Shirley DengShirley (Xiao Xuan) Deng is a PGY1 in General Surgery at University of Toronto.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, there has been a rise in anti-Asian racism – from racial slurs, physical assaults on Asian elders, to the fatal shooting of six Asian women by someone who was having “a bad day.” The pandemic magnified and publicized long-standing anti-Asian sentiments. As a first-generation Chinese-Canadian, the recent events prompt critical reflection on my experiences that reveal an unnerving realization about myself.

I moved to Toronto when I was six-years-old from the city of Shiyan, a 5-hour-drive away from Wuhan. Like many wide-eyed immigrant families, my family picked Canada to be our new home for its education and opportunities. I would say that my upbringing was your typical, middle-class, Chinese, immigrant experience – evening trips to Chinatown for the cheapest produce, auspicious jade necklace, hand-mended socks, clothes from China with English writing that was either straight-up gibberish or syntactically nonsensical, and the occasional “Ching, chong, ding, dong” comment and slanted-eye gesture.

On my first day of school in Canada, my mom packed my twin sister and I dumplings for lunch. As we eagerly opened our Tupperware, a classmate scrunched her face, pinched her nose, and squealed “Eewww what’s that? It smells weird!” We spent the subsequent several lunchtimes, tucking into our delicious, Chinese meals in the isolated corner of the cafeteria. Fast forward to two years ago. I was sitting on the TTC subway next to a father and son. The father spent the entire ride loudly indoctrinating his young son about how Asian people can’t speak “proper” English, are cheats, and are stealing post-secondary education spots and jobs from “Canadians.” I could notice from the corner of my eye, the father glancing at me as if trying to elicit my reaction. I played ignorant by staring straight ahead with my earphones in, but my music off.

In true Asian fashion, I never disclosed any of this to my parents and they never mentioned experiencing racism to me – as if none of it ever happened. My parents speak with a heavy accent, they faxed and dropped off countless resumes, worked their way up from laborious jobs in the service industry; the chances that they have never encountered racism is next to none. However, forbearance and reticence is deeply rooted in the Chinese culture. Growing up I was taught that if I were ever victim to public harassment, I should simply ignore and walk away. Don’t ruffle any feathers. Don’t give people a reason to gossip about you. There is this romanticization of letting your success speak for itself, and the belief that proving people wrong is the best retaliation. Racist microaggressions are a small price to pay for the better life that Canada has provided us. We would be ungrateful to bite the hand that feeds us. If we just keep our heads down and work hard, then we can earn our place here.  

I accepted this. I proceeded to try my best to earn my belonging. I asked my mom to stop packing me Chinese food for lunch. When her attempt at making pizza involved using a dough recipe for steam bao and ketchup for sauce, I stopped eating lunch at school altogether. I would make an exception for Lunchables because it was a socially coveted lunch, but eating that daily was neither nutritious nor financially sustainable on my parents’ blue-collar income. When my proudly Chinese grandmother would walk me to school, I would walk a few metres in front of her. When she would yell for me in Mandarin because she was hard of hearing, my skin would crawl from embarrassment as I ran back to her, not to answer her call but to shush her from loudly speaking a non-English language in public. At school, the supply teacher taking the attendance would send me into an expertly concealed panic, as I waited for the teacher to mispronounce my documented name, Xiao Xuan. I was ashamed of my birth name, meaning dawn daylily, which is coincidentally a traditional Chinese medicine. Instead, I preferred “Shirley,” a name that was assigned to me by my first Canadian teacher because “my Chinese name was too difficult to pronounce.” To this day, when I hear my dad brazenly converse in broken English, I have to fight my reflexive, second-hand embarrassment. When the first COVID-19 lockdown came into effect, I felt somehow responsible; I held my head lower while walking the streets and grew suspicious of wandering gazes in my direction.

The pandemic has fuelled anti-Asian racism such that it has finally garnered the spotlight. Personally, the most sobering revelation is not anti-Asian hate, as xenophobia has always existed; but rather, the internalized racism I have unconsciously nurtured in my life-long pursuit of belonging. Racism is not combatted by assimilation. How others perceive me is not wholly dependent on meritocracy. Being a model minority doesn’t protect me from racism. No matter how quintessentially Canadian my values are or how much I achieve in my career, my Asian appearance sentences me to prejudice from the very society that raised me.

While I feel ashamed to admit my internalized racism, I know that I’m not alone. The classmate that ridiculed our dumpling lunch, well, she was the only other Chinese person in my first-grade class. She was simply trying to fit in by rejecting her Asian identity, at our expense.

With this realization, I am left wondering what can I do? It starts with identifying and actively correcting impulsive manifestations of my internalized racism. It involves taking a hard look at my past, and embracing and learning about my Chinese heritage. Only with change from within can I thoughtfully broach the topic of Anti-Asian Racism without hypocrisy. For me, the candid conversation starts within my own household, with my stoic dad. I am speechlessly jiāo ào (proud) of my dad, of his broken English, of his walk with his hands behind his back, and of his chopstick-wielding hands, with which he built a life for us in this amazing country we call home. Home, where belonging doesn’t demand stifling my heritage.