Asian Kiwis warn rising racism could turn to violence

The New Zealand Asian community is warning racism is rising and needs to be stopped before there's a tragic repeat of the Christchurch terrorist attack or Atlanta spa shootings. 

Kiwi-Pinoy Francisco Hernandez describes walking home from Otago University, when "a car pulled up and started throwing beer bottles at me and calling me racial slurs".

Steph (Hai Hui) Tan endured taunts - people "[pulling] their eyes back and [saying] 'ching-chong Chinese'".

Julia Liu had a stranger point at her and tell her to "go back to China".

It's not just Liu that's happened to. All of these New Zealanders of Asian descent have been told to "go home". They are home, even if it doesn't always feel that way.

Tan went to school in Auckland. Trying to fit in with predominantly Pakeha classmates meant rejecting her mother's home-made lunches.

"My mum would make me an incredible lunch of Chinese food and people would smell it and say, 'smelly, disgusting Chinese food'."

Racism followed her as she grew up, comments like, "'you're cool for an Asian' or 'you're hot or good looking for an Asian'." 

"Do you see us on a different spectrum?" Tan asks.

The effect - battling with an internalised feeling of being less-than.

"It's incredibly hard to reverse that type of thinking because it happens in the most crucial developmental periods of your brain, so it's very embedded, and you start to believe that you genuinely are inferior."

University of Auckland Sociology lecturer David Mayeda says enduring on-going racism can mean withdrawing from society.

"It can also mean saying, 'Hey, I'm really Kiwi, so I'm going to distance myself from my family, their traditions, from a foreign accent.' It might even mean using discrimation against members of your own ethnic group, making fun of their accent."

There's a long history of anti-Chinese racism in New Zealand. From 1881 until 1944, Chinese migrants faced a steep tax to enter New Zealand. Ships could only bring in one Chinese migrant for every 10 tonnes of cargo. 

"That dehumanisation of the subordinate worker makes them a more obvious foreigner. Sometimes that foreigner can fit in, but if the international circumstances change, it's really easy to take a dehumanised group and turn them into a threat," Dr Mayeda says.

That's what happened when COVID-19 emerged from Wuhan, further exacerbated by the former US President obsessed with blaming China for the pandemic, drumming up anti-China rhetoric.

Donald Trump repeatedly called COVID-19 the "China virus", even "kung flu."

Hernandez says that made things worse for Kiwi Asians. 

"When people in positions of authority mainstream racist ideas and mainstream racist rhetoric it emboldens people and it makes people feel like it's okay to say those things."

Figures released by the Human Rights Commission in February found 44 percent of Chinese New Zealanders feel unsafe due to blame for COVID-19.  

Fifty-four percent experienced racism since the outbreak. Twenty percent of those people hadn't experienced it before COVID-19.

In March last year, at the height of COVID-19 concerns, a stranger sprayed a cleaning product on Hernandez at an Auckland mall.

These experiences of racism were the backdrop on Tuesday, when news broke from Atlanta of a mass shooting targeting spas. Eight people killed at three different locations; six of them of Asian descent.

"It was heartbreaking. I felt very shocked," Liu said. 

"That could have been my mother. My sister," Tan added.

Around the US, groups rallied to support the Asian community. In Auckland, Tan has organised a march in Auckland for Saturday. 

 "I don't see these events as just isolated lone wolf extremists. We as a society breed this extreme behavior because of what we normalize just on a day to day basis. Everyday little comments such as, 'go back to China', 'ching-chong', horrible slurs like that. That is what normalises to the extremists that we are a vulnerable group that deserves to be targeted."

Muslim communities warned police of rising racism before the Chrischurch terror attacks. They felt unheard. 

Tan's issuing a similar warning - it could happen again against the Asian community.

"We don't want it to get bad enough that some horrific, extreme event has to happen before we pay attention."

 Race Relations Commissioner Meng Foon has escalated concerns to authorities to be on the lookout for a copycat attempt. 

Other groups are on alert too - Paparoa monitors online hate. It's watching anti-Chinese sentiment rising, especially, it says, among the anti-lockdown and anti-vaccine movements.

Police can record whether crimes are motivated by hate, but hate crime is not an offence in and of itself. Tan wants that changed, so that assaults motivated by hate carry a heavier sentence. 

"Adding that into policy here really symbolises that we cannot see each other as complete different people."

But mostly she just wants New Zealand to do better.

"In our pandemic response, it doesn't help blaming anyone, being racist to anyone, it's simply racist. What we need to do is come together and support one another to keep each other safe."