Anti-Asian racism: A troubling trend

Vi Nguyen thought she was just running a quick errand. One April afternoon in 2020, the 42-year-old woman left her husband and children in the car while she dashed into a downtown Vancouver drugstore to buy iron supplements for her elderly mother.

In fact, Vi was running into a wall of hatred.

As she made her way to the drugstore's cash, she was aware of a man shadowing her. After leaving the store, he approached her on the sidewalk and said, in a calm voice, “Don't give me your f*****g disease.” Then he turned and walked away.

As the coronavirus accelerated its spread across the globe last spring, some populist politicians, seeking to divide, blamed China. The number of anti-Asian racist incidents in Canada surged. Over the first nine months of 2020, British Columbia recorded the greatest increase. The Vancouver Police Department saw an 878% rise in hate crime incidents against Asians over the same period in the previous year.

Vi was well aware of this. In fact, it was one reason she was shopping for her mother. Vi's parents live on Vancouver's East Side, two blocks from the 7-Eleven where, a few weeks earlier, a 92-year-old Asian man with dementia had been shoved to the ground by a burly white man who yelled COVID-related insults at him.

When Vi got back into the car, her husband could see something was wrong. She recounted what had just happened. “Is it because of coronavirus?” her seven-year-old son asked from the backseat. “Is it because of how you look?”

As Vi's family drove home, a silent chill descended on the car. Everyone was processing what had happened. Vi's children didn't understand why their mother would be considered diseased. Vi was questioning her own reaction: why had she let the man “get away”? And her husband, Solomon Wong, was wondering if they should report the incident to the police.

Since the earliest days of the pandemic, there have been widespread reports of anti-Asian racism, hate-speech, vandalism, and assault. Some have referred to this rise in anti-Asian racism as a “shadow pandemic.”

But for Solomon and Vi, the drugstore incident was nowhere near the first of its kind. Solomon, who was born in Vancouver, remembers being taunted and chased by the predominantly white kids at his local school in Richmond, B.C. Vi, whose family came to Canada as government-sponsored refugees from Vietnam, experienced little discrimination while living in social housing on Vancouver's Downtown East Side — “we were all immigrants or refugees, latchkey kids, had parents working double shifts.” But she was made acutely aware of her minority status as soon as her family bought a house in a “better” neighbourhood and began working its way up the socio-economic ladder.

“Is it because of Coronavirus?” her seven-year-old son asked from the backseat. “Is it because of how you look?”

Today, Solomon and Vi are both accomplished professionals; he is President and CEO of a global aviation industry consultancy, while Vi worked in philanthropy for 13 years before a recent career change. They are discouraged by the lack of diversity at the senior level of their respective fields. But more than that, they are tired of being confronted with overt racism almost every time they venture outside Vancouver on day-trips or vacations. In places like Nanaimo and Parksville, they have had garbage thrown at them, been jeered and spat at and told to return to China — a place that means little to either of them.

Given their history, the couple felt it was important to report the drugstore incident. “I did it for my parents,” said Vi, recognizing that many victims of racism don't have the confidence, language skills or trust in law enforcement to call the police.

Solomon was astonished by how complicated the reporting process was. Vancouver police offers no online reporting tool for race-based incidents meaning that he had to make multiple calls. He was told that the couple should have called 911 at the time, countering all advice they had ever heard about using that number only in the event of an “emergency.”

...they are tired of being confronted with overt racism almost every time they venture outside Vancouver on day-trips or vacations.

“It's no wonder that so many of these things go unreported,” he says.

The process raised an interesting question: what standard do incidents have to meet to be of public interest? “Is it only real when you get punched in the face?” Vi asked. She also felt conflicted about drawing attention to herself, aware that, in the bigger picture, she is one of the lucky ones.

Many of Vi's friends and colleagues responded to her story with, “I can't believe this happened to you!” For Vi, the subtext was clear: such things are not supposed to happen to well-educated professionals like herself. Vi hates the converse thought: that there is an assumption by some people that certain categories of Canadians are more or less expected to be at the receiving end of racism.

For precisely this reason, Vi feels that all racist incidents need to be reported. In isolation, they are little more than data points. But taken together, they form a picture of those walls of hatred — their thickness and what it will take to dismantle them.

More than 600 incidents of hate targeting Asians in Canada have been reported to Chinese-Canadian groups since the pandemic began.

43% of surveyed Canadians of Asian descent report being threatened or intimidated as a direct result of the COVID-19.

83% of the incidents were reported by East Asians.

44% were reported from B.C. - the most in Canada.

38% of the occurrences were reported in Ontario and 7% in Quebec.

30% of surveyed Canadians of Asian descent report being frequently exposed to racist graffiti or messaging on social media since the pandemic began.

Women reported 60% of all incidents.

Compiled by the Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter, Project 1907, the Vancouver Asian Film Festival and the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice. Reported by the Globe & Mail (September 13, 2020); Angus Reid Institute; Corbett Communications;