This morning (June 23) as I was walking along Broadway, an elderly woman asked me, "Can tell me where to catch the bus to Maple Street?"
I said I thought it was eastbound but then I wasn't quite sure.
That slight stumble prompted her to seize on my hesitation. "What's wrong with you Chinamen?"
So I jumped on her comment. "Don't you dare say that," I said. "That's racist. And I'm Japanese, not Chinese."
"Fine! Fine!" she said.
But no, it's not fine.
This is just one example in a sharp increase in racist comments I've received from people on the street over the past few months, which has been much more frequent than what I've experienced over a lifetime of living here.
I am a fourth-generation Canadian. I've worked in offices where I was one of the only Vancouver-born employees. When I worked at Vancouver magazine, all the other editorial staff were born outside of Vancouver (including the U.S. and Atlantic Canada) while an Indonesian Canadian girl and I were the only ones born in Vancouver and who came from families that had lived in Vancouver for three and four generations respectively.
Yet when Vancouver received a surprised snowfall in February, I was waiting for the bus and a passerby mentioned that the buses were held up down the street.
A construction worker, who overheard our conversation, jumped in and said, "That's what's wrong with this country. The transit system sucks! But in your country—"
I said, "This is my country!"
"You were born here?" he asked, incredulously.
"Yes," I said, and walked away, irritated, to find another place to catch the bus. But really, I should've stayed and added that my parents, grandparents, and great grandparents all are from here too (except for the years they were interned during the Second World War, which the government has since publicly apologized for).
More recently, when I was at the Shoppers Drug Mart on Denman Street, a clerk told me what my total was for my purchase. I pulled out my change and was trying to figure out which coins to use.
She pulled the correct coins out from my hand and then started to explain the denominations very slowly and carefully: "This is 25 cents. This is 10 cents. This is 5 cents."
I asked, "Did you think I wasn't from here?"
"Oh no, no," she said, somewhat embarrassed. It's possible she may have thought I was from the U.S. but the way she spoke was extremely patronizing, as if I didn't even understand English.
I have also had a different elderly lady in Yaletown, who was ranting before I walked near her, randomly call me "You fucking children of geisha!" (well, at least she got the ethnicity right) out of the blue. She seemed crazed, possibly mentally ill, but that doesn't make it any better. (For the record, calling a Japanese person Chinese is like calling a British person French, Greek, or Danish. There is a Western history of a lack of distinguishment between Asian cultures and ethnicities that dates back to Orientalism.)
On the bus, I also heard a woman with an Eastern European accent talking about different languages and then said, "When Chinese people speak, they say ching chong, ching chong—it's all nonsense!"
So if over a billion people are talking nothing but gibberish, how is it possible that they understand one another, have built one of the earliest civilizations on the planet, and become one of the most populous ethnicities in the world? (Perhaps she was related to former UCLA student Alexandra Wallace whose racist rant using that phrase went viral in 2011.)
A number of other Asian Canadian acquaintances and friends have chimed in, saying that they've also noticed an increase in the number of similar experiences.
Darren Ho is the founder of Our City of Colours, an initiative to increase the visibility of LGBT people within cultural and lingusitic groups in Vancouver.
Ho wrote on Facebook that he was returning last night (June 22) from an Mpowerment event with an Asian friend. Mpowerment is an LGBT youth program, which Ho is the program manager of. As they were waiting to cross the street at Dunsmuir and Seymour, a white guy asked them, "Where are you guys from?"
Darren responded, "Canada."
"No I mean nah-shun-nah-li-teee," the man said.
"Canada. Nation: Canada," Ho said.
"What's your second language?" he asked.
"You're a stranger, so I'm not answering..." Ho responded.
"Ni hao," the man said. "Wipe your ass, faggot!"
It's an irritating and worrisome time.
Ever since Donald Trump was elected president of the United States, there have been anti-Chinese flyers distributed in Richmond, a smoke bomb set off at an antiracism rally, anti-LGBT flyers distributed in False Creek during the B.C. election, and an attack on Syrian refugees. Statistics Canada has also reported an increase in Muslim hate crimes in Canada. There was also the fatal mosque shooting in Quebec City in January.
On June 18, a video was uploaded of a white woman in a Mississauga clinic ranting about wanting a white doctor who spoke "perfect English" without "brown teeth" and who was born in Canada to treat her son, instead of all the "Paki doctors" at the facility. The incident has sparked an online discussion in which other doctors have expressed how this is a more widespread problem.
Adding fuel to the fire are columns and articles published in newspapers like the Vancouver Sun.
A prime example is when the Vancouver Sun published Martin Collacott's June 22 editorial entitled "Opinon: Canada replacing its population a case of wilful ignorance, greed, excess political correctness" in which he cites a U.K. professor's estimation that in 20 years, seven out of 10 people in Vancouver will be visible minorities and 80 percent of Canada will be non-white.
Collacott is a senior fellow at the Fraser Institute and a former Canadian ambassador in Asia and the Middle East.
His focus is on immigration policies. What's particularly ironic is that he states that "those who profit from mass immigration continue to laud its benefits" yet "their claims are not supported by the facts".
What he doesn't recognize is that he jumps from statistics on visible minorities to mass immigration, without understanding that just because a person is a visible minority does not mean that they are immigrants. He also doesn't recognize that a person who isn't a visible minority can also be an immigrant.
Also, where does that leave children of interracial couples, who may appear to be visible minorities?
For those who don't quite get it, I'll spell it out slowly and carefully.
If a person like me who is born in Canada; is third, fourth, or fifth generation Canadian; has no accent and speaks "perfect English" (and has a career in English-language writing as well as college-level teaching, not to ESL students but to English-speakers in creative writing), is still treated and assumed to be a foreigner, visitor, immigrant, or other ethnicities that I am not—and not as a Canadian—how can people who are immigrants, first or second generation Canadians, or newcomers, ever expect to be accepted?
What's more, there is a problem when white people who were born elsewhere are not regarded as foreigners, visitors, immigrants, or other ethnicities yet visible minorities are.
Or if there's a group called the Sons of Odin, why aren't people jumping to the conclusion that all Scandinavians are potential terrorists and racists, and corrupting Canadian equality and multiculturalism?
In a country in which Vancouver-born David Suzuki was named the fifth greatest Canadian hero in 2004, a country which has produced public figures and celebrities like actor Sandra Oh, Grace Park, and Steph Song; TV and radio media personalities, news anchors, hosts, or reporters Sook-Yin Lee, Ian Hanomansing, Andrew Chang, Mi-Jung Lee, Tanya Kim, Elaine Lui, and Ziya Tong; comedians Russell Peters and Shaun Majumder; celebrity chefs Vikram Vij, Hidekazu Tojo, and Susur Lee; NHL hockey player Paul Kariya; current and former political figures Naomi Yamamoto, Jenny Kwan, Adrienne Clarkson, and Ujjal Dosanjh; authors Evelyn Lau, Joy Kogawa, Madeleine Thien, Rohinton Mistry, and Michael Ondaatje; filmmakers Deepa Mehta, Mina Shum, and Julia Kwan; and Hollywood stars Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Tilly, and Meg Tilly (yes, they're Canadian and of Chinese descent)—just to name a few—why is it still a problem to recognize Asian Canadians as Canadians?
My theory is that people have always held these opinions and thoughts to themselves quietly, not expressing them publicly due to the status quo of political correctness. Silence, however, does not equal comprehension.
Since Trump has been elected and expressed discriminatory and arrogant opinions in public, I assume many people who hold similar opinions may feel more comfortable in expressing those thoughts in public.
Combined locally with the racially loaded real-estate debate is leading to an increasingly unhealthy social environment that we have seen before during the immigration of Hong Kong expats in the 1980 and '90s, and even further back with the Chinese Head Tax, the Continuous Journey Act (designed to exclude South Asian people from Canada) and the Komagata Maru incident, and the Japanese Canadian internment.
My only hope is that now that these opinions are being expressed publicly rather than hidden, they can be addressed and educating others can become more widespread.
That's why it's time for people, not just Asian Canadians, to speak out when they witness, read, or experience discriminatory expressions in public, whether it's racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, sexism, or any other prejudicial opinions.
Because it's not immigrants who are eroding Canadian values. It's the ignorant.