“I just want people to love us like they love our food” | City | Halifax, Nova Scotia | THE COAST
Photograph by MO PHÙNG

“I just want people to love us like they love our food”

Five Haligonians share their experiences with anti-Asian racism in our city.

Haligonians, like all Canadians, are fond of thinking of themselves as “better than Americans.” This thought comes with a gentle self-congratulatory pat on the back, and a brazen lack of awareness about the ways anti-Asian racism permeates the membranes of our city.

When a racist, misogynist 21-year-old murdered eight people, six of Asian descent, in Atlanta in March, Canadians rubbernecked at their neighbour to the south. Couldn’t happen here, wouldn’t happen here.

But for Asian-Canadians living here, the shooting—and the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes across the country—isn’t benign. “We don't need to wait until worse things happen in the community to actually realize there's everyday racism everywhere,” Konatsu Itoh tells The Coast.

Five people have shared their stories of everyday racism that happened here in Atlantic Canada with The Coast. We present them now as this year’s Asian Heritage Month begins in Canada.

Not-so-micro micro-aggressions
Konatsu Itoh highlights the violence of stereotyping

I grew up in Japan until I was 12 and my parents decided it'd be beneficial for me to be in Canada for my future career. At first, I was not happy because how everything made me feel in Canada. I felt powerless and embarrassed because I wasn't able to communicate with other people and didn't understand why I was here. After a few years, my English skills improved and I start seeing the benefit of being abroad. I had become more aware of how people view my home country and my perspective was broadened.

I was in PEI, visiting my partner's cousin's wedding. I was just having a good time chatting with the family and this man comes by me. He started telling me how he has visited Japan before in the ’80s when he worked at Yamaha, which coincidentally is where my dad worked for his entire career. I was excited and told him, but he pretended he didn't hear me and went on with his story.

He explained his first time in Japan as "surprisingly advanced for an oriental country." I had to pause for a second and rethink what I was feeling. The word "oriental" itself isn't offensive, but the context he used it in was as "rural" and something to be looked down at, from a white man's perspective. The issue was, being not "urban" was to be looked down at, even though it has nothing wrong with being not "advanced" in North American standard. Also, he didn't care what we had in common.

He didn't care one bit about what I had to say, because he was only there to tell me how impressive it is to be so advanced in an Asian country and he is proud of me, as a stranger Asian girl. After he told me his story, he was so satisfied and just walked away. He didn't see me as a person, but only as that Asian girl who climbed up to his standard.

This may sound like less painful than being spat at, yelled at or punched at, but when you experience this kind of degrading event on a regular basis, you start devaluing your own background and culture. This is still toxic. Not challenging stereotypes and prejudices based solely on differences may lead to violences. We don't need to wait until worse things happen in the community to actually realize there's everyday racism everywhere.

Insults in the line of duty
Racism from patients requires its own form of patience.

I am a registered nurse working in the HRM. I like to spend my days off with my friends and family. However, if I am not working, you will most likely find me in the kitchen. I am a big foodie, and I love to find new recipes or new restaurants to try.

My family and I immigrated here from Hong Kong to Halifax in 1992. I spent most of my younger years here in Halifax, but also spent a lot of time moving back and forth due to my father’s business in Hong Kong. My parents still move back and forth between countries, however for me, my life is in Halifax, and I’ve been permanently here since I came back for university at 17 years old. This year I am turning 28 years old.

My first degree was in Chemistry, but knowing that was not what I wanted to do, I went back to university for my nursing degree. I always wanted to be a nurse growing up; I always wanted to become someone who can care and support others. I am very proud of myself for achieving that goal. I love nursing and I do not regret entering this profession. Nursing in itself is a very difficult profession to begin with. COVID-19 really highlighted the hardship nurses and other healthcare professions face. Healthcare professionals are constantly placed in vulnerable positions where their health and wellbeing may be at risk. In addition to being a healthcare worker and a visible minority, I feel that I am in a much more vulnerable position than most.

As a minority, I get indirect and direct racism throughout my general daily life. However, getting racism comments as a working nurse hits different. My priority as a nurse is to provide care and support to my patients—I often put their priorities ahead of me. If I was to receive racist or negative comments towards me, I will neglect it, or most often, “laugh it off.” I will admit that it has affected my mental health. C19 posed a lot of stress on healthcare workers, but also on Asian communities. As a working Asian nurse amidst the pandemic, I do sense the extra stress, and did notice more racial comments being made.

Comments like often being called “the Asian nurse,” or constantly being asked “where I am really from” is embedded in my daily work life. Being Canadian Chinese, and growing up in Canadian culture, I find myself often brushing off Asian jokes and comments. As a teen trying to assimilate into Canadian culture, that was my coping mechanism, and as an adult, it has become the norm. It is what I know.

However, some day during last year, I couldn’t hold it in anymore. For the very first time, I came home crying after finishing a whole 12-hour shift. The racist comments I had received that day toppled me over. Being asked whether there will be any “Caucasian nurses” on later that night after putting in efforts to provide the best care for that patient was too much to handle. I tried my best to not look weak at work, I also did not want to be labelled as overreacting. I did tell my co-workers but I jokingly laughed it off as per usual. Once I came home, I broke down. My boyfriend held me and I just cried.

I have come to the realization that this is not OK anymore. With the recent violence made directly to our community, something has to change. As being part of this community, I cannot “laugh it off” anymore. I am ready to speak up and to stand up for our amazing culture and community.

Anti-social Media
After posting a video of a racist road rage incident, Ami Goto received even more hate.

When I started writing about my experiences, sadly there were too many experiences of racism and misogyny that popped in my head. For many years, I kept silent about it. Because I kept being reminded that I’m an outsider so I felt like I had to deal with it myself. It’s “my” problem....

But an incident happened a few years ago and I couldn’t let it go this time. I experienced road rage on the highway and got stopped by a middle-age white man at a red light and he made a racist remark to my face. Maybe he was having a bad day.

Luckily my partner filmed him when he made this comment. And we decided to post on social media to let people know this kind of racism exists in Halifax. But it was a huge mistake. I received an insane amount of hate and threatening messages from strangers.

“Go back to where you come from” (typical)

“Must be hard to driving with your small eyes lol“

“Can you reach to gas pedal with your short leg?”

“Asian b***h can’t drive”

“Asian is the worst driver”

“Just die”

These are all from strangers.

They immediately took this awful man’s side without knowing the truth. Only because I’m Asian.

It took me a long time just to feel safe and I don’t think I’ll ever recover from this, because many more experiences have been added to my “racist experience list” since then.

We just want everyone to love us like people love our food.

Opportunity at a cost
Facing sexual harassment and cultural exploitation on the job.

I’m a 27-year-old first-generation Korean/Canadian; born in Toronto, I moved to Halifax in 2016 on a whim. My childhood in Ontario was full of Korean traditions. My mother and I would make kimchi every couple of months, she’d teach me how to ferment my own doenjjang (soybean paste), and I would switch from speaking Korean and English often.
Walking around the city of Halifax I felt loneliness, not only because I didn’t know anybody here, but because I felt like I was losing touch with the traditions that made up who I was.

This was a new feeling to me because I spent my whole life up until then hating my Korean facial features and the food we ate. I can remember being a small child and feeling a sense of not belonging. White kids pulling their eyes at me, and saying my lunches smelled bad. Every Asian kid has these types of memories, when their parents spend hours in the morning making them bento boxes, jjajangmyeon (black bean noodles), et cetera and feeling anxious to open up their lunch boxes. I often opted out of eating these lunches and soon my mother found out I was throwing them out. I still feel awful about this.

A couple months after I moved here, I got a job at a gourmet burger restaurant. I found myself enjoying working on the line and realized I loved the rush of the kitchen. This kickstarted my career working in the hospitality industry. My boss at the time was a chill, laid-back guy who would encourage me to make a feature burger inspired by my culture. Of course it was a kimchi burger. It was simple but delicious. During this time I started to see that kimchi and gochujjang were becoming popular in restaurants. Part of me was excited, I knew how delicious Korean food was and was glad my culture was finally getting recognized. But another part of me was angry. Angry that the same types of people who were making fun of me for my lunches were the people blogging about and praising kimchi.

I started making and selling jars of kimchi around the city but was shunned away by most restaurants because they were already using a brand of kimchi, made by a white person. I felt defeated, but as I was walking around I stumbled upon an “Asian fusion” restaurant. The owner just happened to be outside and we got chatting. He ended up offering me a job and I left my burger family to work for this man.

The first few months were great, I learned a lot and I was given so many opportunities. But as time went on other staff members started to sneer at me. Saying things like, “you’re only here because [owner’s name] likes Asian women.” Or I would get, “be careful around [owner’s name].” I shrugged them off. I was on my own journey and was thankful that this man gave me a chance even though I had not gone to culinary school. A couple weeks passed, and I started to understand why my co-workers were warning me.

The boss would take me to catering events and talk about his sex life and touch me inappropriately. We would work the line together every so often and he would grab my hand and pull it towards his groin. He would walk up close behind me and whisper in my ear, “my yellow fever is flaring up.” He would grab and pull my hair, pin me up against walls with his body. This went on for a year and a half. He fetishized me and groomed me while also exploiting my culture for his restaurant. I finally got the courage to leave, but still to this day I fear him and many white male chefs.

Since then, I’ve managed to cook at some pretty amazing restaurants with chefs and co-workers that made my safety and wellbeing a priority. I’m thankful for these people. But being in this industry hits too close to those painful memories. Seeing white people bastardize my culture’s food and turning it into a trend while ignoring the hate that’s happening to the Asian community is hurtful. It leaves me feeling like I have to hide my precious recipes and who I am, afraid that that will be stolen from me.

No direction home
Mariko Paterson wants to feel like her country is hers.

I am the daughter of a Japanese mother (raised and interned during WWII in Canada) and a Caucasian father—from Scotland, to be more specific. I was born in Vancouver and from a very early age my family was subjected to extreme bigotry by our next door neighbour for more than 20 years, despite our upper middle-class place of residence and other Asian neighbours who turned a blind eye to what was going on. What can I say...sucks to be an of a mixed-race and dumped on too. As this started in the ’70s it took until the ’90s for the police and other various organizations to involve themselves, but by then, the seed had been planted. We were others now and forever more.

While growing up there we were prepared to suffer all sorts of “microaggressions” as they have become known today, but I have lived all over North America and as someone about to turn 50, it saddens me to see them rearing their tiny, ugly heads in all shapes and forms; they are constant cultural Joy- Whack-a-Moles if you will.

I was not in the least bit surprised that it happened here. It happened on my first late-night flight to visit Nova Scotia. The entire row behind me, a family from another Maritime province made fun of the distance the plane was from the gate “It’s like they left us in bloody China.” I cringed as they howled with laughter, but I relocated to Halifax to be with someone who also turned out to love dispersing micro-aggressions against Asian and Indian cultures. My first thought was, “What the FUCK have I done?!”

For a while I lived in the “idyllic” Town of Lunenburg where delivery men would comment on “How good my English,” and I could count the number of Asians on one hand. After a while I could not stand the small town mentality and moved to the BIG CITY of Halifax for a little more anonymity.

Sure, my marriage fell apart, but since then I have kept a close eye on how I and other Asians are perceived. It wasn’t until I saw the disturbing video footage of business people and couple Ami Goto and Eric McIntyre being harassed roadside by a caucasian business owner infuriated with Ami’s driving skills. There were racial epithets hurled at her and I said to myself, “enough is enough.” I immediately went to meet Ami at Eric at their restaurant in the north end and we not only hugged...we cried over the incident. What made me cry even more was the incredibly hateful comments made on the media posts afterwards that covered the story. When you are not wanted and people want you to leave, where do you go? Where is home? I was born and raised in Canada and at last check I was “free to move about the cabin” and relocate where I want to.

I am so glad that that family making comments about China on the plane that I arrived on were in transit to another province to the North, but the micro aggressions don’t even lie under the surface here in Halifax out of sight...it’s just that no one really chooses to open their eyes to address the matter. Just like in Vancouver, if it isn’t happening or affecting you personally, then look away.

I have experienced so many incidents.. too many to count, but very personally, I went off attempts to online date after a barrage of “R U sure you are Asian? Because you don’t look it” comments, but unfortunately I sometimes wade into the fray of comments on seemingly innocuous Facebook pages and sites like the Metro Halifax Buy and Sell where I get my Asian butt handed to me if I stand up for Asian and immigrant microaggression-like activity.

I don’t like living here at all, but it is where I do business for the time being… but when someone tells you to “go home,” may I remind you that Canada is my land too. And I will fight to live in it as an equal citizen.

Do you have an experience of anti-Asian racism in Halifax you want to share? The Coast is still collecting responses here. We acknowledge that this work can be difficult and at times re-traumatizing. Your voice and stories are important and deserve to be heard but you safety and wellbeing is our priority.

About The Author

Caora McKenna

Caora was City Editor at The Coast, where she wrote about everything from city hall to police and housing issues. She started with The Coast in 2017, when she was the publication’s Copy Editor.
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