Asian South Africans: Time to fight back

I am Chinese. I live in South Africa, but I have long doubted I will ever be a South African. Not because I refuse to become a South African, but because South Africans have made it clear that they won’t easily accept me.

A few years ago, when I came back from a visit to China, as the plane descended from the sky, and the view of Table Mountain became increasingly clear, the euphoria of homecoming ran through my body. 

When I waited for passport control, I felt proud to be standing in the local queue, to be a part of this rainbow nation — black, white, coloured, Indian — and me. I especially remember what the border control officer said to me as he handed back my green passport: “Welcome home, Sammy.”

If being a South African is obtaining its passport, then I am a South African. If being a South African means to be devoted to its economic development, its social harmony and the upliftment of its vulnerable people, then I am also a South African. Some might argue that to be truly South African, you need to be a part of its struggles — to witness its rawness, to immerse oneself in its past, to experience first hand its violence, its poverty, its inequality … even with such stringent conditions, I would still be considered South African. 

But when I walk down the street, not many will see me and think of me as such. 

When I went to night clubs in my first year at university, I was made fun of and shunned by black South Africans, white South Africans, Indian South Africans and coloured South Africans.

For the past 10 years that I have spent living here, I have been  referred to by some as “Ching Chong” or “Kung fu”, even “Chinese p*ssies” when out with friends. Once, when I was volunteering at a school, a social worker called me “Jackie Chan” in front of a crowd of students. I felt embarrassed as everyone else laughed.

I still feel anxious whenever I walk past groups of youths since I fear them pushing me, shouting at me,  jeering at me or laughing as they have done before. 

I have been urged to “go back to China” by a white man standing on his apartment balcony when I was simply taking a stroll with my parents.

I have become increasingly concerned for my mother’s safety and accompany her when she does shopping, just a two-minute walk away. 

Since the pandemic, I have become more paranoid about reading YouTube/news comments, checking Facebook or having an Instagram account because I have felt attacked from left, right and centre. 

News outlets mask their bigoted views of Asians with “journalistic freedom”. 

Articles that ostracise the Asian community and hurt their feelings have gone more viral than Covid-19. 

Social media did its fair share, too — many have partaken in this extravaganza of disparaging memes, videos and other forms of disinformation.

In South Africa, there are also some who claim the country is under neocolonial control of China, whereas others used outright xenophobic tweets and hashtags (#NoChineseInParliament) when the ANC’s Dr Xiaomei Harvard was made an MP.

Having always been outspoken on current affairs, I decided to withdraw from any public discussions. How do you argue back when it feels like the whole world is turned against you?

But what has happened in the US in the past few weeks has truly shaken me to my core and prompted me to write again.

Last month, an 84-year-old Thai immigrant died after being violently shoved to the ground during his usual morning walk in San Francisco. A 91-year-old Asian man was assaulted on the pavement in Oakland and a stranger on the New York subway slashed a 61-year-old Filipino American passenger’s face with a box cutter.

Last week six Asian women were shot dead in Atlanta in what has been described as a racist attack.

Anti-Asian hate is as ancient as eugenics, as prevalent as racism towards black people is in the West, and as entrenched as white supremacism. The pandemic just gave racists another reason to lash out at the Asian community.

I think there are three main reasons why hate towards Asians is so rampant.

Firstly, apart from being on the receiving end of generic xenophobia, Asian South Africans and Americans suffer from an additional layer of attack that is associated with people’s assumptions about our political affiliations. 

In other words, we are targeted  for our cultural identity, on the one hand, and our political identity, on the other. 

I believe many of us faced additional criticisms from other communities out of a hatred for the Chinese political system, despite the fact that Chinese South Africans are, mostly, not politically affiliated with the Chinese government. 

Political anger became mixed up with racism — the lines between hating the Chinese government and hating the Chinese became increasingly blurred. 

Hate feeds on hate until one day, people only remember the feeling of anger and not its source. When this happens, the non-Chinese Asian community also becomes collateral damage since most people cannot tell Chinese and non-Chinese Asians apart.

The second reason is that most Asians believe in social harmony; subservience and tolerance are strong elements of our shared culture. One could consider these beliefs as remnants of Confucianism. If you ask any Asian friend what their parents said when they faced their first incidence of racism at schools, it is almost certain that they were told to be more understanding and tolerant, rather than being told that they were entitled to be angry and fight back.

The third reason, I believe, is because Asian communities are generally much smaller. Such is true in South Africa, the US and Europe. A smaller community means fewer votes, and therefore far less attention being paid to our plight. 

This also explains why Asians are underrepresented in the political arena in countries outside of Asia.

Therefore, I don’t believe any change will take place at a high level to address the rise in Asian hate. Even after the pandemic is over, Asians will still be hated and discriminated against.

Any change that is likely to happen will have to come from within.

The first step for this, I believe, is for Asians to distinguish their political identities from their cultural identities. Abstaining from a political discussion that is forced upon you simply because you look Chinese is a good place to start. 

If you are Chinese, you have absolutely no obligation to account for anything that the Chinese government is said to be doing. If you are Korean, you have absolutely no obligation to answer the question: “How do you feel about the South-North relationship?” 

After all, we don’t usually ask Afrikaans-speaking South Africans what they think of what is happening in the parliaments of the Netherlands, France or Germany or the English South Africans what they think of everyday British politics.

Political animosity among East Asians themselves, especially Japanese, Chinese and Korean, should be set aside from our cultural uniformity and ethnic brotherhood. 

Recent events have shown very clearly that, where racism is concerned, no distinctions will be made between Chinese, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian or Thai.

The second step is to recognise the necessity of fighting back. 

Violence is generally condemned, but violence is an inherent part of a struggle. When all paths of recourse are depleted, a violent comeback is not only forced upon us but can also be effective. 

Opponents may point to the history of South Africa and the US and argue that a peaceful solution is more effective than any violent ones. And indeed, I agree with them. 

Whether it is Nelson Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr, those who have made a real impression on our world are usually those who have stood for peace. 

But it is important to recall history and recognise the fact that peace and violence are always co-existent, and they should be — peace is a frontier for discussion, but violence serves as an indispensable deterrence for blatant violation of human rights. 

As is consistent with the belief of Malcolm X — both bullet and ballot should be proposed as managerial solutions.

What I am referring to here, however, is a violent mindset — a mindset that goes against our Confucianism and assures strong reactions to conspicuous hate crimes. 

Violence is not an end, but a means to an end — a message to the haters that we are not afraid, that our sisters are not powerless sexual objects in their orientalist delusions, that our brothers are not effeminate cowards as many people would like to believe to this day.

It is a violent mindset I wish to have myself.

Therefore, from now on I proclaim:

I am Chinese.

I am South African.

I am a Chinese South African.

Fucking deal with it. 

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Sammy Pan
Sammy Pan is an economics master’s student at the University of Cape Town. He founded the first Mandarin-speaking educational platform, Beacon Education, helping those who struggled with language and cultural barriers in South African schools

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