'I was humiliated': Chinese Canadian remembers racist reaction to SARS epidemic

Victoria Yang remembers how she was treated as a Chinese-Canadian during the SARS outbreak and explains how she’s working through that shame to reclaim her heritage.

'I had a lot of kids asking me if I had SARS,' Victoria Yang recalls

The SARS virus killed some 800 people, mostly in Asia, in a short-lived epidemic in in 2003. There were 44 confirmed deaths in Canada.

Victoria Yang had always felt insecure about her Chinese heritage. As early as first grade, she says she faced stereotypes about her culture, her language and her food.

But it wasn't until 2003 that Yang felt that she needed to hide her identity from the world. 

When Yang and her family returned to their London, Ont., home after a family vacation in China, they were greeted with an unusual message.

"There was a voicemail from my principal on my home answering machine that said 'I understand that your family has just returned from a trip to China. Out of an abundance of caution, we would like to keep your children home from school for two weeks.'"

Victoria Yang visited her grandfather during her two-year trip to China in 2012. (Submitted by Victoria Yang)

Severe acute respiratory syndrome, more commonly known as SARS, had killed at least two people in Toronto, and her principal feared that her family may have contracted it on their trip. So he recommended they quarantine themselves. 

Yang was confused. She said she'd never heard the word quarantine before. Her father, however, understood what was happening. 

"My dad was really mad at the suggestion that we'd stay home from school and explained that our principal was trying to make us stay home in isolation in case we spread something," said Yang.

"My dad is kind of a fiery person at times. But this felt different. This felt personal."

SARS originated in Guangdong, a southern Chinese province near Hong Kong, and the region was a major epicenter of the crisis. Yang, however, had been to Xi'an and Beijing, both over 1,300 kilometres away — more than the distance between Edmonton and Winnipeg. 

Her father tried to explain this to her principal by drawing a map, highlighting how far apart they had been from Guangdong. The explanation worked. Yang said she then returned to school without a problem — until a letter was distributed around the school.

I was ashamed. I was so humiliated- Victoria Yang

Yang was walking down the hall at the end of class, when she said she noticed students looking at a sheet of paper, with text printed on both sides. On the back, there was an image she immediately recognized. It was her father's hastily drawn map. 

The letter, she explained, was from the principal, stating that two students had recently come back from a trip from China and that they weren't near major SARS epicentres. 

Yang said the majority of students and teachers at her school were white, so it wasn't hard to guess which students the letter referred to. 

"I was immediately so embarrassed and so ashamed to know that my family's trip to China was being publicized," said Yang. 

Despite the letter's message not to worry, students began peppering Yang with questions.

"I had a lot of kids asking me if I had SARS. I had a lot of kids asking me if all Chinese people get SARS, if SARS was a Chinese disease — questions that I couldn't answer and I certainly didn't know how to respond to as a 13-year-old."

"I was ashamed. I was so humiliated."

Worst fears confirmed

Growing up, Yang had never felt totally comfortable with her Chinese identity. She recalled students would mock her for how her family's food looked at the lunch table. Others would register surprise that she didn't have an accent. 

So Yang said she'd tried to keep the Chinese part of herself quiet. 

"It was hard to talk about even just normal family stuff at school because my family was so different from that of everyone else," said Yang.

That early negativity about being Chinese solidified for Yang in 2003 after witnessing her school community's reaction to the SARS outbreak.

Months after her return from vacation, Yang learned that one of the mothers at the school had said that kids should avoid Chinese students because of SARS. 

"It confirmed to me that all of my fears around people thinking ugly thoughts about Chinese people were true — that people thought Chinese people were dirty, that people thought diseases arose from Chinese people because of a lack of hygiene," Yang said.

Through high school, Yang recalled trying to hide who she was. She pretended she couldn't speak Chinese and insinuated that she was only half-Chinese. She didn't bring friends home to her house and she tried to avoid having Asian friends. 

Yang also began to place hair clips over her nose to make it less flat, and more "Canadian" looking.

"It's crazy that I thought I could convince anybody that I wasn't fully Chinese but I really thought I could by pinching my nose and by telling people that I was half-Chinese," said Yang. 

Return to China

By the end of her undergraduate degree, Yang decided she wanted to learn more about her culture, be closer to her extended family, and draw her own conclusions about what it meant to be Chinese. So she moved to China for two years to teach English.

The culture wasn't always easy for her to embrace. Any sign of litter or unhygienic behaviour stoked her fear that the stereotypes she'd absorbed in her adolescence were true.

"I would go through a whole range of emotions: shame, pride at some of the really cool stuff that I saw, anger at my parents for being Chinese and for having the audacity to give birth to me and bring me to a country that wasn't China," said Yang. 

"It was such a confusing and emotional time for me as I grappled with that, as I was confronted face-to-face with my culture, with my people, every day for two years. "

Today Yang is much more open to speaking about her culture, but she said the insecurities are still there.

Victoria Yang wore her red dress at her wedding in May 2019. She stands beside her husband and two friends. (Submitted by Victoria Yang)

"I think it's hard to completely erase from your mind thoughts that you carried with you as a teenager and into your 20s, through your formative years," said Yang. 

Nonetheless, Yang works to undo the racism she internalized when she was younger and replace it with more positive associations about being Chinese.

A recent success happened at her wedding in May 2019.

Yang spent most of the day in a classic North American white wedding gown, but she decided on a whim to change into a traditional red Chinese dress — a cheongsam — midway through the reception. 

It was a huge hit with her friends and family.

"I had friends who had already gotten a photo with me in my white dress that said I need another photo with you in the red dress. And to me that was such a cool moment," said Yang, "and certainly a step in the right direction in terms of healing from those thoughts that I had when I was a teenager and trying to replace those thoughts with really nice memories of people embracing my culture."