The Asian experience in the Western world

In recent weeks, a continually increasing number of hate crimes against Asian communities have circulated on social media. Despite my lifelong aim to work as a writer, I’ve found myself incapable of mustering sufficient words to write about the situation. Growing up, I was told by unknowing white peers that a racist joke wasn’t actually racist and only my taking offence made it so. This has led me to do my best not to be “dramatic” about such affairs, resulting in my silence about the situation. That and the exhaustion.

I grew up in a relatively privileged Vietnamese household in a predominately white, suburban, and progressive neighbourhood in Norway and I was always one of the small number of Asian people at my school. Growing up, I was always under the impression that racism in Norway was close to non-existent. I used to think that racism was always violent and extreme, as the scenes of police brutality against African Americans had shown. The reality is that racism can come veiled as a joke or even a compliment. 

My name, Celina, is a Western one and my mother loves it dearly. I also have a lesser-used Vietnamese name. I publicly and officially go by my Western name as my family wanted to spare me bullying and save my peers from the hassle of learning how to pronounce my Vietnamese name. I’m ashamed to admit that I was proud to have a “white and uncomplicated” name at some points during my early teenage years. In my later years, however, I began to understand the role my Vietnamese name has had in shaping my identity. 

Learning to pronounce someone’s name does not take a lot of effort. Asking someone if you can call them something different to make your own situation easier can be considered selfish. We should not have to name our children Western names to ensure they’re treated with common decency.  

At many points in my life, I’ve desperately wanted to be white. When my ethnically Norwegian friends would fry in the sun, I’d purposely stay in the shadows to retain my light skin. I begged my mom to let me colour my hair brown at fourteen because I subconsciously wanted to pass as at least half Asian. Though I was never personally a victim of letterbox-eye comments, some of my friends and family members were. Years later, the fox-eye trend has blown up. The anger of my friends and family is entirely understandable: others are thriving off of something that has caused them deep pain. In addition to comments about our smelly lunchboxes (which are now favourite foods among Western peers), it has caused annoyance and sadness to many. 

Growing up I thought myself to be less attractive simply because of my ethnicity. 

Although I often received compliments, they were often of the backhanded variety such as being told, “you’re pretty for being Asian”. 

I’ve been described as “exotic” numerous times, starting when I was thirteen. I began receiving unwanted attention from older men, who fetishised Asian women as submissive and pure, yet sexual and experienced. Numerous stories of Western paedophiles taking advantage of young girls in East Asia show that these stereotypes are still very prominent. Many women, regardless of ethnicity, are harassed in their lifetimes but many Asian girls have the additional experience of simply being reduced to a fetish.  

I’ve always been deemed quite ambitious, inspired by all the hardworking women in my family. My parents would often explain that I would have to work twice as hard as my white peers to prove myself and I believed that my hard work would pay off. I never imagined that factors out of my hands, such as the colour of my skin or my foreign-sounding surname, could be the things that would disadvantage me. When less experienced and qualified friends got jobs we had all applied for, the explanation I gave myself was that I was the problem. Perhaps I was, and it was simply a coincidence in those situations. Still, ethnic minorities have to apply for more jobs than ethnic Norwegians to receive callbacks. Similarly, British minorities have to send 60% more job applications than their white peers to receive positive responses. 

In a study by researchers at Nuffield College’s Centre for Social Investigation (CSI), 3,200 fake job applications were sent out with only the name of the applicant changed. Compared to 24% of applicants with British sounding names, only 15% of ethnic minority names received callbacks. They concluded that people from Middle Eastern and North African ethnic backgrounds had to apply for 90% more jobs than those from a British background. In comparison, Nigerian and South Asian job seekers would have to send 80% more applications. My parents had foreseen this and, even when I eventually realised the sad truth, I refused to acknowledge it. It was difficult to accept that despite having worked endlessly, a white peer with fewer qualifications could be prioritised. 

As children of Asian immigrants in Western countries, we’ve all seen the hard work and sleepless nights our elders have endured to make our lives better. That’s why it pains us to see other members of the community hurt. The little comments that hurt me in my younger days were never unbearable. However, seeing the faces of my grandparents, parents, aunties, uncles, and siblings in the victims of violent hate crime is heartwrenching. Having to fear for the safety of my friends and family and having to worry about when the violent strand of the virus called racism will finally reach my home country, is exhausting. 

I’ll forever be proud of the Asian accent my aunt has when she speaks Norwegian. I know that behind that accent are years of struggle, adapting and hard work in order to survive in a country where she didn’t know a single word. I absolutely adore my grandma and grandpa’s pungent, Vietnamese cooking. Even after 5 hours of hard labour, my bowl of phở has nothing on Nana’s perfect one. Behind every struggle, I see strong, hardworking souls. I will forever be proud of those who have been able to establish a life as ethnic minorities in Western countries. 

Celina Tran

Image source: Flickr