‘I don’t feel safe’: Asians in UK reflect on year of hate | News on the coronavirus pandemic
London, United Kingdom – A year ago, the UK was placed under its first lockdown as the coronavirus exploded across the country.
Since then, British communities in East and Southeast Asia have seen a 300% increase in hate crimes, according to End the Virus of Racism, a UK-based advocacy group.
As headlines around the world claimed the virus originated in China, take-out restaurants were vandalized. Some in the UK’s Chinatowns have been completely boycotted.
In the ugliest times, people of Asian descent have been attacked in the streets.
Comments by former US President Donald Trump describing the coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” and China as the “nation that unleashed this scourge in the world” have done little to stem the hatred.
Many observers have said that the recent fatal shooting of eight people in Atlanta, including six women of Asian descent, showed how vulnerable some communities have become.
In the UK, anti-Asian racism has also reached the halls of power.
Sarah Owens, an opposition Labor MP, described how two anonymous MPs called the Chinese “those nasty b ****** s”.
Al Jazeera spoke to members of the East Asian community in the UK about their concerns:
‘I don’t feel as safe as I used to be’
Peng Wang, 37, senior lecturer in financial management
Before coming to the UK in 2014, I lived in Finland for six years. When I first moved, the British were friendlier than the Finns, who are somewhat more shy. But after Brexit and after this pandemic, things got worse.
On February 23, last month, around 4 p.m., I went out jogging near my house. There was a car driving across the road.
The driver opened the window and shouted at me, “Chinese virus!” Immediately I screamed back, calmed down, took deep breaths, and continued to jog.
When I turned the corner, they came back and started yelling at me again. I got pissed off, walked over to the car and yelled at them, ‘Why are you doing this? Exit!”
The driver and other guys got out of the car and attacked me.
Two months ago, my wife was learning to drive in her instructor’s car, when a boy on a bicycle asked if my wife was from an Asian country and stuck his middle finger on her.
I don’t feel as safe as I used to be. When I first arrived in the UK I had no problem running outside at night. Obviously, now the situation for Asians is really bad.
“ It was definitely a problem before the pandemic ”
Sarah Owen, 38, Labor MP for Luton North
The attacks show that it is not just an American problem. It’s definitely a problem here in the UK [and] it was definitely a problem before the pandemic.
Last year, before the coronavirus hit, we had [UK broadcaster] Piers Morgan on Good Morning Britain mocking the Chinese language, taking on a Chinese accent, and that was deemed correct. He didn’t apologize for it.
When it comes to what I’m faced with online, nine out of 10 times I’m pretty hardened on it. But these are things like videos sent to me about live animals being eaten or jokes that strike, portraying East Asians as inhuman because of the things we apparently eat. I had to report to [an online troll] that, “No, I don’t eat a dog, and my pet dog is alive, well, and very happy.”
I do not think so [the government] in fact enough. Sometimes there are warm words, but we have to fight even to get those warm words. They bring cold comfort to people I know who have seen their shop vandalized or who have been the victims of hate crimes.
“ I don’t feel welcome, I don’t belong to a city that I call home ”
Lisa Dang, 29, chef
Growing up my dad always said I had to work twice as hard because I’m Vietnamese living in someone else’s country. I have always argued against his argument: I was born here and I belonged here.
My next door neighbors were an elderly white couple who never had children. They welcomed me as their adopted grandchild.
It wasn’t until high school that the micro-attacks started. Racial slurs, making fun of my name, people saying things like I eat a dog.
Fast forward to adult life, I really felt safe and a sense of belonging to London. I would rarely hear racist remarks about myself. If anything, that would be fetish comments.
This past March, shortly after the news of the coronavirus was announced, my partner, who is Chinese, and I were visiting white friends in Essex. When we entered the pub we were greeted by someone shouting “Wuhan”. It was as if the whole world had stopped. No one wanted to acknowledge who had said it, but no one wanted to call the person up, stand up and be an ally, either. We sat in the pub defiantly, not wanting this person to win by leaving.
I marked this experience as an isolated micro-attack because it was outside of London where it is less multicultural – until I went to a supermarket in London last November. A group of men in their twenties shouted, “Ni Hao! Konnichiwa! Hastily put on their masks and covered her face. What was more disappointing was that the group was also ethnic minorities. Where was the solidarity?
Until now, I never understood what my father was trying to say. For the first time, I don’t feel welcome, I don’t belong to a city that I call home.
‘This must have been how Muslims felt after 9/11’
Daniel Ly, 28, consultant
I worry about my family. I worry about their safety when they go to stores. I worry about the older Asians in our country, alone and unable to fend for themselves.
It must have been what South Asians and Muslims felt after 9/11 for years. My best friend is Pakistani. We have always talked about how unfair the media has been when it comes to portraying Muslims, creating this undercurrent of anger in people easily infected with hatred.
I am very worried about the children going back to school. You have a whole generation of Asian children who are going to feel lonely and more uncomfortable in their own skin, uncomfortable in their appearance different from their classmates.
Racism will strike their confidence, their love for themselves, their appreciation of their culture. It will make them feel horrible. It’s difficult and I don’t know how to fix it.
“ Now it’s so bad I need to talk ”
Tiffany Law, 27, trainee lawyer
I was born in Hong Kong and grew up in Canada just outside of Toronto. I moved to the UK in September 2016. I feel like I’ve had more racist encounters in the UK than in Canada, although technically the UK is more international.
Two months after moving to the UK I went to a concert with a Chinese friend of British descent in Leeds. While we were waiting for an Uber to get home, these two guys came up to us and started verbally harassing us, without provocation, with racist remarks, asking us if we were from China. When we ignored them, one of them grabbed me and nudged me to get my attention. I remember that exact moment, I was really shocked. I was actually speechless.
When the pandemic started, people were looking at me strangely because I was wearing a mask.
With my father living in Canada, I often think to myself: “I’m so far away, what if something happens to him?”
I am really worried because anti-Asian hate crimes are also increasing in Canada.
Growing up, I never felt the need to talk just because it never felt so bad. Of course, there were micro-attacks from time to time. But it wasn’t until I moved here that I felt it was so bad now, I need to talk.
‘My parents were asked if they had brought COVID to the UK’
Tuan Vu, 28, management consultant
After visiting my parents in Birmingham for Chinese New Year, before the UK was locked, I was on the train back to London. I wore a mask at the train station while traveling, but got a lot of stares.
On my train there was a white man coughing and sneezing nearby and no one smiled. Knowing that this person was potentially spreading COVID or maybe had the flu or a cold made me very uncomfortable as my eyes were on me.
My parents have been verbally harassed on the streets of Birmingham because of their skin color. They were asked if they were Chinese and did they bring COVID to the UK. Fortunately, it was only verbal harassment. There was no violence, but it still scares me.
‘The people who are supposed to protect us don’t even bother’
Jan Le, 28, Financial Technology Product Analyst
After the steps of Black Lives Matter, the [far-right] The English Defense League movement marched through central London. We live in Soho, my parents have a restaurant there. They walk around everyday and I was so worried.
I was like, “Please don’t walk towards Trafalgar Square. Today, don’t even bother to go out. Please stay indoors for a week until this is all over. “
Even before I was born in the 1980s, my parents had to move because people kept throwing bricks out the window.
Long before the first lockout last March, we felt the racism very early on. Our business has really gone downhill, which is funny because we’re not even in Chinatown and we’re a Vietnamese restaurant. People avoided us like the plague.
I’m starting to feel quite pessimistic. I was hoping that people would take anti-Asian racism very seriously, that they would have more air time. I read that politicians had debated this issue in Parliament for the first time and that no Conservative MP had come. Honestly, I don’t know what we can do when the people who are supposed to protect us don’t even care.
“ I grew up to normalize this in my life ”
Lisa Huang, 27, management consultant
Being Chinese of British origin has always had its challenges. I have always had people denouncing racist slurs throughout my life – kids at school, strangers on the streets, at university.
I just learned to ignore it, grew up to be silent, grew up to normalize this in my life.
Coming home at night and being “Ni Hao’ed” or “ching-chonged” by a stranger on the street has become the norm for me, but it shouldn’t be.
With the recent pandemic, racism has reached a whole new level to the point where people are losing their lives for their heritage.
Worse yet, the most vulnerable part of the Asian community is being targeted. What shocks me the most is that no one is doing anything despite all the cries of the Asian community, despite all the attacks.
Some interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.