• Dr. Kim Stephens

Speaking Out Against Asian Hate

Updated: Apr 28, 2021

In May 2001, I made a long-awaited trip to China. I had been planning this trip for years, and I finally had the money to actually go. I was taking the trip alone, so I booked with a tour group. I was traveling to Beijing, Xian, and then Shanghai. I also book ended some work travel with a stop in Hong Kong to give a presentation on web accessibility. This was a trip of a lifetime for me. I had studied Chinese history, Chinese religion, watched Chinese movies, and I even took a class on Mandarin Chinese. I was so excited I could hardly contain myself.

However, my trip was coming during a tense time with American and Chinese relations. President Clinton had just normalized trade relations with China the prior year, and both countries were still reeling from a crash between a US reconnaissance flight and a Chinese fighter jet. So, I was worried about how I would be treated in China. I could not exactly blend in – I’m 5’8” with blonde hair and blue eyes.

My fears were quickly were quickly a memory. When I arrived in Hong Kong everyone was so friendly. Because of my novel appearance, some folks even asked if they could take a picture with me. I obliged – standing in as the American tourist. When I flew to China, I was greeted with even more kindness. I would stumble with my Mandarin, but I was always given a polite head nod and a "nĭhǎo." And one sweet little girl kept staring at me, popping out from behind her mother's legs to bid me, "hello."

As luck would have it, I was the only person booked on my tour, so in each city I had a private guide. This is amazing, especially if you have seen the large tour groups with the guide shouting at everyone through a megaphone. My guide quietly spoke in my ear as we navigated the Great Wall of China, the Summer Palace, the Temple of Heaven, the Forbidden City, and the obligatory jade factor. The real gift was being able to talk to about the Chinese culture. I asked so many questions, and he would patiently respond. And he asked so many questions of me. He had never been outside of China, so he had a limited view of the United States. I remember him asking about Michael Jackson and how university works in the US. As our comfortableness grew over the three days, I ventured to ask a little more about the politics of China. I knew my boundaries, but I was curious as to how the Chinese people perceived Americans. Dù's reply, “Oh, we don’t like your government. It overreaches. But we love Americans. We can separate a people from its government.” Twenty years later this part of the conversation continues to stick with me.

Why are we not able to separate people from their government? Why do we attribute a virus to people who had nothing to do with it? Why do we aim our pent-up fury with Covid 19 at a group of people – making broad generalizations and calling on stereotypes to fuel our hatred? This is all part of our tendency to “other” and to create an “us” and “them.” Our outlet is misguided at best and murderous at the worst. This scapegoating has been around forever, we have seen it with the Jews in the Holocaust, with the “thugs” who make our streets dangerous, the witches in Salem, and with every single time we try to find a physical outlet and common enemy to stamp the unknown on, so we can destroy it with impunity.

As with all the prior examples, we must stand up to hate wherever and whenever it occurs. Our skin has many hues – all glorious and unique. Learning to celebrate our differences and embrace each other seems so far away in this time of infighting and injustice. I have big, blue-sky dreams of changing the world. I’ve been told many times I can’t. And I see evidence every day trying to discourage me. However, I am not going to be deterred – heartbroken perhaps – but we must continue to fight against injustice where we see it. And right now, our Asian friends need us as allies and friends. I hope you will join me in my blue-sky thinking.

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