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and prominently again during the Second World War with the Internment of Japanese Canadians.”

Thus, the CCNC’s recommendations seek to address the historical root cause of the ongoing anti-Asian paradigm that has intensified since the pandemic.

The group said that Asian Canadians and other racialized communities are the most vulnerable during this time, as a disproportionate amount of the community works in frontline healthcare roles or essential jobs, such as the food and care sectors.

“Instead of being recognized as contributing significantly to the fight against COVID-19, Chinese and Asian communities in Canada have been met with racism, violence, and attacks,” the CCNC wrote.

The report suggested robust government support at all levels, in the form of culturally specific social support programs; committing funding to community-led anti-racism education, and increased protection for local businesses and workers vulnerable to racist attacks. The CNCC also recommended employees to be offered access to paid sick days, income support for all, and for migrant workers, ensuring status on arrival and a program to grant permanent residence.

Most salient is the point that this matter goes beyond the purview of Asian Canadians, and the government needs to adopt a “targetted approach based on intersectional equity, to ensure those who are most vulnerable are protected.”

According to the CCNC, that means specific attention needs to be given to seniors, those with limited English language proficiency, low-income individuals, women, frontline workers, folks without permanent immigration status, and LGBTQ+ community members, and more.

To the East Asian community: Remember you're not alone

Members of the East Asian diaspora and immigrant community are still devastated by the bloodshed in Atlanta. It is harrowing to witness — day in and day out, months on end — someone who resembles you being senselessly slaughtered. Each casualty is visceral: carving a deep wound, leaving an indelible scar on our collective memory.

As Jooyoung Lee, a sociology professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs, told CTV News, “People can experience vicarious trauma.” Such secondhand suffering is symptomatic of the current information overload as well and can have dire psychological consequences, Lee pointed out.

“That can have detrimental effects on a person’s mental health,” she told CTV about the effects of vicarious trauma. “And that’s a very real thing, and it’s becoming even more of an issue, when so much of our news is fast and easy to consume.”

Thankfully, the internet offers a wealth of free resources that can help the East Asian community navigate the current horrific climate.

Lee is among other experts who advise East Asians to take a technology hiatus to spare themselves the onslaught of bad news and resultant grief. During this break, take stock of how you are feeling, clinical social worker Gabrielle Zhuang-Estrin told HuffPost.

“I tell my clients that while watching or reading the news, keep track of your personal experience, your feelings and emotions as well as your bodily reactions,” Zhuang-Estrin said.

“Check to see if there’s sadness, grief or anger coming up. If so, maybe you need to take a pause and metabolize that for a moment before moving forward.”

Similarly, psychologist Therese Mascardo recommended mindfulness-based relaxation exercises, going on a walk, or doing a hobby you enjoy during this news and social media break.

For those who wish to pursue counselling to help alleviate the anguish of anti-Asian racism or general fear around such matters, the Asian Mental Health Collective has an Asian Canadian Therapist Directory that can facilitate your search for a counsellor.

“Professional mental health support from culturally sensitive licensed therapists can be an effective way to process the emotions related to the trauma, and to learn coping skills for resulting depression, anxiety or hypervigilance,” Mascardo told HuffPost.

Others advise avoiding going outside alone if the fear is overbearing. In a Medium article, psychotherapist Yin J. Li recommended going to grocery stores with a family member or friend, remaining vigilant while doing so. If you are a victim of an attack, Li advises folks to prioritize personal safety.

“If provoked or attacked either online or in person, try your best to take a moment and decide how you want to engage,” Li wrote. “Your physical safety and emotional sanity are the most important.”

Zhuang-Estrin also reminded East Asian community members that while the racially-charged attacks may seem personal, it is important to keep the bigger picture in perspective: “holding this wider lens shows us the greater complexity we are in and helps us assess what we can and cannot control.”

“Historically, Asian Americans are either exalted (model minority) or vilified (red scare),” she said to HuffPost. “In our current context, we are seeing fear and blame being inflamed by a leader who seeks to scapegoat the pandemic, so the problem is institutional in nature.”

Seeking refuge in the personal and online communities is another way to have your experiences validated and grapple with this widespread trauma. Zhuang-Estrin recommended online circles like NextShark and Subtle Asian Traits. She also advises reaching out to friends and loved ones in the East Asian community to check-in and commiserate with one another, mutually reminding each other that they are not alone.

To allies: Education is the antidote to hate

As many racial justice advocates, including the CCNC, have noted, allyship within the BIPOC community is just as imperative as internal solidarity in the crusade for racial equity.

Conversations about race can be uncomfortable, but it is important to ask yourself where this discomfort originates: are you making the matter about yourself? Or the community you want to uplift? Allyship means listening empathetically and unlearning implicit biases, which requires patient, wilful self-interrogation and education. Read an article, listen to a podcast, watch a film by and about East Asians, talk to a friend: these are all ways you can better understand and engage with the East Asian community in a constructive, meaningful way.

Pictured Left: “I did not make you sick” PSA poster in Korean (Photo courtesy of NYC Human Rights); Pictured Right: “I am not your scapegoat” PSA poster in traditional Chinese (Photo courtesy of NYC Human Rights)

 

For the East Asian community, allyship means acknowledging and listening to the experiences, stories, and pain of other ethnic minority communities. Fighting for your own community does not preclude you from standing in solidarity with other marginalized groups. The Dear Asians Initiative, for example, is an international group of Asians wanting to bridge the gap between Asian and Black communities through translated literature and learning materials.

Victoria Alexander has compiled a comprehensive anti-racist resource guide that acts as a powerful entry point for all allies of any BIPOC community. Racial Equity Tools also has a collection of recommended readings for allies to learn about invisible systemic inequities that affect us all.

Cards that compile educational resources, advocacy groups, fundraisers, and other ways you can lend a helping hand have been circulating on social media platforms. Stop Asian HateAnti-Asian Violence ResourcesAsian Awareness ProjectAsian Americans and COVID-19 are all treasure troves of resources for community members and allies.

Finally, if you or someone you know have been a victim of or witnessed racially-motivated hate, please report the incident to Fight COVID Racism.

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