CW: Racism, mentions of violence
The first time I ever visited Oxford, I went with my mom. Two tourists far away from home, we spent the afternoon taking blurry pictures by the RadCam, staring at the Harry Potter tree at New College, and wandering around Westgate. At one point in the afternoon, we popped into a bakery to buy a quick snack (dreaming about the future is hungry work!) and as per usual, we struck up a polite conversation with the lady selling the croissants.
“Wow!” said the blonde lady, blinking at my mom in amazement. “Your English is so good!”
I visibly cringed. There stood my mom, a proud Asian woman, who spoke better English than any other person I knew. There stood my mom, a philosophy major with an affinity for literature, who could talk circles around the rest of my family. There stood my mom, who practised my debate speeches with me and encouraged me to read law at the very same university we were touring. And yet, based on the colour of her skin, the darkness of her hair, the evidence of her race, she was presumed to be different.
Growing up with a Singaporean-Chinese mom and a Swiss-Danish dad, I’ve been mistaken for every nationality under the sun. For eighteen years in Hong Kong, I was pinned as the foreigner and the “white girl”. However, as soon as I moved across the world, the way people perceived my race shifted to the other end of the spectrum. This reflection could very easily turn into a miscellany of identity crises; I grew up speaking the wrong languages, bungling cultural traditions, and floating between two different worlds, in which I wholly belonged to neither. But whilst I’m sure that would be a relatable read for all the mixed kids who stumble across this article, it’s not the point I’m trying to make, for now. If there is anything that my confusing duality has allowed me, it’s perspective. And that is what I feel the need to share, as the distressing hostility towards the Asian community grows by the day.
There has always been a difference in how people treat me, based on which parent I’m with. Even though my dad did not grow up speaking English, no one has ever congratulated him on his linguistic competence. And as minor as this example of good faith may seem, it’s part of a broader issue that I am ashamed to have witnessed. With my dad, the bus stops for us when we’re a little late. Strangers smile and wave. No one has ever stretched their eyes and screamed “ni hao” at me when I’m with my dad. My dad has never been called racial slurs and thrown out of a London cab at 6am on his way to work.
Before Covid, the world looked at Asians differently. And growing up in Hong Kong, I was fortunate to be raised in an environment where people are proud of their Asian heritage and the strength it carries. The discriminatory culture that I am attempting to describe, though, has always permeated my double-life. It’s weird to be mixed-race in an extremely racial world. And since vicious dialogue spread about the “Chinese virus”, I have felt, quite honestly, scared. Family friends, preceding my move to Oxford, recommended that I dye my hair a lighter colour. News articles about attacks on Asians implied that I should avoid China-town. Throughout my time in Oxford, people have blindly made jokes about the food I eat, my various foreign mannerisms, and other misplaced snubs at the expense of the Asian community. Maybe they thought I’d find them 50% funny.
Maybe they didn’t care to realise they were not.
I have held my tongue about discrimination against Asians since arriving, not only because I love Oxford, but because, to a certain extent, I have never felt like the best advocate for this cause. But the urgency of this rising hatred means that we cannot stay silent any longer. In March, six Asian women were murdered in Georgia. And this abhorrent behaviour is not confined to America. At the beginning of the pandemic, a 23-year-old Singaporean student was attacked on Oxford Street. In late February, a lecturer at the University of Southampton was savagely beaten in a racist attack. An advocacy group, ‘End the Virus of Racism’, has reported a 300% increase in Covid-related hate crimes towards Asians in the UK since the pandemic started. Yet I still hear rumours of students at Oxford casually throwing around the word “ch*nk”, and headlines in major newspapers, following the lead of former President Donald Trump, continue to paint the pandemic as a peculiarly Asian problem. In the absence of a supportive stance in the media, you and I need to be the voices for this movement. So here is mine.
Part of me has always known that my divided heritage was not only split by culture, but separated by a gulf of privilege. On the face of things, though, discrimination against Asians has always been masked by excuses. Excuses about how stereotyping isn’t harmful if it isn’t explicitly offensive (cue the jokes about Asians being good at maths); excuses about how Asian cities have major financial power and hence cannot be subjected to racism; excuses along the lines of the “model minority myth”. The latest excuse, wrapped in fear and cloaked in hate, has been to vilify Asians for Covid-19. We should be done making excuses.
This is supposed to be the best university in the world. I think it’s high time we focus less on our “really good English”, and more on the power our words can carry. Spread kindness, educate yourselves, and address problematic behaviour when you see it.
On behalf of all Asians, we are tired of being treated like the virus.