Playing Majnu in a college play
Playing Majnu in a college play

Being of Chinese descent in Pakistan, there are some fun moments, and then there are moments that make me want to move to another planet. In this new decade, the world welcomed a new virus, the fearsome Covid-19 and, for me, along with that came a rush of new knowledge about my own identity. I realised that I, and other people like me, were going to be ridiculed in a country we call home.

Here’s why. Rewind to 1988. I was born in Lahore to Chinese parents who had migrated to Pakistan in the 1980s in search of a better life, or at least that’s what I would like to assume. Growing up, I was naturally exposed to the Pakistani way of life but, at the same time, I was also connected to my Chinese culture at home. I can say very proudly that I enjoyed the best of both worlds. I was able to enjoy delicious food from both cuisines, I understand and speak two languages from each region, and I celebrate all the festivities that both cultures partake in.

But the truth is, along with the best of both my worlds, I also saw the worst of both. This is why when China’s coronavirus outbreak started making news, I knew some racist encounters were about to become a part of my daily life. Soon enough, a new slur would be used to describe people like me: Coronavirus.

Study time at the Lahore School of Economics | Photos courtesy the writer
Study time at the Lahore School of Economics | Photos courtesy the writer

I was hanging out at the mall with another Pakistani-born-Chinese friend, and a family passing us by muttered just loud enough for us to hear: “Corona”. A few moments later, a group of men walked by, and said, “Cheeni coronavirus lay ayeen hain [the Chinese have brought coronavirus with them].” A little while later, a third group comes by, and we heard the “Corona” slur thrown in our direction again.

By this time, I was livid. But because I knew I could not fight these people (hey, I’m small in size), I resorted to the only thing that I could: I sneezed.

As Covid-19 spreads globally, a Pakistani-born Chinese woman reflects on the racism she faces in the country she calls home

Simply put, they were judging us based on our race. My friend and I talked about how we both felt more and more disconnected from our own place of birth with the way things are around us.

Neither of us have been to China in recent years. The last time I was there, I was just eight years old — and that’s a long time ago. My friend and I discussed how difficult it is for us to fight back when we are attacked with racist comments. In a situation such as the one at the mall, it is us against them — a battle that we don’t think we can win. Ever. It’s unfair, but a fight is never won alone.

One day I was walking to the bank alone on the street. A group of students shouted “Coronavirus” at me. I turned around, but I couldn’t identify which one of the boys had yelled. You would think it doesn’t matter that children did that, but it hurt.

For a lot of my friends, this is a non-issue. “Why didn’t you just swear in Punjabi, that would’ve put them in their place,” some said. But would that really help? Another time, an official at the airport, ever so slowly, started to pull his mask back on when he saw me as he checked my phone for my ticket. How was I supposed to react to that? They didn’t place anyone on the seat next to me on that flight. Even though it was apparently full.

A portrait of the writer
A portrait of the writer

I was born in Lahore to Chinese parents who had migrated to Pakistan in the 1980s in search of a better life, or at least that’s what I would like to assume. Growing up, I was naturally exposed to the Pakistani way of life but, at the same time, I was also connected to my Chinese culture at home.

A couple of girls got off that plane and whispered to each other, “Oh uss se door raho, coronavirus aya huwa hai [Stay away from her, coronavirus is here],” and they proceeded to laugh after that.

My main takeaway from that day was that people behave insensitively like this most of the times to get a few laughs. But we need to find other ways of getting a kick out of things. I have learnt a great deal about compassion and tolerance through this pandemic. I have to tolerate this racism; otherwise, I’ll always be fighting on the streets. And I have realised I have to always be compassionate, because I don’t want another person to feel the way I do in the face of intolerance. This has put things into perspective for me.

It’s not all bad, of course. For every “ching chong” I get, I also get a friend who is willing to fight for me. My colleagues will glare at the motorcyclist rudely staring into my car at the traffic signal, while I’ll be the one telling them not to pay him any attention. When someone posted the comment “Coronavirus” on a story my friend posted online featuring me, he fought back with the commentator. My students tell other students off if they hear someone say ching chong behind my back.

The difference between the interactions lies mostly in the fact that the people who stand up for me have had real exposure by having a conversation, a discourse with me, about how I feel or how they feel. Those who pass slurs have not taken the time to do so. Despite this globalised world, we are still living in our own tiny bubbles, and have forgotten to think about how others feel in the face of hostile situations. We are quick to judge a person who is different. This othering needs to stop. At the end of the day, we are all humans. Peel away our skins and we’re all flesh, bones and blood (but please don’t peel it; it’s painful). I may look Chinese but that doesn’t mean I am not Pakistani. When I go out, I get stared at, I get sneered at, I get informed that I am a Chinese, or my friends get a bit too uncomfortable with the amount of attention they get for hanging around me. Is that something anyone would want for themselves?

At the end of the day, nobody will remember what someone wore but will always remember how they treated them. It is heartbreaking to hear about Chinese-looking people being bullied simply because the virus originated in China. It hurts to be honest. I cried when I watched a video of an old man being bullied by young men for being Chinese. It could’ve been my dad or uncle or brother. I wouldn’t want that. You wouldn’t want that for yourself either.

Racism feeds on hatred. Hate feeds on intolerance. Intolerance feeds on ignorance. And humans feed ignorance. Let’s not be remembered for hating each other. Sab insaan hain; everyone is human. Let’s start thinking that way. Let’s start showing compassion.

Show some compassion; thorra compassion corona.

The writer is a storyteller, theatre and film productionist, poet, singer and academic constantly in wanderlust mode

Published in Dawn, EOS, March 29th, 2020