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Precarity and prejudice: reflections from a Chinese student in Oxford

CW: Mentions of Racism.

I am a Chinese international student in Oxford, and I have been living in the UK since 2014. I have not been able to go home to see my family since the pandemic hit in early 2020. I delayed my graduation process as my studies had also been disrupted. The recent restrictions in international travel has made life particularly difficult for many of us international students. Despite my hope that staying put and waiting patiently would see things improve, China cancelled all direct flights to and from the UK in January 2021 due to the spread of the new variant here. As I am writing this short article in April 2021, there is still no sign of flights being arranged again. As I have never been this isolated in my life, I have had much time to reflect on my connections to the UK, and how my racial identity and way of thinking have influenced my life. Below is a personal encounter I recently had in Oxford. I hope that by sharing it with everyone, we can all be reminded that solidarity starts with very small actions and reflections. 

Today I gave money to a white homeless man for the first time in my life. When I first arrived in London, and then Oxford, I was not familiar with the conditions of the homeless here. To me, their life seemed less dire than that of the “real” homeless street beggars I used to see in the non-urban areas in China when I was young. I just couldn’t bring myself to give out pounds to these white people while I hardly even gave small change in yuan back in China. That was just part of the social reality I learned to live with in a desensitized way. Also, because the white people I saw and knew in China were all professors and international professionals, the idea that white people could be poor too really took some time to register with me after I came to this island, as ridiculous as that may sound. 

Tonight, I was really craving some fruit and decided to visit the local Tesco before it closed. I was the only customer at the time, and a young black man was on his last shift, busy arranging the goods on the shelves. I often saw him working at around this time and I felt bad that he always had to be the one doing the manual work until so late. All that people-of-colour-solidarity stuff I had been reading online was at the forefront of my mind when he smiled at me at the counter. As I was walking out of the supermarket with my bag of groceries, a homeless white man suddenly started to shout behind me and chasing me. 

Traumatised by all the news about racist crimes in the U.K. and the US recently, I was extremely scared, as there was hardly anyone on the street at the time. I almost started running away before he caught up with me and gave me the toothpaste that had dropped out from my bag without my knowledge. I thanked him, and, in a friendly manner, he asked whether I could offer him £5 pounds as he was very close to being able to get a bed for the night. I honestly replied that I paid with my phone and had no cash on me, and I asked him whether he would like some of the fruits I just bought. He politely declined and returned to the dark corner he was sitting in before. After I reached home, I started to feel extremely bad about the whole experience, of me being so scared without good reason, but also because of my prejudice against the homeless. I decided to go out again and took out some money for him from an ATM. Nothing much was said when I gave the money to him, and he seemed a bit surprised that this Asian guy returned just to give him the money. I don’t know. It’s really a strange feeling, a mixture of guilt, anger, and shared vulnerability. 

Racist crimes and homelessness are problems the government should deal with, and will not be solved by small actions like this. However, the money I gave out today did bring a little more peace to my tortured mind during these difficult times, if only just to appease my own sense of precarity and privilege. Black, yellow, or white, we were just three poor souls devoured by this dark night that seems to see no end of itself. This is how this world-famous British city feels like in the vast emptiness of spring 2021. The government says it will all go back to “normal” in the summer, by which I perhaps will have to leave the country already, with no clear prospects of ever returning. However, I will remember this episode of fear and guilt that night, before everything gets washed away in the banality of capitalistic hustle and bustle again.

Small actions are useful, but it is necessary to think big about the international politics that lie behind such racialized encounters. We all need to check our prejudice and racialized sentiments if we want to build cross-group solidarity in a global health crisis. 

Trump’s deliberate instigation of racism via highly incendiary terms like “China Virus” and “Kung Flu” has led to a surge of anti-Asian abuses and hate crimes in the US and in many other Western countries. However, there has been a lack of solidarity in many quarters of American society. Many Asian and Asian American communities continue to fail to see the danger of racializing another state with a new Cold War mentality. Immediately after Trump’s speeches, T-shirts with the words “I am not from China. I am X (American, Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, from Hong Kong etc.)” appeared in online stores and even gained popularity in the US. Such racial or political distancing is essentially racist in itself and counter-productive in the fight against racism. Anti-Asian racism in the West has never been just an Asian American issue, or a China versus West issue, like Trump – or even Biden – would want us to believe. Such exclusive and narrow-minded views are operating with a fundamentally discriminatory logic, as if racism can simply be solved by educating these white supremacists to distinguish Asian Americans from Asians, Chinese from other Asians, mainland Chinese from the so-called “Sinophones” (other Chinese-speakers) or good, regular Chinese from CCP (Chinese Communist Party) members. It in effect encourages them to keep antagonising China as a Yellow Peril, whose very existence is thought to be detrimental to the US-centric international order.

As I have written elsewhere, anti-racist solidarity not only requires cross-racial alliance but also necessitates the sensitivity towards racialized aspects of international politics and the willingness to fully examine the positionality and implication of our critiques before we utter them. As a Chinese student in the West, I have found myself constantly caught in between the entanglement of racialized identities and international political battles. This in-betweenness may never disappear, but no matter what, we should always treat anti-racism as the common denominator of our different struggles, and remember that racists see no nationality, and nor should we when building our alliances. 

Image Credit: Kake via Flickr & Creative Commons (License: CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

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