If you’re a teacher wondering why you should teach about anti-racism and the Stop Asian Hate movement, you should read about my experiences growing up as an Asian individual in Canada. Many teachers wonder how to teach about such a sensitive equity topic or how to meaningfully bring social justice issues into their classrooms. Include minority voices and do your research. It’s ok to make mistakes. We need to get uncomfortable and learn and unlearn. Children need to learn about microagressions and the systemic issues that are at the foundation of racism and hate. A teacher actually used my writing below with her 8th grade class which I really appreciated. She wanted to bring an Asian voice into her classroom and she added reflection questions about this text.
She shared students’ responses with me and I was so touched by the compassion they demonstrated. They made personal connections to the text and discussed about how they learned more about why anti-racism is important. Don’t underestimate children’s abilities to critically analyze and understand the importance of anti-discrimination.I wrote this in April of 2021:
I spent hours walking around my condo this morning to complete mundane tasks like washing the dishes, folding laundry, organizing a vanity table, and feeding my cat. I woke up with the intention to write about a topic that hurts me (that needs to be talked about) but I couldn’t bring myself to sit down. Words cannot encapsulate the despair and anger I feel. The worrisome thoughts that took root in my mind the first time I heard “China virus” continues to grow with each new headline about an Asian being beat or spit on.
I grew up in Vaughan, Ontario where jokes about Asian culture and people were common in the classroom. A bully used to exclaim “Ching Chong” while squinting his blue eyes. I deduced that I was silly for feeling upset when he used his index fingers to pull his eyes apart. Because people laughed, I thought I needed to smile too. Hey, I’m in on the joke. Grinning while my heart raced and my palms turned slick with sweat. I didn’t understand why my body betrayed me when no one else around seemed to have the same visceral reaction.
But you can’t not teach about anti-racism and expect a child to comprehend that it’s ok to stand up for herself even when she thinks she is standing alone.
I loved leaving the suburbs and going to Chinatown, downtown to enjoy dim sum with my parents and my sister. Fresh har gow, siu mai, and shrimp cheung fun adorned bright white tablecloths that would eventually be stained with soy sauce. For 2 hours, we had our chopsticks poised and ready to grab the next delicious salty indulgence. This sacred time on the weekend enabled us to connect (in Chinese) over hot tea while listening to the employees yell out the dishes in Cantonese. The menus were also in Chinese and for once, my parents held the responsibility of deciphering an unfamiliar language. I could speak Chinese but I couldn’t read it. My dad would constantly encourage me to ask for what I wanted in our home language. After I ordered items from their carts, the older Asian ladies would place the dishes on our table, grab our order sheet, pencil in our food, and walk away without waiting to hear a “thank you.”
At school, I never spoke Cantonese. Not even to my sister. It wasn’t a language I heard in the hallways and I didn’t have any Cantonese speaking friends. I kept my Chinese words at home. And I hated bringing the food my mom cooked. Along with folding wontons and preparing Chinese herbal soup with sea cucumbers, she frequently bought sweet char sui and greasy duck from Chinese butchers. I devoured these meals at home with my family at the dinner table but the smell they brought to school was so different from the McDonalds and sandwiches my classmates had. I threw out my food everyday.
When my sister and I had birthday parties, we asked my parents to get us ice-cream cakes from Dairy Queen every year. Preferably Oreo Blizzard. Not the Hong Kong style sponge cakes with fresh fruit that my parents wanted to purchase. They obliged.
When my parents received letters in their mailbox, they asked for assistance with reading them. As soon as I could read independently, this became a duty. I also wrote their yearly Christmas cards for their coworkers even though we weren’t religious. We put up and decorated a large tree every holiday season.
I remember requesting homework help in grade 1 but my dad couldn’t explain what the question asked of me. I wrote “I don’t understand” on the sheet. My father was able to teach me how to write that one sentence in English. This happened more than once and my teacher eventually told me to stop being “lazy” and to actually “try.” What do you do when your parents are unable to help? We didn’t have Google search and Google Translate when I was a primary student. I felt ashamed to be perceived as careless in my education. I felt ashamed of my family.
In retrospect, hiding my favourite foods and limiting my Chinese speech were attempts at assimilation. We all want to belong and that hasn’t changed. But the dangerous conclusion I came to in my childhood was that I needed to disguise these parts of myself for others to welcome and appreciate me. And that’s a problem.
In 2021, we now recognize the term “microagressions” and it is more common for people to share information about discriminatory events and attitudes. Through experiences and learning, I see that the name calling and lack of support at school were forms of this violence. We have learned a lot about anti-discrimination in teacher education and through the media. But a huge obstacle to continue making progress in inclusivity is the idea that enough has been done. We still need to question and reflect. We need to do the work to continue learning and unlearn.
The extent to which Asian people are facing backlash for COVID19 shows how prevalent and rampant racist ideas and behaviours are in our society. People are physically and verbally assaulted just because they are Asian. “Go back to China” is a phrase that sadly, is not new. Now, it’s being expressed more than ever before.
Stop Asian Hate in Canada
The media likes to portray Canada as an inclusive loving place, often contrasting the country with America. But racism has no borders. Wuhan Noodle 1950, a Chinese restaurant in Markham, received prank calls and racist feedback on its social media platforms soon after the pandemic started. Vandalism on a building at Ryerson University last month contained anti-Asian racial slurs. On April 4th, a male suspect in Scarborough made an anti-Asian remark before punching a 52 year old Asian man. Another attacker spit on Asian individuals in various subway stations while making racist statements. 6 Asian women were murdered during a mass shooting in Atlanta this year. They were dehumanized on the news when the sheriff stated the murderer’s motive for the crime was because he “had a bad day.” With each passing week and with further lockdown restrictions in Toronto, people are feeling increased hopelessness and anxiety. It disturbs me to think that this collective feeling of unease will heighten the hate crimes and incidents we’re already seeing.
What Can We Do?
What can we do? We need to educate people. We need to teach kids when they are young. I wish someone would’ve told me that it’s ok to speak up whenever I hear the word “nip” and the phrase “Asian girls are gross.” I wish I was taught that standing up for myself wouldn’t make me a “loser” or make me an other. I wish I didn’t ask my mom to start making me soggy bologna tomato sandwiches for lunch instead of appreciating the rich flavours and love inherent in her Asian cuisine.
Seeing everyone as “equal” without colour leaves no room for cultures to be truly celebrated nor does it acknowledge the challenges faced by minorities. The day after the Atlanta shootings, it was critical for me to examine what happened with my class. To emphasize that it was racism that caused so many deaths. I didn’t have a chance to talk to anyone about the situation. I had my morning prep to prepare myself mentally for my lesson. I had articles prepared to review with the class. Questions prepared. What I didn’t prepare for were the tears that streamed down my face as soon as I started to speak. My class was compassionate and hearing their responses to the situation reinforced for me how essential it is to discuss equity subjects directly. Even though I couldn’t believe I cried to my students, my colleagues reminded me that seeing the real effects of discrimination will help them to grasp the caliber of such issues.
My parents still don’t have a full grasp on the English language and It’s hard to fathom the guilt I feel as an English Language Arts teacher. But it’s more than guilt. It’s frustration at systemic structures that never allowed my parents to feel wholly accepted and worthy.
My mom was bullied in high school for being in ESL classes and didn’t graduate because she had to work to support her family in Vietnam. My dad experienced debilitating anxiety during routine assessments at work. Everything was in English. The modules and seminars he had to complete on a regular basis were foreign to him and he was told that he needed to finish them within specific timeframes to perform his tasks properly. He was already doing his job.
There wasn’t a place for them as Chinese-Canadians. There wasn’t for me as a child either. And now we’re seeing that there still isn’t.
When I watch videos of elderly Asian individuals being punched and pushed without provocation, I see my parents. I picture them standing on the street or going to Wal-Mart to get paper towels and groceries. I think about my mom’s nods when someone says something to her she doesn’t understand and my dad’s habit of starting conversations with random people. My mother’s tendency to touch things she might not buy at a store. My father’s lack of attention to his surroundings. I am frightened at the thought of them being assaulted by a complete stranger for how they look. They cannot articulate themselves in English. They’re older and they never had a regular exercise routine to enhance their ability to physically defend themselves. School and work didn’t make them feel welcome, how could they go to a gym?
This month, I had a discussion with them about the scapegoating of the Asian community amidst the pandemic. My mom didn’t know about it and my dad said he heard about some Asian hate related incidents. I felt like I was 7 years old again, translating a letter from the government for them.
My mom recalled a recent occurence when she asked for fish at a supermarket. A woman near her said, “Don’t speak so close to me.” She didn’t make the bigger connection towards xenophobia until there was dialogue about anti-Asian behaviours.
I go on walks and runs often to take care of my health. Whenever a person crosses the street at the sight of me, I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of my race. I was in line at a store last month where I asked the person in front of me, “Sorry, are you in line?” I need to work on not apologizing for no reason. Still, I was met with glaring eyes and no verbal response. Again, I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of my race.
Every day, I fear for my parents’ safety. My dad takes public transit once a week. My mom walks around the supermarket. That’s too many opportunities for something cruel to happen to them. I’m further unsettled because they wouldn’t be able to explain how they’re feeling or what they’re thinking to their potential attacker. But they shouldn’t have to explain. And would that person care?
Please learn from my upbringing and from what is happening in our communities. Whether or not you are Asian, you have an important role in stopping this hate. Please don’t be afraid to unlearn. Don’t be afraid to speak up and help others. You don’t have to be a teacher to talk to children about this topic. People are dying and being harmed. We need to have difficult conversations that explain the significance of fighting against racism. It is the most painful talks that are the most important to have.
It could be my parents you are saving.