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Mar 27, 2020

Racism & Xenophobia During COVID-19: In My Shoes

Vietnamese-Canadian Linh Phan, founder of Hidden Saigon, on curbing racism and xenophobia in Vietnam during the COVID-19 crisis.

Racism & Xenophobia During COVID-19: In My Shoes

Opinion | Racism & Xenophobia During COVID-19: In My Shoes


By Linh Phan

A Vietnamese-Canadian producer and storyteller, Linh Phan is also the founder of Hidden Saigon–a travel company that aims to showcase modern Vietnam and its wealth of creative talent.

Information about the novel coronavirus is rapidly changing. As a result, some of the information or advice in this article may be out-of-date.

Growing up as a Vietnamese-Canadian kid

Opinion Racism Xenophobia During COVID19 In My Shoes0

My family and I arrived in Canada in 1979 and I grew up in a highly immigrant area of the multicultural city of Toronto. My best friend was Portuguese and I played all day with the kids on my street who were Italian, Korean, Chinese, Jamaican, Trinidadian…

In elementary school, we held multicultural days where everyone came dressed in their beautiful traditional clothing and ate delicious traditional food.

We not only celebrated Christmas but also Lunar New Year. I was fortunate, because living in an immigrant area and a multicultural country, my experience with outward racism wasn’t too bad compared to others.

I had a few “ching chong ching chongs” here and there and had the food I brought to school made fun of, such as Bánh Mì (we were just ahead of the game, folks!).

I grew up ashamed of all the knick-knacks in our house, from the wooden panels of horse carvings and the clamshell lobster clock to the fake orange and banana trees in the corner of the room.

In high school I became quite an Anglophile because of the music that I loved, from Depeche Mode and The Smiths to the whole 90s Britpop explosion.

I never had any Vietnamese friends growing up so my Vietnamese identity was never in the forefront or that important to me. However, I did feel different sometimes.

When I was the only Asian in the room, it made me uncomfortable and I felt I was being stared at. I also had to deal with racist remarks.

I’ll give you an example of an event that occurred in my early 20s. I was on a train in Northern England, and two teenagers started to harass me and my Caucasian boyfriend at the time, saying to him, “Why are you with her? You should be with your own kind.”

Seeing that something was about to kick up, the adults in the cart got up and fled to another cart. I had to ask myself, “Do I ignore it or confront them?”

I decided to ignore it because I felt it could turn violent. Eventually, our stop came, we got off and I broke down crying. I would always be the “Other”.

However, this all changed in 2001, when I went to Vietnam for the first time since leaving at six months old. Woah! Everyone looked like me.

Things started to make sense, like why we did what we did growing up. Laughing cow cheese? Bread with butter and sugar? This was eaten everywhere.

I remember that one moment sitting outside The War Remnants Museum in Saigon when I started to cry and thought to myself, “This is where I’m from.”

Fast forward a few years later and I moved to Vietnam for work and like many, just stayed. I’ve been here for 14 years and while it was hard in the beginning, I’ve come to learn and accept my identity.

In Vietnam I’m Canadian-Vietnamese and in Canada, I’m Vietnamese-Canadian, because how we view ourselves is really tied into how others view us.

Racism and Xenophobia in Vietnam During COVID-19

Opinion Racism Xenophobia During COVID19 In My Shoes1

As the COVID-19 pandemic hit, there has been a rise in racism and xenophobia towards Asians all over the world, including U.S. President Trump calling the virus “Chinese Virus” and the White House officials calling the disease “Kung-Flu”.

Asians have been violently attacked and boycotts of Asian establishments have caused closures of businesses throughout the world. While in the West attacks on Asians are on the rise, it’s a different story here in Vietnam.

Recently there has been an increase in racism and xenophobia towards foreigners. After a number of new cases were traced back to “patient 17” [who returned to Vietnam from Europe], many Vietnamese people started to fear contact with foreigners.

As of March 21st, 2020, there are 91 confirmed cases, with approximately a third being foreigners.

In this tourism-dependent country, hotel reservations were being canceled, signs were posted refusing service to foreigners or they were just waved away as they started to approach vendors.

Expats living here have been lumped together with tourists and they started to feel the effects in their everyday life in the office and on the streets.

My Indian friend, who has been living here for over four years, was waved off as she started to approach a local street fruit cart. People who have been working side by side with foreigners for years were now openly blaming their expat colleagues for the increase in infected cases since “patient 17”.

Hidden Saigon experienced this first-hand during our final tour before our temporary closure. We were taking a group of three Asian Americans and three Caucasians into a local market.

We were all masked up and the guests were informed not to touch anything, in an attempt to ease seller concerns. However, every time we stopped to talk, the sellers waved us off. One of our guests decided to wait for the rest of the group outside in order to make the sellers and himself feel more comfortable.

As incidents such as these started to get more coverage on social media and in the news, unlike other countries, the Vietnamese government swung quickly into action.

As Western nations such as the U.S. fuel the fire or do little to nothing to try and curb the violence and xenophobia, the Vietnamese government made a declaration that people could be fined for refusal of service to foreigners.

They also provided a hotline for foreigners to call for assistance and to report the situation.

While I don’t condone the racist actions, I also think that this can be a great learning experience for those foreigners who have been treated in this manner.

Take this opportunity to learn and process what it’s like for people of colour on a daily basis. That this is our norm. That we grow up with people saying to us “ching chong ching chong”.

That we get pulled over for no reason. That we are beaten up for our skin colour. That we are made fun of for our accent, for our food, for our culture.

So, if you’re struggling with how to act and feel when this happens, take a step back and remember that this is what we have to deal with ALL THE TIME. Take this small moment in time, where you are able to walk in our shoes, and learn from it.

But hey, Vietnam! Let’s not take our cue from the West. We’ve been doing a great job curbing the spread of the virus in Vietnam and this nasty side of the pandemic is something we should fight against here.

I understand that fear can make people behave contrary to their regular behaviour, but we must do our best to combat acting on those feelings.

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