Content pre-cursor: this story is centred on physical racial violence and verbal abuse. Whilst we are all in one piece now, I hope you use your heartfelt discretion and discernment in reading. I hope you are gentle with yourself and practice compassion. If you have been the victim or witness of such violence, it may be helpful to have a resource at hand (helpline, etc) in your region/country/online, that you can immediately access if you choose to proceed.
The names of my friends have been skillfully changed to protect their privacy and remain authentic to the tale. They will have their own recollections of this story, and this is very much the truth from my perspective.
Reading time: 27 mins 30 seconds (according to Grammarly)
Update - 13th May ‘20, 13:33 - I realised that the last “learning” (how my healing and self-love is not dependent on those who have done me harm) I shared was not fully explained, probably because I was exhausted by the time I finished writing this piece. So I’ve updated it. I hope these clarifying points help the “learning” become more digestible.
Update - 15th May ‘20, 22:34 - Updated the fact that Ravi had a bruised eye from the event, as he reminded me about it. And my sister reminded me my ear was bleeding when I got home. Interesting how the brain remembers the peak of the incident and less of the aftermath.
Update - Late May/June ‘20 - Added resources to learn more about the struggle and striving for Black liberation, particularly after the recent anti-Black murders (and anti-Black police) in the USA. And to clarify my point on American dominance in the global narrative.
“Diana! Get in the cab!” I heard his voice ringing through my ears as I turned to look for his face on my left, my right hand reaching for the door handle of the black cab (London) and pulling it open.
Instead of seeing my friend, Ravi who had just cried out for me to get into the taxi, standing on the pavement, I was met with a young, shorter, blonde, Caucasian woman jumping onto me and grabbing my hair.
It was a warning I’ll never forget.
From that moment, things become a blur as I desperately reached all of my fingers through my hair and pulled my hair back to counter the force of my aggressor. The black cab we hailed suddenly takes off, and I’m looking around in fight-flight mode. Ravi immediately came towards us and started to separate us. The girl was incredibly angry about something, and she started shouting at all of us. She wasn’t alone. She had a friend, also Caucasian. They were both probably British… I don’t know, we didn’t have time for a casual chat. I can only deduce this from the way they spoke and what they spoke about.
Her friend, let’s name her ‘Mary’, started nervously saying something about how she needed to keep me away and that I was “triggering (her friend)”, let’s name her ‘Olivia’, who did not appear sober at all. Was she? I will never know.
Ravi and I weren’t alone too. In fact, we had spent a few hours trying to help another friend sober up. We had this, honestly, stupid curiosity we were trying to satiate; Why have we never seen Hobbes drunk? We’ve been drinking with him for a few times now since the optional Maths bridging programme (#supernerds🦸🏻♀️) started a few weeks before university, but he’s always too straight-faced. So we hatched a plan to get him absolutely smashed (drunk). As they say, curiosity killed the cat, and instead of going to some Freshers (first week of university) party, Milkshake, we ended up having to get off at Borough; Hobbes had vommed (vomited) all over himself and the (tube) carriage. We then decided we had to take some responsibility in cleaning him up and making him drink water. We were all really bonding quite well as drunken Hobbes was so sweet to both of us in what could have, in retrospect, turned out to be a hilarious drunken Freshers night. And by the time we finally managed to hail a cab with a cabbie (driver) who was willing to take us, I got pounced on by a blonde white girl.
Enough background info and back to the main story. Oh, and Hobbes had finally started sobering up and was sitting with his head in his hands on some steps of a building, on the road we were at. I think we were in Southwark and near City Hall, at this point. (Yes, we even thought of walking him back to his halls (university dorms) in Holborn when the other cabs wouldn’t take him).
After Ravi separated ‘Olivia’ and me, ‘Mary’ kept going on about how she had to keep me out of ‘Olivia’s’ sight. She decided to hide me on the steps, behind Hobbes. (I don’t know why, because that’s like the most obvious place, boo?) As I was so focused on the scene unfolding in front of me, I decided to follow her instructions in hopes that she would tell me what was going on with ‘Olivia’.
“Why don’t you all just go back home to where you belong?! Just go home!!” ‘Olivia’s’ shrill voice thundered through the conversation I was trying to have with ‘Mary’, and I watched as Ravi was standing between ‘Olivia’ and the rest of us.
“I’m from Leicester!” He responded in his beautiful Midlands accent, “I’m British!” Just like her.
Her grasping fingers started pulling at the chain around his neck, and ripping his shirt apart, as she tried to come towards Hobbes and me.
“Just stay here.” ‘Mary’ said to me softly, as she swiftly returned to ‘Olivia’s’ side, started trying to explain her friend’s actions to Ravi and attempting to pull her away. I think? This part was a blur to me, because honestly what was ‘Mary’ even thinking? Why is she trying to hide me behind my drunk friend?
Somehow, ‘Olivia’ broke out of the conversation and found Hobbes and me. “Go home! We don’t want you here!” She started shouting as she began grabbing Hobbes’ head and kneeing him in the face. (Spoiler time: Hobbes is also not white, he is Mainland Chinese.) Ravi immediately started pulling her off Hobbes, and I can’t remember if ‘Mary’ did anything.
Suddenly, another man enters the scene. Stocky, broad, bearded and also Caucasian, probably also British. “What’s going on here?” He bellows.
“This man is assaulting me!” Another shrill scream and a wildly inaccurate response from ‘Olivia’, as she points her right finger at Ravi’s face, and begins to harp on with inflammatory accusations.
The man’s fist immediately meets Ravi’s right cheek and eye, multiple times, and I can see Ravi calculating whether or not to block or punch back as I immediately decide enough is enough. I’m not taking any more of this crap, and honestly, what is wrong with these people?
I leap out of my barely-there ‘hiding’ spot, and jump between the two tall men, arms outstretched in defence of Ravi, shouting, “Stop it!! That’s not what’s happening!”
The passerby (or boyfriend? I can’t remember if he said he was or if ‘Olivia’ called him that?) is visibly stunned, and thankfully, sober. Because I hadn’t thought that far, and “real men don’t hit women”, I guess? His raised fist immediately lowered, and in this quiet space, ‘Mary’s’ softer explanations have room to take hold. Enough for him to hear her worried warning that ‘Olivia’ wasn’t in her right mind.
As if the universe wanted to prove our points, ‘Olivia’ once again pounces on me and attempts to separate my hair from my scalp.
This time, I grab her wrists and begin to use my weight to bring us both to the floor. (I guess that 2nd Dan Black Belt in Taekwondo my mom encouraged me to get when I was 15 was finally useful in real life 😂) “Get her off of me!” She shrieks as I grapple with her until I can pin her down between my knees, in what I can only describe as similar to “cat-cow” (or more respectfully, Marjariasana/Bitilasana) pose. I vaguely remember looking at her friend and calling her over to help take ‘Olivia’ away.
“You have to stop it”, I think I hear ‘Mary’ say. I can’t remember her exact words, but I know she’s trying to help. I see her reach for ‘Olivia’s’ arms. The male-presenting passerby(?) also comes and takes her other arm.
“Tell her to get off me first! She’s the one on top of me!” This I remember very well, because ‘Olivia’s’ ridiculous accusations were seriously annoying at this point.
I look at both of them and ask, “Do you have her?” And they nod vehemently in response. I don’t even bother paying any attention to ‘Olivia’ anymore.
“Good. Please take her.” I hear myself say, as I let them pick her up and pull her away together.
The story doesn’t end there, as Ravi, Hobbes and I are left to pick up the pieces.
What should we do now? Should we call the police? Should we just try to go home?
Everything happened so quickly, and we were still shaking from the horror of what we just experienced.
“Let’s just try to find a hotel to wait inside, and I’ll call us a cab home.” I think I said, but it could have been an idea from one of them? I explicitly remember crossing the road with my two friends, walking into an airconditioned hotel building, and begging the receptionist to let us sit here as, “We just got attacked, and need to call a taxi to take us home.”
Ravi excused himself and went outside after he saw me take out my phone to dial a cab. I watched him lean against the wall, facing away from us, with his fingers over his eyes. My heart broke that moment because truth be told, I really liked him. He was probably the first person I was seriously attracted to since… the messy set of interactions I had with another boy (the boy who could dance) as I was leaving Singapore two years prior.
I decided to use my mother’s favourite taxi company, Addison Lee. “Money is not an issue anymore right now, we just need to get home”, I thought. There was no point hiding this part of me from my friends any longer. I booked a journey with two stops, one to my flat and the next to Ravi’s halls. Hobbes was still feeling poorly, so I decided it was best to let him sleep on the couch in the one-and-a-half-bedroom flat I was sharing with my younger sister and sober up for the night.
In the cab, Ravi confided in me that our assailant had broken this beautiful gold neck chain his parents gave to him as a baby boy, as he showed it to me. It had the first letter of his name on it. I can’t remember how I responded, although I remember the depth of the throbbing sadness in my body, and the rest of the ride home was a tired blur to me.
“You live in Knightsbridge?” he ponders, as I look up to see the familiar backdrop of SW3 around me. “Yea… It’s not really my idea.” (It was my mom’s.) I think I said something like this as I tried to make some banter (have a light-hearted conversation), and wished him a safe journey home. I brought Hobbes upstairs and explained why he needed to stay over that night to my younger sister, and we discovered that during the harrowing turn of events, his bowels decided it was time for a detox - likely because that’s how scared we all were, honestly. Essentially, all of his clothes were ruined by then. We decided to loan him a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt (well, we let him keep it), and that was how the night began to draw to a close. My sister also informed me that my ear was bleeding, likely as the hair-pulling had agitated one of my earrings.
I remember going on Twitter, which was pretty trendy in my friend circle at the time, and seeing Ravi posting a joke about getting punched defending a drunken mate, with a picture of his torn shirt, and I think I responded with some banter. I’d probably have to look up some old tweets to check exactly what happened, but I look at this retrospectively and find it oddly amusing. Coping mechanisms are quite funny things.
After that incident, my interactions with Ravi felt very different. Something had changed, and I don’t quite know what. I just felt like I didn’t have a chance with him anymore, or that maybe he felt that way about me. I don’t know. And I carried a sense of guilt for being the “trigger” for this experience, especially as ‘Mary’ kept trying to hide me and they got hurt as a result of ‘Olivia’s’ abusive methods of, from my perspective, trying to make her way over to me. None of the three of us ever spoke of it after that night, and I’ve barely told anyone this full story since. Edit: We did talk about Ravi’s bruised eye and how it was healing though.
Why didn’t we call the police? This is a question I got from one of the few people with whom I confided a summarised version of this story. Honestly, I don’t know why.
For me, I was afraid they wouldn’t believe us, and that there wouldn’t be a point because the girl got pulled away anyway. Bearing in mind that this was before Sadiq Khan became Mayor of London, and we still had Boris in the Mayor’s office, I didn’t have any faith that the justice system would take me, a non-British, Commonwealth citizen seriously. We were all in one piece anyway, and what would they do, finally pay Chinese people reparations for colonising Hong Kong (my maternal family’s ancestral home), illegally trading in opium, stealing tea and all of the trade surrounding it, opposing and supporting and opposing the Qing dynasty in the multiple wars that crippled the then relatively self-sufficient economy & the largest in the world at the time, and passing treaties of “Peace, Friendship, and Commerce Between Her Majesty the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland and the Emperor of China” which made my paternal grandfather’s family and so many Southern Chinese people coolies (many of whom, according to Wikipedia, were ‘stamped on their backs like livestock’, ‘kidnapped’, bonded by unrepayable debts and in ‘virtual slavery’, by the way)? How can I have faith in a system that barely even treats people who look like me and so many others who don’t “look” English, with the humanity we deserve? And maybe, her words had hit me deeply, “Why don’t you just go home to where you belong?”
And for the people who think, “you kids shouldn’t have gotten that drunk so late at night, to begin with”, well… I hope you manage to find some form of recreational joy in your life and not blame yourself if something goes wrong 😅
Why I’m sharing this story
Years later, last year to be exact, I finally found the courage to tell one person, my therapist, this full story. We sat together discussing and dissecting all the emotions I felt, and pieced together the truth. My person-centred therapist has been super helpful, to be honest, because, to me, this brutal and racist hate crime/attack was one of the most traumatic things I have personally experienced, yet it plays a huge part in the journey I’ve had with race.
Outside of all of the secondary trauma I’ve witnessed, some of the more concerning highlights (or dark points, haha) of all of my first-hand experiences include:
best friends in boarding school (where I did my A levels) whose only remarks in my yearbook after 2 years were about my accent, Singlish phrases, and my “stinky”, “dead fish” smelling laksa (one of the best spicy soup noodles on this planet) - Uhm, hate to break it to you… all cooked fish is dead? or,
best friends in my NYT acting training who would not stop making slit eye and “ching chong” jokes every other time they were around me,
the white female ex-boss who told me I should marry a Black man and have a Blasian baby because “they’re the cutest”,
the time the only Caucasian British, English male I’ve dated in any substantial form asked me (after 4 months of knowing each other and only speaking in English) if I had subtitles on the TV because I was learning English - actually my mom likes to read the text on the screen as she watches TV when she’s visiting as she doesn’t like the volume up too loud,
the time my blond-haired & blue-eyed Icelandic ex-boyfriend who wore a public persona of a posh Tory (I know, how did I end up with a posh Tory for half a year?) owned a questionable book about the origins of Chinese characters, which propounded that the character for women was a kneeling woman listening to a man, and joked that it was “as it should be”,
the time an epic drama unfolded when my coworkers kept forgetting that I asked them to please stop sticking their chopsticks pointing upwards in their rice/bowls (a rude gesture that can indicate digging one’s grave, when used outside of the context of mourning) as we ate East Asian food almost every other day together (it was the most convenient and healthier option around the office, I guess?), a few months after my grandfather had passed away,
the constant snarky remarks about “Chinese people [all being] liars” I receive from many homeless Caucasian people I pass by on the street, and the constant unsolicited fetish remarks I receive near any places where alcohol is sold,
and the last time I did a job search, when I was the only other person of colour in a final interview by 5 engineers who could not believe I had done so many things in the span of five years (“good immigrant” struggles). I felt a weird dynamic between a strong Black woman I looked up to (the other person of colour in the room) and her stuffy older white male manager, as her (misspelt) name was the only one on the interview invitation. So I also did not expect to be greeted by someone who was not her - her manager, and walk into a room with 4 extra people and see that we were the only two people of colour. My therapist snapped me out of my misplaced resentment of this confusing situation, when she asked me, “Who holds the power in the room?”
Racial violence towards ethnically Chinese people, particularly in the UK, is one that is often left beneath the surface, invisible and underreported. Not everyone has the courage, or the English language vocabulary, or the access to English-written, American-made and globally-adopted social media, to pursue justice like the very recent case involving male-presenting Singaporean Chinese, Jonathan Mok. I have seen so many reports on Chinese social media about COVID-19 related attacks happening all across the world, in contrast with the less seen tweets in English by diaspora Chinese activists in the UK, USA, Canada and Australia.
Many people think we sit in the middle of the “privilege ladder”, and that we uphold the myth of the “model minority”, yet the truth is that there is no one straight line where everyone’s social privileges can be measured against without assigning literal measurements of value to every type of privilege, many of which are subjective to country, context and culture. How can we make generalisations and sweeping comparisons simply according to race, and keep that pair of racially-defined glasses on?
There is probably an ethnically Chinese person outside of our more privileged countries living a life much more underprivileged in many ways than the more talked about “darker-skinned” person in the USA or the UK. I often think about that section I referenced from Wikipedia earlier, of the ‘pig trade’ of “coolie-slaves” in the last 200 years, whose “living conditions were not dissimilar to that of livestock” and were “stamped on their backs like livestock”, or “kidnapped” coolies, and wonder how much of that injustice my grandfather and his father’s family had to experience directly. Or whether there are any ethnically Chinese people whose ancestors were “transported on the same vessels that had been used to transport African slaves in the previous years” to Peru/Cuba/Trinidad/other British and Dutch ex-colonies, still dealing with the ramifications of this today. I’m only 26, and some of my elders were around when the “coolie-slave” trade was still declining until it never peaked again after WW2.
At the same time, it is incredibly clear which demographic is still denied access to almost all of the “privileges” in the USA’s democratic society built off the back of the Atlantic slave trade, and still routinely brutalised/killed in shared communal spaces and at home across the country, and we should all know in our hearts that lives belonging to (especially, queer/trans) Black people should be treated, at least, with the actual dignity of human life.
[Late May/June 2020 Update: You can learn more about Black Lives Matter here, and see the Black Panter Party’s 1968 Reading list here. A list of books from one of my favourite writers, Audre Lorde, is here. For a more global, Pan-African perspective, check out Akala’s Natives, he also narrates his own audiobook version. To learn more about the community-centric outcomes that the USA-focused abolitionist movement wishes to achieve, tailored to the USA, please check out 8toAbolition.]
We should also realise that colonialism never changed itself, it just put on a different shirt when it got called out over and over again, and that there is still an inherent privilege to being born American when it comes to the global narrative. (By this I mean that somehow, American-born perspectives of race and class, and how to make progress and heal, tend to overshadow perspectives, stories and problems from people elsewhere. Also, Akala addresses a similar point in his 10th Chapter of Natives where he addresses American exceptionalism.)
This leads me to the truth in the concept that suffering should not be compared.
Even broken down amongst our “racial” groups, all of us suffer in similar yet vastly different ways. The suffering I feel from this attack is just as valid, real, and totally different from the suffering experienced by an individual in an unjust system of normalised racist brutality. It is also different from what my ethnically Chinese friends from Hong Kong, PRC and Taiwan experience in their lives in the “West”. We can’t compare who is suffering “more” without unintentionally invalidating the subjectivity, gravity and reality of each experience. “More” according to whom? And why is this comparison even useful, when the fact is that all parties are in pain?
The truth is that everyone is suffering, and the fact that everyone is suffering should be enough motivation to change. Can we find ways to hold space for each other’s suffering and collectively choose to heal?
Also, we don’t even all have the same privileges in the same country based solely on our race. For example, from my position as a Singaporean person, I hold a significant amount of passport privilege and English-speaking privilege compared to a Mainland Chinese person, especially in the UK and the USA. I can’t even begin to explain our cultural proximity (subservient or not) to “whiteness” or the world’s most “successful” colonisers. My country isn’t as hated by the UK or USA as my ancestral homeland of China, and the more I distance myself from my 5000-year-old Chinese heritage, the more I can hide amongst the English gentry. Even in Singapore when I was a child, PRC Chinese used to face a lot more casual discrimination in everyday society, despite maybe not experiencing it from the system itself. I don’t know how it is now, as I’ve lived in the UK for the past 8 years. “Assimilating” into “Western society” merely requires that I shut up, do as they tell me or keep up their public “face”/面子, and make them lots of money. Did you know that there’s a special yearly-renewable H1B1 visa for Singaporeans to the USA? Still, this guilt and the anxiety that comes with being an immigrant of colour ate me up, and I worked my butt off to secure my Tier 1 visa for the UK. Probably why some people in that weird interview felt I had done too many things for it to be true. I didn’t believe I would get the talent visa until I was holding the physical card in my hands, and I constantly catch myself worrying that they’ll cancel it for no real reason.
Also, is living your life in the shadows of the English upper-class, playing second fiddle to the ruling elite, never in charge of anything substantial or being a front for people that don’t quite want to change, and being complicit in a globally exploitative system, really a “privilege” we want to attain? Do I really want to spend my life watching another show where they laugh at their own self-deprecating jokes because maybe deep down inside they think everyone hates themselves, and sit around drinking afternoon tea that is stolen from the land of my ancestors using porcelain that they appropriated? Are they really happy sitting on this hoard of diverse resources that they extorted using diverse sources of labour, and still don’t quite know how to manage? Are they really happy watching the daily COVID-19 death toll, despite putting on such a “great” PR front? Yes, underestimated and underprivileged groups deserve equitable and balanced access to resource, recognised dignity and sovereignty, yet is the “privilege” we feel we need going to unlock the kind of life we want? I have so many questions.
I often feel inspired watching the more organised and vocal, English-speaking, British, Black, South Asian and Muslim communities in the UK share their stories, create space for themselves, and be the change they want to see in the world. And at first, the fears that, by sharing my stories, maybe I was taking away from what they work so hard to achieve, was another reason why I felt hesitant to share it. I forgot that the space that is meant for me, is here for me to take. And that it is my birthright to fill my space.
The system keeps us thinking that space is limited, resources are limited, and we all need to share a piece of the rotten pie we have, instead of improving the recipe, ingredients and our tools, and baking a bigger and yummier one, or more pies. Maybe with some flavour this time 😉 The system is rooted in a mindset of scarcity, evidenced by historically hoarded, stolen resources that were procured and maintained through incredibly inhumane exploitation across the world, and upheld by a lack of faith that the universe is more abundant than our egos lead us to think it is.
I needed a lot of time, and a lot more learning, to process what the system was, and how I could make meaningful change in it from my position “in-between”. Particularly as an upper-middle-class Singaporean Chinese person with immense relative social privilege in Singapore. How can I meaningfully dismantle the concept of “privilege” in the way it exists now? How do I help to redistribute access to resource in a more balanced and respectful manner?
All this being said, the true reason why I am choosing to share it now is not that I need anyone to “believe me” or “justify my pain” or “take action”. It’s because I feel like I’ve processed this a lot, and learnt a lot, and it’s time to share it. Something is tugging at my soul saying, “Diana, you have to get these things off your chest. You don’t need to hold it in anymore.” So here I am, sharing.
If I were to share every single thing I learned, this story would become a whole novel. That’s why I’m trying out this Substack, I guess. So let’s start with taking this piece by piece. I’m writing this off the top of my head and working on living in the present at the moment, so for today, I’ll share a three of the key truths related to this story, that I’ve discovered and now hold dear.
The key learnings I’ve made
One of my previous mentors shared this truth with me at the moment in my life when I needed to hear it, and it helps me heal from this pain:
Hurt people hurt people.
When I look back at that moment, and I deconstruct what was happening, it becomes clear that under all of that anger and abuse and violence my friends and I experienced, there was a lot of pain. ‘Mary’ made it clear that the sight of me was upsetting something within ‘Olivia’, so that clue was a huge piece of the puzzle in my conversations with my therapist. And the fact that ‘Mary’ was haphazardly trying to help me showed that she most likely didn’t think that it was my fault. It literally had nothing to do with me.
Being on the receiving end of racism woke me up to the reality of what is, and shattered the illusion of my “Journey to the West”. The myth that a university in the UK or the USA was going to be the start of my “true education”. For most of my childhood, I remember feeling worried about being “too cheena” (a pretty racist word that has both war-justifying Imperialist Japanese and literal-translation Malay roots - an ironic nod to our position in-between, signifying that someone is too openly ‘Chinese’ and therefore tacky). I recall a sense of self-deprecating pride amongst many Singaporean friendship circles about not being good at the Chinese language, and excelling at the English language according to the standards of Received Pronunciation. There was nothing inherently wrong with being Chinese, but you could only be expressively Chinese if it was, “tasteful” and felt “reminiscent of the Orient”, I suppose according to standards set in colonial times.
Literally being assaulted for merely having the natural bodily features classified as “Oriental”, even in mainstream “Westernised” clothes, woke me up to the fact that the racial hatred and abuse that I was trying to avoid, and the historical perception of Singaporean society in the colonial mind (or in the minds of descendants of colonisers who have not healed from their colonial psychology or healed their society) as some socialist “authoritarian dystopia”, will never have anything to do with me, and have much more to do with them. What actions they chose to make will never be my fault, and it’s not even their fault. The consequences of their actions are their responsibility.
Which leads me to my next learning, based on the psychological perspective of racism I learnt from studying the work by that same previous mentor, who offers rehabilitation for perpetrators of racism in the USA. This point of view is formed through a lot of my spiritual practice and work, which is an agnostic blend and very personal.
An externalised racist action is a projection of the pain we have not yet healed (or discomfort) onto another human being, from a position of relative power, based on the distorted views we have of their race. At that moment, it’s like, whatever we perceive of that person makes us feel not whole enough, not good enough, not something enough - something not nice and fully uncomfortable. Maybe it’s anger, maybe it’s fear, maybe it’s envy, maybe it’s guilt, maybe it’s all of the things. Maybe we’re so overwhelmed with this energy that we don’t know how to handle it, we forget who we are and what human decency is, and it starts to take over. Instead of taking a pause or a break to question why we feel the way we feel, and why we see the other person as the labels or object we have in our mind, it’s like a distorted and unconfronted part of us takes over. Suddenly what was a misalignment within ourselves gets expressed as harm towards another person, simply because we don’t yet know how to cope. A lot of people call this conditioning, arguing that this is something taught and reinforced by the way things currently are upheld, my previous mentor called it maladaptive behaviour and likened it to domestic abuse. So the key learning then becomes a question.
If this person was genuinely capable of using a better way to deal with their own pain, why would they feel the need to take it out on another human being?
This is something that became very evident for me when I had another person in a position of power over me at work who was one of the nicest and sweetest, straight Caucasian English men I’d met, yet he really “doesn’t know any better. Literally”, in the words of that mentor at the time. And it’s true, how can I expect the level of connection I wanted in a close working relationship, when he’s never had the opportunity or necessity to learn the tools he needed, in order to build a more balanced interpersonal relationship with me? I often think back to my Social Studies (yea I KNOW, SG people stop rolling your eyes!) lessons in local school, and feel grateful my education system at least taught me the basics of major religions & cultural practices (e.g. Ramadan & the importance of puasa), and the history of race riots & Divide & Conquer policies in Singapore, in a relatively (to the UK) balanced fashion. I don’t think he’s ever had anything close to that for colonialism, let alone racism. And what if, at the time, that interaction with me was what was necessary to motivate him to grow? I don’t have to stick around to be the testing ground, but that experience had a purpose for both of us.
And it’s very similar for the girl who assaulted me, ‘Olivia’. It’s not that she didn’t mentally or logically know any better, it’s that she didn’t know it in her heart. She didn’t know it in her body, and she probably wasn’t listening to her body anyway. And then she took it out on not one, but three people of colour. One of whom was an actual citizen of her own country and could very well have had a much more painful ancestral history within the country than I do. In his home.
Finally, this leads me to my last learning for this post.
It may be the responsibility of the perpetrator to make sincere and complete reparations, but it’s not my burden to wait.
Why do I need to wait for someone else to give me the respect and dignity I deserve, to be who I want to be and realise my own inner sovereignty?
After considering everything that had happened, as well as all the feelings that had emerged as my natural reactions to the events, given where I was at that point in time, I realised that the only person holding me back now is me.
I don’t need to wait for another person to realise the beauty of my culture, as well as the beauty of the natural bodily features that come with being ethnically Chinese. From my “small slit eyes”, they became my “almond-shaped eyes”, or recognising the beauty in my natural hair colour and its refusal to be more curly than straight. The beauty in my skin that reflects the nuances of the universe. And this extends to everything else as well, particularly the way I want to carry myself in the world. I decided it was time to stop being about what I’m against, and more about what I’m for. I decided it was time to embrace work that was about what I am for, and that sits right with my soul. I decided that it was okay to be me. Not just, “okay”, wonderful. A gift from the universe. And in the words of one of my favourite people to follow on Twitter, Dr Thema,
"I refuse to be in alignment with those who do not see my value."
This fact - that I had decided to choose myself. Not in any harmful way, but in a way that meant that I was tending to my heart, has so many ripple effects on the choices I make in the rest of my life.
I don’t just think this about in my choices at work, or in personal relationships. I see this all around me. I see so many activists working extremely hard to use facts and essays to debunk racism. I see so many people of colour expending extraordinary amounts of energy and moving mountains to get their white coworkers to take one step. I see so many strategies to bring “diversity” to the table at work and in middle-class society, in governance, and none of them are wrong. All of them meet the people who need something from it, where they’re at now. Most of them are just not me. Not anymore, at least. I do not feel the need, nor the desire, to be in such close proximity to people who have so much more to learn in relation to me on this human level and are struggling to even find the motivation, space or energy to close that gap.
I do still have connections with many people who happen to be Caucasian, yet these are mostly people who are living their work. They’re not just “doing the work”, they’re living it by confronting the scariest parts of themselves and holding space for that. They’re not afraid to consult experts for help on their wellness (i.e. psychotherapists, mental health professionals, community healers, etc), commit to building globally-aware relationships and connections with people, deconstruct the distortions & unaligned views they inherited, and place themselves in positions where they can learn and grow.
At the same time, I no longer desire to spend most of my time in countries dominated by people who aren’t doing their work. It’s not even “the work”, it’s theirs. It’s the work they can choose to undertake, and only they can really choose to do if they value building authentic connections, and rebalancing relationships with the diverse & exploited labour force their ancestors chose to use to uphold their society. The universe keeps extending the invitation, and the question remains, will they choose to accept?
Once that lack of desire became clear to me, I realise I wanted to be in a society where there was at least a foundation for healthy intercultural relationships, and where the education system acknowledges the complicated history of the people on the land. I realised I wanted to embrace my culture more fully and openly, without the constant fear I felt whenever I stepped out of the four walls of my house. I wanted to be surrounded by people who were not only sharing their cultures happily, but also lovingly curious about my own. And that stark subconscious feeling that remaining in London meant that this happiness might always come along with some worry or fear of harm, weighed me down more than I thought it did.
In the end, I’ve had to choose courage, and return to a place where instead of being underprivileged, I’m overprivileged. As a female-presenting, queer, non-binary, highly artistic person, with one side of my family surviving the “coolie-slave” trade, I’m still somewhere in between. I recognise the freedom to move countries is not a simple choice for people whose families are based in such places, and after investing 8 years of my life into the UK, how could I leave before seeing real fruit from this experience? Was I ever going to receive any real benefit from the work I had put in? Or is my wellness more important? Choosing your wellness takes a lot of courage.
I didn’t know how I was gonna transition to Singapore and bridge the gap, still working on my dream startup in healthcare, currently headquartered in the UK (which we want to go global with - so if you’re like, secretly a wealthy person of colour who endured all the BS and want to dismantle privilege, redistribute access to resource and decolonise the way we work, come say hi 😄). By a twist of fate and in large part thanks (but really, no thanks) to the Sinophobic racist abuse and violence surrounding COVID-19 experienced by someone very close to me, here I am in one whole piece and finding ways to work around covid and build one of my dream remote companies.
Family emergencies aside, I’m finally back home… Or am I home yet? At least I’m back in a country where I can make a change by doing my work, and have the access to resource needed to dismantle privilege in this space more rapidly. At least I’m back in a country where I feel so much more faith that the police are going to do their job to their best abilities. Yet ‘Olivia’s’ question still pops up a lot, “Why don’t you just go home to where you belong?” That sounds like another story for another time.
There are many other lessons I might choose to dissect from this story, particularly around gender dynamics and navigating my guilt. Did I accidentally emasculate a man I liked a lot? Who knows. Should we care? And what about my friend Hobbes, did Ravi and I totally ruin his earliest experiences of the world outside of China? Is he still embarrassed about that night? Should he be? (No!) Was it meant to turn out this way? What if it just is what it is? I suppose these are all questions to ponder another day. (Although tbh, I’ve done a lot of this talking with my therapist already. Lol)
I hope you’ve learnt something useful from my story today, and even after all this if you’re questioning its authenticity as a real-life event… Well, choosing whether or not to believe it, or believe me, is an exercise of your intuition and discernment. All I’m doing is inviting you to partake in the fruits of my experiences.
My wish is that sharing this story inspires you to realise that there is hope in healing from racial injustice and pain (regardless of whether you’ve experienced it as a victim or perpetrator) and that it is in your benefit to reconcile your experiences and release your suffering. Why hold on to pain when the only person it will hold back is ourselves?
At the end of the day, and this is an often repeated saying, we don’t forgive for others, we forgive for ourselves. When we forgive, it releases the energy that was stuck within us that feeds our pain associated with this memory of something harmful, which we have already survived and no longer need to feed.
In the words of one of the few Caucasian American hetero-presenting men that I thoroughly enjoy watching/listening to, Aaron Abke, a very spiritual Christian who despite occasionally saying certain things others & I might consider “problematic” (and I find a product of his environment & journey so far), provides a lot of evidence to decolonise my very Anglicised (colonised) Christian upbringing & the Bible,
I guess writing this story is my way of having closure, of reconciling with the colonialist, imperialist racial and ethnic hate, violence and abuse I’ve experienced in my life. Reconciling with Racism.
Maybe this offering will give some helpful tips and directions to anyone on that journey, choosing to take that next step, and feeling confused and alone. I know I could have used that a year ago, and even further back.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you take care of your body, and heart today 😊