'The Pandemic Made Being Asian My Only Defining Trait'

·5-min read
Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I was scrolling on my phone as I stepped in line for Pret one afternoon, when I heard someone cough. Before I knew it, the lady in front of me stepped sharply backwards onto my feet, almost knocking my phone out of my hands. I looked up, and the queue had all but vanished. All I could see was the young man who’d coughed, standing alone in the middle of two groups of people, as if there was a force field around him.

This is who we have become during the pandemic: people who distance themselves. Instead of a ‘bless you’ after a sneeze or a pat on the back after a cough, we stare and assume the worst in other people - we take our steps back.

But over the last 16 months, I’ve realised people step back from me even when I don’t cough.

Born and raised in Hong Kong, growing up I’d never raised questions about the shape of my eyes or the colour of my skin, because most people around me looked the same. Four years ago, I hopped on a plane and headed halfway across the world to Scotland for university. It was there that I slowly started to realise that people, consciously or not, make assumptions based on my appearance. And in recent months, the pandemic has hugely exacerbated the issue.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

‘Singaporean student in London bashed after responding to racist coronavirus taunts.'

‘“Chinese virus, get out!”: lecturer beaten in UK amid spike in hate crimes.'

Now when I'm scrolling on my phone, these headlines cross my line of vision. I see pictures of bruised faces and bloody wounds, and wonder what I would do in the face of a racially-motivated attack. Would I be able to run away? Would I dare fight back? And if I did fight back, would I be prosecuted because I'm Chinese?

In January, I was walking towards the entrance of my local Sainsbury’s when I made eye contact with a group of teenagers standing outside. They nudged each other and started coming towards me, smirking. My heart sank. I kept my head down and sped up. All I could see were my brown leather boots - my eyes focussed on the white scuff mark on the tip of the right big toe. The blood pounding in my ears drowned out their chatter until someone shouted, ‘Heya chink!’, loud and clear. I watched my boots run through the supermarket’s automatic doors as their sniggers faded behind me.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

I felt my fingers burning and I looked down. My coffee was dripping onto my hand, which was tightly clenched around my cup. Yet, more than pain, I felt relief — relief over the fact that all I had to deal with were two words and spilt coffee.

would say also that we do actually want her to do what she set out in the original pitch. Which is to talk a bit higher up about the fact that FAR from a mask offering her anonymity, which is what we assume it does... when she has a mask on, it massively draws the focus to her eyes, for lack of being able to see the rest of her face.

She does sort of cover this at the end but it's a bit convoluted, It needs to be put a bit more like I have here and also higher up. Probably just after the par that ends " all I had to deal with were two words and spilt coffee"

You might think that wearing a face mask would afford me some anonymity; some relief from the sideways stares. And it has made me incognito, but not in a good way. While most people’s identities are hidden by their masks, my mask has reduced me to a single defining trait; the one thing that my mask does not cover: my eyes — mono-lidded, slanted downwards, Asian. With my mask on I am a caricature, and one that has become wrongly compounded with the virus that's ravaging the world.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

While TikTok trends kept most people sane under lockdown, one trend in particular drove me to distraction: the #foxeyechallenge — a make-up trend that involves the users applying eyeshadow and liner to angle the eye upwards for an elongated finish. It’s often coupled with the ‘migraine’ pose, which involves placing your fingers near your temples to pull back the skin around your eyes.

Last February, the Internet went wild with millennials attempting to make their eyes look narrow and slanted because it was deemed ‘sexy’ when emphasised with make-up on the likes of supermodels Bella Hadid and Kendall Jenner. Two months later, the same eyes were used to make fun of Chinese people by luxury fashion’s favourite DJ, Michel Gaubert, who wore a ‘Wuhan Girl’ paper mask at his ‘Asian-themed’ dinner party in Paris. Only a few noted the irony.

Over the past year, I’ve developed a habit of putting my face mask on in front of the mirror by the front door before I turn the latch. What I’ve seen in the reflection is not just a woman getting ready to head out the house in a global pandemic. I’ve grown to see a woman with eyes too slanted, a woman with corneas in a shade of brown so dark they look as black as her hair — a woman who looks 'different'.

Photo credit: Getty Images
Photo credit: Getty Images

Walking in a town I’ve called home for the past four years, I’ve never been so aware of my appearance, even with half my face covered. The things that my face mask does not hide — my narrow eyes, black hair and yellow skin — have become all that I am.

For an object designed to conceal and protect, what the face mask has actually done is expose and intensify a racism that is deeply entrenched. For something like a uniform, it has reduced me to a point of difference, steadily undoing any assimilation of the last few years. I am now, in my own mind, consciously other.

Eventually, we will be free from the Covid-19 — but when will we truly be free?

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