Lots of Asian people (including mixed-race) whom I have met in the UK told me the same stories about what people shouted at them. They are the victims of racial discrimination. So am I. Our mutual stories broke the ice to begin our friendship. It seems to a newcomer like me, the harmony of ethnic and cultural diversity is only the thinly peaceful surface of a thick iceberg. Deep below the stillness of this nation’s hospitality is the ignorance of the invisible scars of people who are not welcomed. We are silent victims.
Aberdeen where my dream of exploring Western education came true. My student life ran smoothly as I enthusiastically chased my dream of becoming a writer and exploring a stunning and tranquil country. I would have carried a perfect memory of Aberdeen if that white man hadn’t crossed my path. That was an evening in early Spring 2020. A man jumped in front of me on Union Street, trying to scare me. I stood still, not knowing what was going on. Not until he shouted ‘Virus’ from three metres away did I recognise that I was a virus carrier. Pedestrians stared at me as if I was just something for their entertainment on a weekend evening. That man wasn’t aware of my Scottish husband and a Chinese friend chatting in front of me. My husband approached the stranger, pouring a torrent of angry words on him. I took my phone out, capturing that stranger; a face which is impossible for me to forget.
We went to the police station after 2 weeks of self-isolation. Nobody knew what was really happening with Covid-19 around the world; therefore, we wanted to make sure that neither of us carried the virus. There was no testing at this time. We just locked ourselves at home, feeling and guessing what was happening inside our bodies. A friendly middle-aged receptionist got my information then left. Shortly, a young policeman appeared. In contrast to my expectation, he simply told me ‘Go home and don’t go out.’ I was shocked. My husband approached the policeman, reminding him that protecting civilians is the duty of the police. Without my husband’s white face, I would have been sent home without help.
One year later, the man who shouted ‘Virus!’ at me pleaded guilty and had to serve 50 hours community service. Is this justice? I need an apology from this stranger and the policeman.
But this story above is just a single drop of water in a full glass. Whenever I walk out of my home or pick up my phone, I need to take a deep breath and prepare myself for anything which could happen. When I couldn’t understand the thick Glaswegian accent on the line, I was desperate in repeating ‘I’m sorry.’ Actually I didn’t know why I needed to say sorry. ‘No sorry.’ She had a strong voice as if she was losing her temper. Finally I managed to finish my call to get my National Insurance Number issued. I couldn’t figure out her facial expression. With that kind of angry voice, I doubt it was a happy face.
I moved to Kirkcudbright, a small town in southwest Scotland to enjoy another peaceful episode of life in a chaotic year. Not many Asian faces in this town as there were only two Chinese restaurants. As I walked along the coast, there was a white man sitting on the bench. I greeted him, waiting for a smile. His lips protruded. An expression of disgust at what was standing in front of him. I left quickly.
When I met other Asian people, they could tell me similar stories. ‘Go home’. Someone shouted at a Chinese student, a friend of a friend. How much did international students contribute to the economy of the UK? With the outbreak of a new virus, the world has witnessed more and more cases of Sinophobia. It seems to ignorant people that anyone of East and Southeast Asian appearance can be a virus carrier and they should leave the UK.
I went to the UK with a strong mind to care nothing about what kind of bad issues would happen to me. But the reality is harder than I imagined. On the street. In the workplace. People judge others by the colour of their skin and their accent. It seems the only place I can avoid discrimination is my own room. Language is the barrier with which many newcomers struggle. When I open my mouth, some people cannot hide their scornful looks. My colleague got a disrespectful look from customers because of her Asian appearance. As soon as she opened her mouth and spoke with perfect English, people treated her in a different way. I used to ask myself whether I should change my accent and even my name after marriage so that I could integrate myself into a society whose culture is so different from my own. At work, I met lots of customers with a variety of different accents. Thick Scots. Queen's English which I learned to prepare for my IELTS test so that I could study in the UK. Foreign accents. People from all over the UK carry their special regional accents which my ears dance ‘thump, thump’ and my brain quickly makes a half guess of what they are saying. I was born and grew up in a new economic zone in Vietnam. After the Vietnam war, young people from different places in Vietnam moved to the Highlands to develop the country exhausted by wars. They carried their regional accents and culture with them to their new homes. I grew up, absorbing a hot pot of cultures and accents. Nobody who was born in this place has the same accent. I embrace this uniqueness with me as if it is my identity in Vietnam, a country of 54 ethnic minorities and tons of different accents. I used to wonder if I should change my name from Ngan Nguyen to Kimmy Nelson. But then I laughed at myself. My Vietnamese name has a special meaning: honeysuckle and silver. I have no emotion towards my new English name. My Vietnamese surname reminds me of the bloody and brave history of a nation, and the cruelty of human beings to their fellows. I could become a possession of my husband after following his family name. Stephen Hawking said, ‘It’s the past that tells us who we are. Without it we lose our identity.’ If I change my English accent and my name, who am I?
I am just among people of colour in the UK, carrying with me an invisible scar about my original ethnicity which is unbearable to some of the locals. They see it. They know it. But who cares? Meeting strangers puts me in new situations where I manage to figure out the difference between discrimination and rudeness. I have to be stronger so that I won’t let people look down on or act superior to me. The term people of colour should not exist anymore. Is white not a colour?
The link about my hate incident:
A poem to question about my identity in a new society
A poem about the question Is White The Colour?
a Vietnamese-born author who is based in Edinburgh, has published 10 books in fiction and nonfiction in Vietnamese. Ngan holds a Master’s degree in Creative Writing at the University of Aberdeen. She received the 2021 Mentoring Awards for Writers from the Wigtown Book Festival. Her short stories were published in English by Causeway and Northwords Now. She is currently looking for an agent for her first collection of short stories in English about Vietnamese at home and abroad.