Of the many places I’ve traveled to and lived in, never have I experienced more racism than in the Middle East, and more specifically, in Israel. Between people complimenting my excellent English (never mind that it’s my first language), the "But where are you really from?" question (after telling people I’m from California) or people yelling "China, ni hao" and "konichi-wa" at me while walking through the streets, routine racism has become the reality of my life here.
A few weeks ago an elderly woman stopped me on the street and tried to hire me as her caretaker. After politely declining, she asked, "But what about one of your friends?" Instead of trying to explain that she can’t assume every Asian walking down the street has uprooted their entire life for the prospects of making a decent wage to send back home to their family, I respectfully apologized for not being of any help – and left.
Following the outbreak of novel coronavirus, I decided to reach out to Chinese students studying in Israel for a story I was writing on the uptick in racist incidents. I thought I would find some sort of solidarity, a group of people also feeling hurt and dehumanized and hoping to raise awareness.
I knew that the fear of the virus had led to a spike in racism directed at Asian people in many countries, including the U.S. I had already seen examples of this in social media messages among Chinese students in Israel: "It happened again. A woman got up and went to the next car after I sat down next to her on the light rail," I read. "They yell 'Corona!' at me when I walk by," another wrote.
But when I asked for anyone to speak to me for the story, whether on or off the record, I was met by backlash and apprehension. Despite the many complaints made in private forums, no one would talk to me.
One Chinese student even warned colleagues to be careful about me, telling our peers that "She doesn't know the Chinese people." True, I am not a Chinese national; I can't pretend to know what it is like to grow up under the rule of the Communist Party.
But in Israel I have often gravitated towards friends from China, a comfort for someone also far away from home, longing to make dumplings while singing along to Chinese melodies. Speaking Chinese had always brought me back to childhood memories of watching Chinese soap operas at my late grandmother’s house in Singapore and the lingering velvety fumes of incense my uncle burned twice a day as an offering to our ancestors.