Chinese Nova Scotians speak out about anti-Asian racism in wake of Atlanta shootings
It's time to address the root causes of racism, says Dartmouth artist
When Jenny Yujia Shi saw photos of the six women who were killed during a shooting rampage in Atlanta last month, she was struck by how familiar they looked.
"I felt that it could have been my mother or myself," the visual artist from Dartmouth told CBC Radio's Information Morning.
"The term anti-Chinese, anti-Asian racism is associated immediately with overt acts of violence or crime, but we need to address the root causes," said Shi, who was born in Beijing and moved to Nova Scotia in 2009 as an international student.
She joined author and illustrator Jack Wong and musician and artist Shane Song, both living in Halifax, for a conversation about the racism they experience on a daily basis in Nova Scotia.
Song moved to the province from China in 2008 to study at NSCAD, and Wong moved to Canada from Hong Kong with his family when he was six.
Their interview with host Portia Clark has been edited for clarity and length.
This attack, as you well know, targeted or seemed to target Asian women. Shane, I'm wondering what your thoughts are about that aspect of the crime.
Shane Song: It is definitely really confusing and fearful. It makes you wonder what was the reason this particular person is targeting Asian women, but also the social environment that made that happen.
And do you mean around the fetishization of Asian women or the thinking of Asian women in a particular way?
I think as an Asian immigrant, there are a lot of these things that you are encountering on a daily basis, like how popular anime is nowadays compared to 10 years ago and how certain things, such as the porno industry in Asia, and all these things just constantly make you wonder, are these connected? Are these representations of women potentially ... dangerous to future women?
It just constantly makes you wonder about these things every day, and then when a major event like this happens, it tends to confirm all of those minor concerns you are having.
Are you also connecting them to some of your experiences here in Nova Scotia, Shane?
Yeah, I mean 10 years ago when I was here, there was way fewer Asian people. But organically there seems to be a protection network where girls hang out and then say, 'Oh, have you been to that particular restaurant? The owner can be something like this,' and other girls will confirm your experience, and then you will decide, OK, let's avoid that restaurant. Or even sometimes like certain employees in certain stores, and we just share these through, I guess, gossip, which is a really stigmatized protection system for women.
Jenny Yujia Shi: Being a Chinese immigrant woman here, there is a tension that I feel on a daily basis, I think, due to a combination of experiencing stereotypes, cultural stereotypes, from media representation ... Orientalist fantasies in movies like the King and I or Jet Li, kung fu movies.
I've had people years ago ask me if I could do kung fu ...Those questions came out more from rural Nova Scotia areas. I spent most of my time in the [Halifax Regional Municipality] so I remember feeling an alienation and a kind of erasure of my identity, both from within and from the environment around me. I think that there's a lack of discussion about how to interact with racialized individuals and particularly people who didn't grow up here, who immigrated here, who migrated here involuntarily.
I think that contributed to just making the racialized individual feel that they are kind of forced to learn the rules here, to conform to the cultural norms here ... I think in terms of being Chinese, the way that mainland Chinese youth are raised is more in a school system where you are kind of trained and ask to fit in, to blend in, so I think a lot of international students come here carrying that way to be, and that also contributes to this external and internal pressure of having to conform, and that internal struggle.
Jack, are you relating in some way to what Jenny's saying about maybe being forced to fit in or to adopt what's sometimes called a model, minority mindset of keeping your head down and not causing trouble?
Jack Wong: Racial biases are also enacted as hate, and that's why the term that's in the news, anti-Asian hate, I think is fairly fitting and accurate for what's happening in this moment. Racist hate isn't really experienced as the occurrence of a hateful act alone. It's the very occasional acts of racism in the form of slurs or physical threats of violence. What that basically tells me is that a baseline, hateful attitude exists.
To say that I had a handful of overt incidents, you know, isn't really an accurate reflection unless we decide together that the underlying attitude exists out there. And going back to COVID, I think what it really does is that over time, if those experiences are spaced out enough, you can get comfortable with the fact that they're at a manageable level, they're at a safe level, or that they're just rare, period.
And when you see COVID-motivated hate incidents on the rise again for, you know, even if it's elsewhere, it just basically reminds you that it is an underlying current. I would find it hard to believe that any one place is a haven free of those attitudes so what COVD really did for me was reboot that connection between, you know, the more nebulous reality that the racist attitudes are out there with the more concrete worries that I have to face today when I go out on the street.
Shi: I think that there also needs to be intergenerational conversation, which I find personally lacking in the Chinese community here, because I myself am not as connected with people who speak my language here ... For example, a couple of years ago, there was an article on the anti-Asian riots that happened at the beginning of the 1900s here on Gottingen Street [in Halifax], and very few people know of this historic event … There were a number of Chinese restaurants that were broken into and kind of crashed due to racism.
So Jenny, it would be helpful to connect the dots through history for the younger generation, you're saying?
Shi: Yes, because now there is a lot of disconnection. The people who are immigrating here now see ourselves as more or less we're in silos and not being connected with the historical context of Chinese people here in Nova Scotia, and that leads to vulnerability.
With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning