Montreal·First Person

It's been a hard year to be an Asian Canadian. Through our mutual support group, we're trying to make it a little easier

I do not think people understand what it is like to go to bed being afraid for your family in this pandemic, not because they are sick, not because they are old, but because they are Asian.

Racist behaviour didn't start with COVID-19 — I've experienced it for decades

Montrealers marched through downtown Montreal on Sunday to speak out against anti-Asian racism and mourn the lives lost in Atlanta. (Simon Nakonechny/CBC)

This First Person article is the experience of Sarah-Lê Côté, a graduate student in Montreal. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.

On Sunday, I was given the privilege to speak in front of my community, before a march through downtown Montreal mourning the lives lost in Atlanta. When I spoke, I was not just thinking about how hard this last year has been as an Asian person, but also three decades of hateful behaviour, racist insults and repressed identity I have experienced.

As a mixed-race individual, it is hard to see both of my cultures in conflict with each other. I wish I could tell you that this reality was new to me, but I cannot. My whole life, I have lived with my two worlds clashing, not knowing where I fit into either of them. While some might say I don't look Vietnamese enough, I've never fully identified as a Quebecer, either.

Growing up in a town of mainly Caucasian French Quebecers, I attended schools where I was the only "ethnic" kid. I remember every insult, every time people made fun of my name and every single moment I came home crying because a classmate had made fun of my food during lunch time. I remember telling my grandmother to stop packing traditional Vietnamese food in my lunches because I was so desperate to fit in, and tired of assumptions about what was in my meals.

I didn't know it back then, but at six years old I had given up part of my identity just to feel safe.

At home I was Vietnamese, but at school I was a Quebecer. I remember telling people my name was Sarah Côté instead of Sarah-Lê Côté, just so it would sound more "normal" but also because I was tired of people misspelling my name. I made so many little adjustments like these as years went by, to the point that it was deeply embedded in who I was.

To be honest, this makes me feel like a circus animal: well trained yet willing to perform tricks at the public's demand (because this is how I feel when people randomly ask me to say words in Vietnamese).

Sarah-Lê (left) and her sister Nancy on a trip to Panama in 2009. (Submitted by Sarah-Lê Côté)

Last spring, when I started hearing of more hate incidents in the community, I knew I had to somehow get involved and help in any way that I could. A friend on Facebook was looking for someone with political science knowledge to help her administrate a mutual support group she had created a few days prior, and without hesitating I answered the call. My main motivation was to try to make a difference so that when kids went back to school after the first lockdown, they would not feel alone when dealing with the same nonsense that I had to go through when I was their age.

As a team, we tried to gather as many tools and resources as we could to help the community get through this surge of hate crimes. At first, the main goal of the group was to create a directory of useful information to help people report incidents and seek psychological counseling. Every single day, we hear from people. Some want to share what they have gone through publicly, but a lot more just write to us in private and we read and try our best to find solutions for every single situation to the best of our abilities.

It feels so good to be able to help so many, yet I felt powerless. My own family is out there. So close by, yet so unreachable because of the sanitary restrictions. I do not think people understand what it is like to go to bed being afraid for your family, not because they are sick, not because they are old, but because they are Asian. As if all of us did not have enough to worry about with the pandemic, we also must worry about our elders being brutalized, our cousins being spat on, our mothers being insulted and harassed in broad daylight or our sisters being fetishized and killed.

I am still trying to process what happened in Atlanta. I cannot begin to understand how we, as a society, let matters get this much out of hand to the point where people lost their lives due to being regarded and disposed of as vulgar objects. As a woman, I am infuriated; as an Asian, I grieve; as a human, I am deeply disturbed.

I take solace in the work that I and my fellow administrators Julie and Anne do in our support group. Over the last year, we have seen Asian communities unite and mobilize all over the world and I am honoured to take part, however small it may be, in this movement.

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Sarah-Lê Côté is a labour law graduate student at the Université de Montréal and an administrator of Groupe d’Entraide Contre le Racisme Envers les Asiatiques au Québec.


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