In the face of anti-Asian racism, report finds some Chinese Canadians feeling ‘wu nai’ — helpless and hopeless

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Pak-Kei Wong couldn’t always tell when he was the victim of racism.

He often questioned if he was a victim of bad luck or circumstance. Anti-Asian racism was hard to discern, he said, let alone prove.

But that changed three years ago, after the first known infections were discovered in Wuhan, China. Wong, who lives in Montreal, says he was told to “go home” by a driver of a passing car, was lectured by a cashier at the supermarket for using “dirty” cash, and just a few months ago, was spit at and threatened by a man on a train.

It was when other members of the Chinese Canadian community came forward with similar stories that it fully hit home that those experiences were not a one-off, and that anti-Asian racism — present long before the pandemic — was to blame.

“It made me realize, ‘No, this is not a you thing. This is a racism thing,'” said Wong, 41. 

“It made me feel less alone.”

WATCH | Asian Canadians open up about the racism they’ve faced: 

Asian Canadians open up about the racism they’ve faced

A new study heard the first-hand experiences of Chinese-Canadians who have dealt with hatred and discrimination before and during the COVID-19 pandemic, which some said create a feeling of hopelessness.

Wong, unfortunately, is not alone.

A report released Tuesday by The Chinese Canadian National Council Toronto Chapter (CCNCTO) and University of Toronto found that of the 31 participants who took part in their February 2022 study, a majority reported feeling wu nai — a Chinese word that means hopelessness and helplessness — in the face of prevalent anti-Asian hate, which ranges from overt racism to microaggressions, whether before or during the pandemic.

Researchers found that like Wong, some found it difficult to identify acts of racism. Others found it hard to speak out against their perpetrators or wondered if hateful incidents were their fault, leading them to stay silent and avoid causing “trouble.”

“Every single one of them is a paper cut,” said lead researcher Izumi Sakamoto, an associate professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Sakamoto says her comment refers to a line from American comedian Margaret Cho, who has said, “Living in this country as a minority is like dying of a thousand paper cuts.”

“It’s not that big of a deal to go to [the] emergency room for. But if you get it 1,000 times every day, eventually it’s going to break your soul,” Sakamoto said. 

Response to anti-Asian racism varies by generation

Sakamoto says her research team chose to study this topic using a “community-based participatory research” method to make sure they could report from within the community, and just not on it.

“We felt that it was important to engage people more deeply in order to hear stories that are honest and authentic, as opposed to something that people would just respond in a short survey,” said Sakamoto. 

Izumi Sakamoto is an associate professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Her research and teaching focus on topics such as anti-oppression and community organizing.
Izumi Sakamoto is an associate professor at the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work. Sakamoto was the lead researcher behind the study. Her research and teaching focus on topics such as anti-oppression and community organizing. (Submitted by the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work)

While there were similarities in reported anti-Asian racism, the researchers found participants from different generations treat the subject of anti-Asian sentiment differently. 

Older participants said it was difficult speaking about anti-Asian racism to their families as many don’t speak English proficiently and thus have a hard time identifying racist incidents, defending themselves or finding support after the fact.

On the other end, the report says younger participants found it difficult to speak about anti-Asian racism with older Chinese Canadians because they wanted to avoid worrying them. Younger participants also said more should be done to change some traditional Chinese beliefs such as stoicism that can contribute to people suffering in silence — which some older participants agreed with.

But the report notes all participants encouraged one another to keep speaking out and trying to destigmatize dialogue on anti-Asian racism, which will hopefully bring “meaningful change” in the future.

“The racial justice movement is not only just one generation’s work,” said Tang. 

How to combat anti-Asian hate 

Sakamoto says the report builds on recent research that outlines a “disturbing trend” of a surge in reported anti-Asian racist incidents since the pandemic started. There were 943 reports of racist incidents across Canada in 2021, a 47-per-cent increase over 2020, according to data from CCNCTO and grassroots organization Project 1907.

Jessie Tang, the executive director of CCNCTO, says not only does this report dig into the specific impact of hate toward Chinese Canadians, but it serves as a reminder to Canadian government leaders and society that anti-Asian racism as a whole still needs to be eradicated.

“I think it’s really important for [the] Asian community to tell our story,” said Tang. 

While the topic of anti-Asian hate has been brought to Parliament Hill for debate, CCNCTO would like to see more done to address the issue. The report lists several recommendations on how Canadians can combat anti-Asian hate, which include:

  • More funding and support from all levels of government, other funding agencies and businesses for Asian Canadian communities to develop culturally-specific services.
  • Developing comprehensive anti-Asian racism education within the public system.
  • Helping Asian Canadian communities and groups in their work on racial justice.
  • Raising awareness about racial justice and reporting incidents of racism.

When asked to comment on the report and its calls to action, Ontario’s Ministry of Citizenship and Multiculturalism said in an email that it’s investing $3.2 million to help more than 50 organizations and communities build the capacity to “combat racism and hate, create cross cultural dialogue and strengthen the voices of those impacted.”

“There is no place for racism and discrimination of any kind in Ontario and we condemn anti-Asian racism in the strongest terms,” the ministry said.

‘People need to step up’

The federal government did not provide a response to CBC Toronto’s requests for comment.

Tang maintains that nearly three years into the pandemic and almost two since six Asian women were killed in mass spa shootings in Atlanta, Georgia, all levels of government have punted the issue of anti-Asian racism around, and not enough has been done to eradicate anti-Asian sentiment altogether.

“This report is also a reminder that these things are happening,” said Tang.

For his part, Wong says while the report is a good first step into assessing the damage of anti-Asian hate, there’s still much more to be done.

“Change needs to occur. Policy changes need to occur. Mentality changes need to occur,” said Wong.

“People need to step up more and call this out.”

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