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Opinion: 'Take your virus back to China' is one of the ready-made slurs we hear

Trinity researcher Moonyoung Hong outlines the racist abuse she and other Asian women receive in Ireland.

Moonyoung Hong

THE ATLANTA SHOOTING on 16 March, killing eight - six Asian women, four of whose names were like mine – has pushed the president of the United States to condemn anti-Asian racism and many hurt, angry, and fearful Asian communities around the world to speak up.

It is disturbing that this attention comes at the cost of these women’s lives. 

Some lives do not get the attention they deserve. On 20 January, Urantsetseg Tserendorj, a Mongolian woman who worked as a cleaner, was stabbed near the IFSC in Dublin on her way home.

She was taken to hospital but died on 3 February. As a recent letter to the Irish Times points out, coverage of the case was minimal, in stark contrast to the recent murder of Sarah Everard in the UK. Both are horrific, but why are some lives more “grievable” than others?

Hate on the rise

Instances of racism have become more frequent and intense since the start of Covid-19. Ireland is no exception. The Irish Network Against Racism (INAR) reported an increase in 2020.

This includes Xuedan (Shelly) Xiong being pushed into the Royal Canal and Martin Hong and Arthur Ma in Cork being physically assaulted in August of last year. Úna-Minh Kavanagh, a Kerry woman of Vietnamese descent, has given accounts of anti-Asian racist insults and harassment as far back as 2013.

“These things don’t die down, they build up,” warns Hazel Chu, the Lord Mayor of Dublin, who has received more racist abuse than ever in the past year. Our place among “Normal People” is still regularly contested, as demonstrated by Aoife Hinds’ experience while filming the hit drama.

There are countless unreported cases on top of these official accounts that make living in Ireland as an Asian woman difficult.

Endless ‘ch’-words that can be hurled at you without warning. A teenage boy once asked me in the street whether my eyes are open or closed. Added to the list of ready-made slurs is now: “take your virus back to China.”

Sometimes it’s overt hate thrown at you; I’ve been pushed and grabbed, told to go back to the Philippines. Sometimes it can be a glance or a vibe: a woman standing next to me on the bus pulling her child away from me and towards everyone else, as though I was the virus. 

Asian stereotypes

The long history of fetishising Asian women as exotic, submissive, and hypersexualised makes us particularly susceptible to sexual harassment and abuse; we are not taken seriously as competent workers, but regarded as cheerful objects to boost men’s egos.

I’ve been told by a middle-aged taxi driver that I remind him of his 20-year-old wife from Thailand; I was once asked by a professor to come to his hotel room to “cheer him up”.

Another professor at a conference praised how his son’s new Korean girlfriend was extremely petite and polite: his son “was really into Japanese girls but has moved on to Korean girls”. He never mentioned a word about my presentation. 

These aren’t simply gross remarks. These thoughts and attitudes have consequences. In my first year in Ireland, I escorted a Korean woman to the criminal court. She had been severely beaten and sexually assaulted by an Irish man. She spent two weeks in hospital with her head swollen to twice its usual size.

Despite clear evidence, the man received two years’ probation and only had to pay for damaging her phone. He was drunk, a first-time offender, and a ‘decent family man’. It had taken two years for this case to be brought to court. If the severest assault is left off the hook like this, what is happening in thousands of other cases?

Shining a light

Speaking up in this way goes against my nature and upbringing. I have been silently living in fear, pretending that these things didn’t happen. More than the frequency, however, it is the randomness that scares me.

I avoid going out alone at night; but the fact that a stranger, out of nowhere, can still physically push me on Dame Street in daylight, that a friend or colleague can be “casually” racist, that is what makes me feel paranoid and constantly on edge. 

It is tiresome to explain why or how certain things are “racist” or not. When you share your experiences to make a point that racism exists at every level – from small remarks to the fear of being stabbed; from the streets to the ivory tower – there are always people willing to dispute or deny them.

“Woke police” – a mocking term to undermine people calling out instances of abuse – distracts from the issue of systemic racism and how power works. It shuns responsibility and self-awareness by falsely ascribing power to those calling for basic rights and dignity.

“Not everyone is a racist”, “Asians are racists too”, or “move if you don’t like it here” – those words will not resolve the issues at hand. They will not make us feel safer or less discriminated against. This defensiveness perpetuates “the freedom of violence”, while shutting down attempts to achieve real equality.

People don’t like to admit they are wrong: it is easier to blame the other party for causing the feeling of discomfort. Unprecedently, settled white people are being confronted with their “whiteness” and forced to see themselves – as privileged and as perpetrators.

For most people of colour and other ethnic minorities in the Western world, we have been carrying this discomfort, this self-consciousness about our race, for a long time.

From the hateful glances to outright bullying, we have been made to feel different, that we don’t belong, and that we are inferior. We have internalised and normalised it ourselves to the extent that we often accept it as a fact of life.

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This “fact”, however, is a crooked system, a crooked culture, that needs to be changed. Even if attempts at changing this fact involve wearing the “woke police” badge, we must continue to act and extend solidarity to those fighting the battle, whether it is George Floyd or those closer to home.

Moonyoung Hong is a PhD researcher in the School of English at Trinity College, Dublin.

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