Sting of anti-Chinese racism reverberates in-person, online a year after COVID-19 surfaced

Qian Gao’s daughter got an unwanted lesson in anti-Chinese racism while she was supposed to be enjoying a movie.

Her Grade 5 class at a Winnipeg school was watching flying bugs carrying people away when she quipped she wouldn’t want to be whisked away by an insect.

“One of the classmates, this boy, said that you guys even eat bats and living dogs … Another classmate said, that is right,” Gao said.

Her daughter, who is of Chinese descent, didn’t fully understand the anti-Chinese sentiment exuding from the remark, but she knew it stung, her mother says.

“She told me that is racist,” Gao said.

It hurt as well when that same boy, later in the winter, declared on the schoolyard that she should go home and that nobody liked her.

Pandemic exacerbated racist fears 

Her mother strongly believes her daughter faced racism stoked by the COVID-19 pandemic. She thinks the boys’ comments are no coincidence.

“In my mind, the pandemic made a lot of person worry — not only from the kids, but also from the adults,” Gao said.

Reports of anti-Asian racism have accelerated in the last 12 months of pandemic upheaval because the virus originated in China. It was fuelled in part by former U.S. president Donald Trump, who called COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and sometimes the “kung flu.”

That anti-Asian hostility has been experienced in Manitoba as well.

Gao encouraged her daughter to stand up for herself. After the girl approached the principal at her school with her story, Gao says, the boys are no longer saying mean things.

“Racism is learned,” Gao said. “I don’t want that stereotype to hurt anyone.”

She shared her daughter’s story with Jennifer Chen, a Winnipeg School Division trustee of Chinese descent who has been outspoken on anti-Asian racism. 

Chen’s public profile has made her a target of racism. Someone on Facebook compared Chen with Canada’s top doctor, Dr. Theresa Tam, a Chinese immigrant who the individual claimed was also not loyal to Canada. 

Jennifer Chen, who leads the Women of Colour Community Leadership Initiative, says Asians are sometimes reluctant to come forward with stories of racism. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

“It hurts especially because I’m trying so hard to do good things in the community and trying to myself address racism in the community,” Chen said.

Chen was behind an initiative getting restaurants run by Asians and other ethnocultural communities to prepare meals for health-care workers early in the pandemic. She also leads the Women of Colour Community Leadership Initiative, a non-profit organization advocating for women of colour.

Personally, she says she’s heard of other Chinese people reading hateful comments online, or being told they’re responsible for the virus. She says the frequency of these incidents appear to be rising. 

“Some people are afraid of sharing [publicly] because they are afraid … of being discriminated,” Chen said.

Nationwide, more than 800 hate crime incidents have been documented on the Fight COVID Racism website.

In Manitoba, the Canadian Union of Public Employees said one in five of their health-care workers who responded to a survey and self-identified as Asian reported racism or bigotry in the workplace in the first month of the pandemic.

Police in several cities, including Vancouver, Ottawa and Montreal, have all reported a spike in hate crimes against Asians. When asked about reports of anti-Asian racism within Winnipeg, the city’s police force said it received no indication of increased violence.

Before Manitoba even reported its first COVID-19 case, Wenlong Yuan’s family was singled out for being Chinese.

Forced to isolate

Early last year, his son’s daycare asked Yuan to quarantine his then-five-year-old son at home. The daycare was concerned since Yuan recently returned from China, but isolation wasn’t mandatory at the time. He even chose voluntarily to isolate in his basement, away from his wife and son.

Back then, he felt the daycare “certainly” wouldn’t have made that request if his family wasn’t Chinese. 

“I was actually going beyond the requirement of the government policy, and what I see is people still say, ‘That’s not enough,'” Yuan said in a recent interview. “That was really something that surprised me.” 

Wenlong Yuan, a University of Manitoba business professor, devotes a small portion of his MBA course on leadership and strategic change to the racial challenges faced by Asian-Canadians in the business world. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Yuan doesn’t consider the incident discriminatory. He feels the daycare, which apologized, was trying to be cautious as an infectious virus was starting to spread everywhere.

But the experience still affected him. In his 20-plus years in Canada, he had only experienced one other racist incident.

“It did start to motivate me to learn more about about Asian-Canadians in general,” said the University of Manitoba business professor.

“I know I’m Chinese, I’m Asian, but that kind of thing for me as a researcher, I had never really” looked into, he said.

He now devotes a small portion of his MBA course on leadership and strategic change on the challenges faced by Asians in the business world. They’re often less likely to get promoted because they’re generally less likely to speak up at work , he said.

“I became more sympathetic with all these groups because those are the things that that I went through,” Yuan said.