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RACISM & XENOPHOBIA DURING COVID-19: IN MY SHOES

My family and I arrived in Canada in 1979 and I grew up in a highly immigrant area of the multicultural city Toronto. My best friend was Portuguese, I played all day with the kids on my street, who were Italian, Korean, Chinese, Jamaican, Trinidadian... In elementary school, we held multi-cultural days where everyone came dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing and ate delicious traditional food. We not only celebrated Christmas but also Lunar New Year. I was fortunate because, living in an immigrant area and a multi-cultural country, my experience with outward racism wasn't too bad compared to others. I had a few "ching chong ching chongs" here and there and had the food I brought to school made fun of, such as Bánh Mì (we were just ahead of the game folks). I grew up ashamed of all the knick-knacks in our house from the wooden panels of horse carvings to the clamshell lobster clock to the fake orange and banana trees in the corner of the room.

In high school I became quite an Anglophile because of the music that I loved, from Depeche Mode and The Smiths to the whole 90s Britpop explosion. I never had any Vietnamese friends growing up so my Vietnamese identity was never in the forefront or so important to me. However, I did feel different sometimes. When I would be in a room and I was the only Asian there, it made me feel uncomfortable and felt like I was being stared at. I also had to deal with racist remarks. I'll give you an example that occurred to me in my early 20s. I was on a train in Northern England, and two teenagers started to harass me and my caucasian boyfriend at the time, saying to him, "Why are you with her? You should be with your own kind." Seeing that something might kick up, the adults in the same cart, got up and left to another cart. I had to think to myself, do I ignore it or confront it. I decided to ignore it because I felt it could turn worse and could turn violent. Eventually, our stop came, we got off and I broke down crying. I would always be the "Other".


However, this all changed in 2001, when I went to Vietnam for the first time since leaving at six months old. Woah! Everyone looked like me. Things started to make sense of why we did what we did growing up. Laughing cow cheese? Bread with butter and sugar? Now it made sense. This was eaten everywhere. I remember one moment sitting outside The War Remnants museum and I started to cry and thought to myself, "This is where I'm from."


Fast forward a few years later and I moved to Vietnam for work and then like many, just stayed. I've been here for 14 years and while it was hard in the beginning, I've come to learn and accept my identity, which when asked, I say, "In Vietnam I'm Canadian-Vietnamese and in Canada, I'm Vietnamese-Canadian", because how we view ourselves is really tied into how others view us.

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there has been a rise in racism towards Asians all over the world, including US President Trump calling it the "Chinese Virus" and White House Officials calling it "Kung-Flu". Asians have been violently attacked and boycotts of Asian establishments have caused closures throughout the world. As the Western world attacks on Asians rise, it's a different story here in Vietnam.


Recently, in Vietnam, there has been an increase in racism towards foreigners. As of March 21st, 2020, there are 91 confirmed cases, with approximately half being foreigners. As the infected cases started to increase after Patient 17, from travelers coming into the country, many Vietnamese people started to fear contact with foreigners. In this heavy tourist country, tourists' hotel reservations were canceled, signs were posted refusing service or foreigners were just waved away as they started to approach vendors. Expats living here have been lumped together with tourists and they started to feel the effects in their everyday life in the office and on the streets. My Indian friend, who has been living here for over four years was waved off as she started to approach a local street fruit cart. People who have been working side by side for years were now openly blaming their foreign colleagues for the increase in infected cases since Patient 17.


Hidden Saigon experienced this first hand during our final tour before our temporary closure. We were taking a group of three Asian Americans and three foreigners into a local market. We were all masked up and the guests were informed not to touch anything, in an attempt to ease seller concerns. However, anytime we stopped to talk, the sellers waved us off. One of our guests decided to wait for the rest of the group outside in order to make the sellers and himself feel more comfortable.


As incidences such as these started to get more coverage on social media and in the news, unlike other countries, the Vietnamese government swung quickly into action. As Western nations such as the U.S. fuel the fire or do little to nothing to try and curb the violence and xenophobia, the Vietnamese government made a declaration that people could be fined for refusal of service to foreigners. They also provided a hotline for foreigners to call for assistance and to report the situation.

While I don't condone the racist actions, I also think that this can be a great learning experience for those foreigners who have been treated in this manner. Take this opportunity to learn and process what it's like for people of colour on a daily basis. That this is our norm. That we grow up with people saying to us "ching chong ching chong". That we get pulled over for no reason. That we are beaten up for our skin colour. That we are made fun of for our accent, for our food, for our culture. So, if you're struggling on how to act and feel when this happens, take a step back and remember that this is what we have to deal with ALL THE TIME. Take this small moment in time, where you are able to walk in our shoes, and learn from it.


But hey Vietnam! Let's not take a cue from the West. We've been doing a great job curbing the pandemic in Vietnam and this nasty side of the effects of this pandemic is something we should fight against here. I understand that fear can make people behave contrary to their regular behaviour, but we must do our best to combat acting on those feelings.

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