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  • Writer's pictureEvelyn Chen

Don’t let your race define you: on being a Chinese person in the UK during Covid-19

Whether I like it or not, I am always known as the ‘Chinese girl’. Ethnically Chinese people make up less than 2% of the population in the UK, making my racial identity stand out even more. Pre-Covid, being known as the ‘Chinese’ girl bothered me because I am much more than my ethnicity and its culture. Often, I found myself saying:

“No, Andrea, I do not want to be friends with you because you like eating egg fried rice and ‘totally love’ pandas.”

“No, Freddy, I don’t want to date you because you have a ‘thing’ for Chinese girls and want to improve your Mandarin skills.”

“No, Ellie, I don’t want to be your best friend just because we are both Chinese.”

I found myself explaining to I grew up in London and my mother tongue is English, not Chinese. I wear English clothes, have ‘English’ values and understand the English culture much more than any other. Instead of being cast into the role of ‘friend’ to people who fetishize my supposed culture, I wanted to form connections with others based on shared values and interests. I felt frustrated that people choose to define me by such arbitrary qualities such as my ethnic appearance.

Despite my frustration, I am certainly not ashamed of my Chinese culture. I enjoy its world-class cuisine and I am moved by its beautiful art. I am glad to be associated with a country that has produced countless philosophers, inventors and other luminaries. Although I do appreciate Chinese culture, I am tired of others treating me as the embodiment of China, a gatekeeper to all things associated with it. I feel grateful to live in a multi-cultural city where diversity is encouraged, and outsiders are not forced to assimilate. I just wish that people appreciated me for my personality instead my supposed culture. I have made friends with people who share my interests and admire my achievements; however, I would have connected with many more people if they were not obsessed over race and identity.

Now, in the surreal and strange era of Covid-19, my racial identity no longer merely annoys me but actively puts me in danger. Racially motivated attacks towards Chinese people, or indeed anyone who looks ‘Chinese’ have dramatically spiked around the world due to Covid-19. Due to media coverage association Chinese people with Covid-19, as well as the inflammatory remarks by prominent public figures (Donald Trump, ‘Kung-flu’), a growing number of people associate every Chinese-looking person with the much-maligned Covid-19. Moreover, the actions of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) both related to the pandemic and to other issues such as its treatment of Uyghurs have also worsened some people’s perception of Chinese people as they equate the CCP’s actions with Chinese people who mostly have no influence over the CCP. Consequently, the more thuggish of those people physically and verbally abuse people they believe are of Chinese descent. Indeed, since the U.K. eased out of its first lockdown in May 2020, data from London’s Metropolitan Police indicated an increase in attacks on people of East Asian descent, with figures significantly higher than in previous years.

People of East Asian descent living in London, my home city, have reported feeling too intimidated to venture out into London for fear of being attacked. Luckily, as a student studying online, I have no such reason to leave my home very often; however, I can only wonder how safe I would be when lockdown finally lifts and normal life resumes. This is a particular injustice for me as I enjoy the benefits of living in London and before lockdown, enjoyed an active social life of mocktails in Harrods, window shopping in Sloane Square and watching theatre in the West End.

It could be argued that the racism faced by East Asians in the UK is not taken as seriously as other forms of racism due to a lack of East Asian representation in the UK’s political sphere. In the UK, there are virtually no East Asian MPs, lobby groups, political commentators or even journalists. Moreover, East Asians have historically been seen as a ‘model minority’, leading to people assuming that East Asians do not face racism and discrimination to the extent that other racial groups do.

Perhaps racism will always be an innate part of us: numerous studies have shown that people are hardwired to favourably treat their in-group i.e., their friends and family, whilst treating outsiders such as foreigners with suspicion and hostility. However, that does not make it acceptable to abuse East Asians during the pandemic. Because the Chinese and East Asian population is so small in the UK (and in many other countries), we need allies from different backgrounds to join us against the racial abuse we are facing. I need people to look at me and not see a virus, or the CCP or whatever other stereotype is associated with the Chinese and see a person who is just like them.

I am more than my heritage: I am a doting auntie, loving daughter and caring sister; I am an avid bibliophile, dedicated chocolate connoisseur and zealous environmentalist; I am your father’s student, your mother’s patient and your sister’s best friend.

Don’t let people be defined by their race.

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