When Carol Zhou received the email that confirmed her acceptance to the University of British Columbia, she was nearly overcome with joy. The 17-year-old high school student from Guangzhou, China considered her admission to the UBC film program the culmination of all the long hours of hard work she had devoted to her studies since middle school.
But then she thought of the videos she saw earlier that day on WeChat, the Chinese social media behemoth, of a Chinese woman in California being berated for bringing the coronavirus to the United States. Much of her excitement evaporated.
“I’ve seen a lot of racism in the news, especially how some people in North America are blaming Chinese people for spreading COVID-19,” says Ms. Zhou. “This situation has me concerned about my future. I was already quite afraid I wouldn’t blend into Canadian culture, and now I have to worry whether my future classmates or even professors hate me or won’t accept me just because I’m Chinese.”
Ms. Zhou’s South China high school follows an Ontario curriculum and the majority of students, upon graduation, attend university in Canada. The students interviewed for this article concede there is already much uncertainty about what the fall 2020 academic year will look like. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada announced in early May that international students can begin their classes online from abroad in fall 2020 and complete up to half of their program via distance learning if they cannot travel to Canada sooner. But even if international flights resume and classes are held as normal, many in this year’s graduating class are worried about a COVID-19-related backlash.
“Sometimes I worry that I will be treated unfairly because of my lack of fluency in the language and my nationality,” says Zoey Wang, who is set to attend the University of Toronto in the fall. “And now, due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, some overseas Chinese are being discriminated against, so I worry about this problem quite a lot.”
Another classmate has been accepted to the University of Ottawa, but his mother doesn’t want him to leave China. Another will be attending York University and is watching online videos to learn self-defence.
Since early January, when the coronavirus began to spread from mainland China to the rest of the world, reports of anti-Asian incidents have been on the rise in Canada. Much of the discrimination may be subtle – moving away from a Chinese person on public transit, for example, or avoiding a Chinese person on a busy sidewalk – though there have been several serious incidents, too, involving physical violence and verbal harassment.
News of anti-Chinese racism is shared widely on Chinese social media, and many Chinese netizens have responded with anger and dismay to videos of Chinese people being attacked on the streets of major North American cities. For Chinese teenagers planning on attending university in the West, the videos spawn a sense of fear and anxiety, with some questioning whether they should go overseas at all to continue their studies.
Faculty “need to be mindful”
It is too soon to say how, exactly, the coronavirus will impact the upcoming academic year’s international enrolment numbers – and Chinese enrolment numbers, in particular. But against the backdrop of rising racial discrimination directed toward people of Chinese descent in cities like Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver, University of Toronto bioethicist Kerry Bowman suggests that universities must be keenly aware of the unique situation that the 140,000 Chinese students attending Canadian universities face due to the pandemic. In the current climate, “faculty need to be mindful that in these difficult, difficult times, these kinds of prejudices can be exacerbated,” he says.
“Faculty and administrators have to be hypervigilant toward this and … I would extend that to the many students at the University of Toronto and [students] everywhere. There really is an ethical obligation when you see racism and injustice to not remain silent. When you remain silent, you become complicit with that.”
In British Columbia, the UBC equity and inclusion office recently released an official statement denouncing the surge of discrimination against Asian people and, according to UBC’s director of university affairs, Matthew Ramsey, the university is working to “raise awareness of and critically explore how anti-Asian racism manifests itself and impacts affected communities.” According to the university, more than one-third of the international students at UBC are Chinese citizens and about 40 percent of the student body is of Asian descent.
“While we’re not aware of any reported COVID-related acts of discrimination against UBC students on campus,” says Mr. Ramsey, “we are aware of multiple minority groups facing discrimination in the wider community and would encourage any students who have experienced such discrimination to let us know so we can provide support.”
At McGill University, where there are roughly 2,500 international students from China, “there’s a heightened sensitivity right now to [racism and discrimination] and the care that goes into ensuring the climate is one that’s inclusive to everyone,” says Angela Campbell, the university’s associate provost, equity and academic policies. “Also, there’s a high degree of knowledge about the risk of real distress that people can feel, not even from being on the direct end of discrimination that’s explicit but even systemic bias and discrimination that comes in the forms of barriers that are not often easy to identify.”
In terms of specific measures the university has in place to support Chinese students who might feel worried about COVID-19-related discrimination, Dr. Campbell points to McGill’s policy on harassment and discrimination, and “the work of a team dedicated to promoting equity and responding meaningfully and effectively to reported incidents of discrimination, oppression and harm.”
No plans to quit
Ms. Wang, the high school senior planning to attend U of T, says she believes her university will take any discriminatory incidents seriously and has no plans to abandon her studies in Canada. “Yes, I’m still planning to attend U of T. Because although the discrimination exists and it might bring some trouble to my study and life, I will not give up my opportunity because of it. I think it is not the victims of discrimination but the racists who should make concessions.”
Her friend, Ms. Zhou, agrees. “Even though I’m quite concerned about this situation, I’m still really looking forward to this unique experience that I’m about to go through. Because it took me a lot of time and hard work to get into UBC, and my goal is to learn, I won’t let anything stop me from having a bright future.”