Nolite te bastardes carborundorum

March 24, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

I was a Foreigner, with a capital F, in London.

17-year-old me – bushy-eyed, cherubic, and, obviously, daunted by the prospects of interviewing at Oxford. That was the first time I ever set foot upon British soil – the land where the sun sets at 3:30pm sharp in the winter; also a land that was both familiar and uncanny – familiar in the sense that I’d read about it, read in its language, perfected the “r”s and glottal stops in its tongue, mastered the craft of blending in where I stood out. Yet ‘twas also strange – for one, I’d never expected tapwater to come in either scalding heat or frigid cold. Indeed, the taps were as disparately disjointed as I was, a stranger to the land.

Growing up in Hong Kong, it never struck me that I’d be a part of a ‘minority’. Perhaps privileged, perhaps fortunate, I was – but never the quantitative minority, a term and a concept that juts out inconveniently amidst the masses. English rolls off my classmates’ and my tongues as naturally as Cantonese – sometimes, even more naturally. Yet our yellow countenance was the default, the norm – it would be strange to appear ‘white’ or ‘dark-skinned’, in my rather ignorant mind. I’d grown up – initially – with the explicit assumption, and later with the internalised narrative (alongside realising that the world is not flat and that different peoples exist) that we, the Chinese, are in the majority. That being Chinese was ‘normal’.

So it suffices to say, I was in for a bit of a cultural shock when I alighted the Cathay Pacific flight in early December 2014. London seemed so different from Hong Kong and yet their fundamentals were largely the same – both are large cities, cosmopolitan in their own right, sprawling metropoles that attracted the best and brightest (and heaving crowds). And citizens from both cities were united in their diversity. Except here in London, I was – after all – a minority.

Grappling with my identity wasn’t exactly at the top of my list of to-do activities in London. After all, preparing for the interviews, snapping photos outside Buckingham Palace, and figuring out how to navigate the labyrinth that is the London Underground – all of this seemed so much more pressing and functionally useful. Yet it was hard to miss: the odd stare and nervous shuffle away from you as you walk past them on the sidewalks, the genuinely helpful question of “Do you understand what I’m saying?” or the off-hand compliment, “Your English is so good!” My favourite, of course, was when my mother was asked if she could help with scanning a grocery item at a local convenience store right by Leicester Square. Now that was a highlight.

I’ve spent six years pursuing higher education and further studies in the United Kingdom. And I’m inclined to believe that racism is alive and kicking. Yes, racism can come in the form of aggressive, bellicose smearing and slandering, or – worse yet – expletive-ridden assaults in the middle of the night, right by the kebab van. Or it could come in the form of unyielding accommodation arrangements and bureaucracy at the borders, with the intention of grilling you to your breaking point. Yet more often than not, racism comes not with malevolent intent, or the desire to maim and hurt you. Just as there is appalling racism here in Hong Kong against members of ethnic minorities (Folks like Jeffrey Andrews and Vivek Mahbubani, for one, are brilliant pioneers who have done much in seeking to combat prejudices and challenge glass ceilings in Hong Kong, but I digress), there is a plethora of racist motivations and attitudes undergirding otherwise benign individuals. Indeed, good people can be racists, too.

Yet racism can never be good. And racist acts, speech, or gestures – regardless of how noble or well-intentioned or innocent they are – have dire consequences. They affirm established bigotry and tropes, they entrench power dynamics that are innately exclusionary and discriminatory, and, above all, they normalise our drawing lines on racial grounds – to both rule in and out individuals who ostensibly deserve more, or less. Racial discrimination, even committed with the best of intentions, paves the way for dangerous sectarianism and divides to be sowed in populations. It facilitates the demarcation of the Other, and enables the hounding of those who fail to fit in, who do not conform, who cannot be Us, no matter how hard they try.

And the consequences of racism were none the clearer in the recent surge in racially motivated violence and harassment of Asian-Americans and the Asian diaspora at large in the West. An elderly woman beaten up because she looked different, eight lives claimed by the repeated refusal in the Western political establishment to acknowledge that the way they talked about China and the pandemic has effectively opened the Pandora’s box for latent racism to surface and flourish. Racism can be embedded in perfectly moral, conscientious agents – through subconscious biases and implicit tropes, such that when you pair it up with individuals with clear track records of misdemeanour and blatantly belligerent predispositions, deeply, deeply abominable results could well emerge.

The deaths in Atlanta were preventable. The beatings and haranguing and stalking and assaults on Asian-Americans are preventable. The man who told me that I ought to be grateful about the British Empire – his words, too, were preventable. All it takes, all it really, really takes, is for all of us – in the West, in the East – to take a long and hard look at ourselves, and recognise that we may well be complicit in racialised narratives and racial violence, too. Only by acknowledging and discharging our collective responsibility, could we ensure that in the future, no more – no more of such atrocities would occur.

If I could impart some words of pseudo-wisdom to my 17 year-old self, I’d say this: Brian, the onus is not on you to placate, to please, to force yourself in assimilating into a world that is hostile and unfavourable to your continued existence, that winces at your successes, that doesn’t understand whom you are. The onus is on you, however, to give Them a good run for Their money. As Atwood puts it, Nolite te bastardes carborundorum.

Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

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Assistant Professor, HKU