I have cried approximately 17 times in the past fortnight, sometimes twice a day. I have cried at my desk while working. I have cried in the shower. I have cried myself to sleep watching the horrific videos of elders who look like members of my family in the US being taunted and attacked until their faces look like swollen purple plums. I have cried at reports of hate crimes against East and South East Asian people, at images of them being shoved to the pavement, their bodies thrashed around like rag dolls, lying contorted on the floor.
Last week, I cried from the moment I woke up to the news of the Atlanta spa shootings where eight people were shot dead at three massage parlours and spas – six of these women were of Asian descent. A Georgia sheriff’s captain said the suspect was “having a bad day” and attributed his crimes to "sex addiction", not racism. The incident has spurred further conversation around the rise of potential East and South East Asian (ESEA) hate crimes and violence against women.
All of this, combined with the tragic news of Sarah Everard's killing and the disturbing scenes which unfolded at a vigil for her, has hit me hard. I checked in with a female friend last week over WhatsApp. We went back and forth, talking at lengths about our safety and gender-based violence. I wrote: “it hurts to be a woman.” To which she replied, “being a woman of colour hurts more.” It does. Her words stayed with me. I’m overwhelmed with grief at all the unjust happenings across the world. I haven’t been able to properly process the rollercoaster of emotions I've been experiencing - from being tired to enraged and anxious, then back to being tired again.
In the ESEA community, there is a heavy collective exhaustion. We have to keep talking about our emotional turmoil and unpacking our trauma publicly in order to be taken more seriously. But I can't help but feel we're treading a fine line between wishing the prejudice and hatred we experience would be acknowledged and wishing nobody sees us, so that we don't have to experience it.
The senseless massacre in Atlanta has dredged up years of memories I had tried to suppress: being confused with another ESEA woman in the room, used as a punchline in a sexual "joke", heckled by strangers shouting ‘ni hao’ or ‘konnichiwa’ at me in the street, feeling uneasy whenever men tell me they ‘love me long time’ or have the case of ‘yellow fever’ with the hopes of getting into my pants.
But, above all, because of my Chinese heritage, it's often implied as a subtext in these advances that I should consider being hit on as a ‘compliment’, that I should be thankful for any attention at all. For women of colour, gender-based violence, misogyny and xenophobia overlap.
The bodies of ESEA women are often fetishised and exoticised in Western culture. Hollywood has a long history depicting ESEA women as submissive and hypersexual, we are portrayed as the deviant dragon lady, the mysterious oriental or cheap and disposable workers on screens the world over. So, it came as no surprise to me that in the aftermath of this horrific shooting, people’s first thought on social media was to make cheap jokes about ‘happy endings’. Mainstream culture reduces ESEA women down using these dehumanising stereotypes.
Since the start of the pandemic UK police data suggests a rise of 300 per cent rise in COVID-related hate crimes toward Chinese, East and South East Asians.
It’s been an especially heavy few weeks. Scratch that. It’s been a tough year. As a woman, Sarah Everard's murder has served as an unwelcome reminder of the inherent dangers I try not to forget. As an ESEA woman, the Atlanta shootings have forced me to confront the threats that my already marginalised community faces.
According to a national report conducted by Stop AAPI Hate, a nonprofit organisation that formed near the start of the pandemic to track discrimination against Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, there have been nearly 3,800 reports of incidents of abuse - ranging from verbal harassment to physical assault. Those who would paint this exclusively as an American problem, haven’t been paying close enough attention. Anti-Asian hate crime is on the rise in the UK too. Since the start of the pandemic UK police data suggests a rise of 300 per cent rise in COVID-related hate crimes toward Chinese, East and South East Asians in the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2018 and 2019.
Sadly, this kind of abuse is nothing new, but still, it takes my breath away every time it happens. The pain cuts ever deeper. Almost every person of ESEA descent I know has had their own racist run-in related to COVID-19 in last year. I’ve had belligerent strangers decide that sitting next to me on the Victoria line was too dangerous. Last month, a Chinese university lecturer was subjected to a racist attack by a gang of men while out jogging in Southampton. And, Aldarico Velasco, a Filipino nurse has tweeted about being called a “fucking Chinese cunt” after treating a patient at Royal Derby hospital earlier this year.
In the end, Filipino front-line workers like Velasco pay the ultimate price because a disproportionate number of Filipino nurses in the UK are dying of Coronavirus. And the most chilling incident of all? The case of the missing Filipino mother Bennylyn Burke and her two-year-old daughter in Dundee. They disappeared around the same time Sarah Everard. I’ve barely seen Burke’s story reported anywhere in the media. Where was the outrage? Where was her vigil?
People romanticise my culture. They tell me they love the food, the films, the music and the clothes. But you cannot just pick your favourite bits of ESEA culture. We are more than those stereotypes. If you’re going to borrow from us, then love, respect, understand and appreciate us too. Love us like you love our food. Love us like you love your own culture.
Hate crimes against ESEA people are downplayed. Even after a mass-shooting and a series of violent, hateful attacks, the refusal to label these incidents as "hate crimes" is an example of the gaslighting enacted by white supremacy. The refusal to acknowledge is part of the violence we experience.
The question I keep coming back to is this: what can we do about it? There are plenty of ways to help in the US, but we’re starting to see practical concrete signs of a politically organised community of ESEA community emerging in the UK. There's Besean, a grassroots movement for Britain’s East and South East Asians, which has been campaigning against media organisations to stop using images of people of ESEA heritage on stories about Coronavirus. This would reduce the danger of scapegoating and racial profiling. Then there's the not-for-profit organisation End the Virus of Racism which has been set up to counter the rise in hate crime against people of ESEA origin.
It is time for everyone, not just ESEA people, to help put a stop to these anti-Asian hate crimes. We cannot be the only ones yelling into an echo chamber. Silence is part of the problem, it erases our humanity. Recognise your position of privilege. Use your voice to make a difference. We can’t fight this hate and racism alone. We’re all afraid but, for some of us, it's not only the virus that makes us want to stay at home.