Ottawa·First Person

'To my fellow Asian community, you are not alone'

Jiayue Zhan says she experienced racism growing up in Canada. But the Chinese-Canadian feels there's been a marked increase in incidents since the pandemic. She writes about what she's experienced first-hand, and her advice to others in her community.

Chinese-Canadian Jiayue Zhan offers advice to those who are also experiencing racist encounters

Jiayue Zhan says she experienced anti-Asian racism in her Orléans neighbourhood. She is sharing her experiences to let others in her community know it's OK to speak up. (Alexander Behne/CBC)

This First Person article is the experience of Jiayue Zhan, a public servant in Ottawa who came to Canada from China as a child. For more information about CBC's First Person stories, please see the FAQ.


Last November, I took a walk with my younger sister in my Orléans neighbourhood. A woman approached us and as she got closer, she stuck out both arms and cursed "Chinese virus" as she struck my sister's arm. 

Though my sister was the one hit, I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach. I was appalled, embarrassed, and couldn't believe what I had just witnessed. I felt paralyzed to act, and also angry. I bit my tongue and held my breath to stop it from getting the best of me. She continued to walk past us as if nothing had happened. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only such incident my family has experienced recently. In June 2020, my mother and sister were standing in line at a grocery store — following the markings to keep everyone six feet apart —  when a woman turned toward them and yelled, "Oh My God, get away from me," repeatedly. 

After hearing what the woman said, my mom stood up and replied, "please be polite." But the incident left her and my sister feeling taken aback and disappointed in our community. 

Zhan was photographed in front of parliament at age six, a year after her family arrived in Canada. She shows off the trophies she won at a contest at Chinese school. (Submitted by Jiayue Zhan)

I would be lying if I said I'd never been the subject of these kinds of incidents before. But I have never experienced racism of this magnitude or severity as I have since spring 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic began. 

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What hurts the most is the look of disgust that people give you as they cover their mouth with their hands and inch backwards as you walk by, as if you were some foreign species.

Zhan says she and her sister, pictured here at her Queen's University graduation, have been a target of anti-Asian racism. (Submitted by Jiayue Zhan)

Joy and connection

My name, "Jia Yue" means joy in Chinese. I tend to see the positive in every person and I believe that our humanity connects us more than it will ever separate us. 

I came to Canada with my family in 2000, at the age of five. We left China because my parents wanted to build a life for me and my sister that they never had.

It didn't take long before I fell in love with Canada and the people who helped make this country feel like my home. We may be different by background, physical appearance, culture, and history, but we are all human and connected by this place.

Zhan says she has experienced a marked rise in anti-Asian racism since the beginning of the pandemic. (Submitted by Jiayue Zhan)

What propelled me to speak out now is that though I know many in the Asian community have been hurt by similar experiences, I also believe that by coming together, we can create change.

To my fellow Asian community, please know that you are never alone.

When you are a subject or witness to an act of racism, confronting the aggressor is one way to stand up for justice — but it is not the only one. You can also support and donate to groups that combat anti-Asian racism, confide in someone you trust, or report it to the police. But, whatever you do, don't let it go untouched.

Zhan was one year old when this photo of her and her parents was taken in Beijing, China. The family moved to Canada four years later. (Submitted by Jiayue Zhan)

I still have family in China — grandparents, aunts and uncles in Beijing. Though they are halfway across the earth, they face the same realities of the COVID-19 pandemic as we do here. 

The mask you wear may protect you from the virus, but it is not the antidote to racism.- Jiayue Zhan

I ask that we remember we are in a global fight against a virus, not against Asians.

The mask you wear may protect you from the virus, but it is not the antidote to racism.

To beat this, we cannot rip the seams out of our communities. We must fight it together.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jiayue Zhan is a public servant, writer and fitness enthusiast, as well as a former chair of the Young Professionals Network in Ottawa.

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