'Traumatising': Auckland woman assaulted, harassed over race says abuse of Asians is 'moral pandemic'

'Traumatising': Auckland woman assaulted, harassed over race says abuse of Asians is 'moral pandemic'

An Auckland woman says New Zealand is facing a "moral pandemic" regarding citizens of international heritage being made to feel like outsiders in the country they call home. 

Sally Han has been left to question her own identity after minimising ties to her Korean roots to fit in with New Zealand Europeans while being continually ostracised over her heritage.

But now, she doesn't feel safe and is afraid of doing simple tasks like walking down the street, after being physically and verbally assaulted since March 2020 when COVID-19 made its way to New Zealand shores. 

She says in the wake of coronavirus, she and other Asian community members have been marginalised, being made to feel traumatised and helpless.

"I was born and raised here, this is my country, this is my home, and I have to walk around nervous, and my safety is stripped away from me, my security is stripped away because of how I look, but I'm a Kiwi. People look at me like I'm not, or assume that I'm not a Kiwi," Han told Newshub. 

Han was born in Auckland to parents who moved to New Zealand from Korea with their parents - Han's grandparents - after finishing high school to study at university.

She says since COVID-19, instances of verbal assaults, harassment, intimidation and physical attacks have been on the rise with the Asian community being among those most targeted. She is among those who have been subject to random acts of discrimination.

Han says the most recent attack left her fearing for her safety on January 31 after being harassed by a couple in their thirties who grabbed her aggressively and spilled their drink on her. 

"The lady asked me if I am from where coronavirus is from. I think racism was always there but it's definitely been amplified and has given the bullies the confidence to act out, even more, for sure. It's pretty crazy. 

"I had to leave the festival because I was so scared. My heart was racing and I didn't feel safe.

"The whole thing was so threatening. Honestly, it's traumatising, you get so angry because you can't do anything. I'm a really small girl, and I feel really helpless when that happens because I just can't do anything. It contributes to a lot of anxiety."

A report from the New Zealand Human Rights Commission, released on Wednesday, found four in 10 respondents to a survey had experienced discrimination since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak.

Fifty-four percent of Chinese respondents and 49 percent of Asian were among the highest of those who said they had experienced discrimination they perceived as specifically related to COVID-19, alongside Pacific and Tangata Whenua who responded 50 percent and 55 percent respectively. 

Nearly one in two (46 percent) of those who experienced COVID-related discrimination said it had had a negative impact on their mental wellbeing.

Han says as a Korean-Kiwi, being made to feel like an outsider isn't common, and it is a huge issue for many with Asian heritage. 

"I just felt really threatened, but as much as it really hurts, I'm able to process it and move on personally but when it happens to my loved ones, my mum, my grandparents, young Asian kids, when it happens and they don't know how to process it, that really affects me, personally."

During her school years, Han was regularly made to feel unaccepted by her peers and started to shy away from Korean culture to "white-wash" herself. 

She explains she acted as though her Korean culture didn't exist, often rejecting calls from her mum because she "wanted to act" like she wasn't Korean. 

Han says she feels like she "got a pass" during school because she realised that if she was seen as "a quiet Asian girl" then others wouldn't care if she was around. 

"I sacrificed so much of it and then they started accepted me, but it's harder for our elders, especially when they don't speak English that well," she says. "I always felt anxious to walk around and I started distancing myself from people because I felt a bit on edge. It's hard to trust people."

"It's pretty intense but I'm kind of used to it at this point, which is really messed up because it shouldn't be normalised."

She says one of her family friends owns a retail shop and they have been subject to abuse, with comments being made that they "started the virus", and friends of her cousins were spat at in their faces. 

"I don't go around the streets saying bonjour to every white person, it makes no sense. 

"The general looks I get, everyone stares, we all feel it, we know, in general, it's been really intense, I don't even go online sometimes, the comment sections are crazy."

Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon says the pandemic has been feeding fear, which manifests itself in racism and discrimination.

"An unfortunate by-product of COVID-19 is that certain ethnic groups are often blamed and subsequently vilified for their perceived 'role' in an outbreak.

"No one should not have to change their behaviour to avoid risking discrimination, made to feel they don't belong, worry about their public safety, or experience negative mental wellbeing because of discrimination or racism." 

Han says it makes her angry that other people can be so ignorant. 

"It's trying to understand the state of their brain, so irrational, dumping their insecurities on to other people who have done nothing. 

"Racism towards Asian people is really swept under the rug, we don't speak up about it as much, because we're kind of told to ignore it and move on but I think I want to encourage people really stand up, if they want to see change, they have to speak up."

She relates her situation to the bystander problem, where the responsibility for the problem is diffused and others assume someone else will make the call to signal behavioiur that needs to be called out but the expectation is transferred and nothing is done. 

Han says this leads the people to think the issue isn't really an issue because no one speaks up.

"This is a moral pandemic in my opinion, if we continue to let the incremental assaults and harassment slip through, it's going to spread even more."

She wants to encourage others to think about how their words can impact a person and wants racism to be called out by those who know better as soon as it happens. 

"It's like how they put the country into lockdown as soon as we see a couple of cases of COVID, that's what we need to do when we see this kind of harming behaviour, we have to instantly put these irrational perspectives into lockdown, and instantly educate people respectfully and intelligently and take action. 

"If we don't really innocent, beautiful people are  going to continue to suffer and they're not going to feel safe, and it's just going to get amplified if we don't do anything and just watching. By just watching you're contributing to the problem as well."

She says she does have hope, but if no one makes a move toward change, nothing is going to happen. 

"I was born here and I don't know what I did to deserve this. I feel empowered enough to know that, but the sad thing is a lot of kids, especially during high school, it happens so often that we end up thinking we deserve this and it's normal that I'm less than, and people speaking to me like I am not worthy enough and you have to try really hard.

"I just want to be able to walk around and not feel like I am going to be attacked, that's my main wish and hope for now."