Behind the face mask: How COVID-19 amplifies anti-Chinese sentiments at UBC

Fourth-year accounting major Flora Jin remembers walking along Marine Drive on the way to Wreck Beach in March — around when UBC had just switched courses online to support COVID-19 physical distancing.

Concern around the pandemic hadn’t yet reached fever pitch, so no one wore a mask except for her. But for Jin, a Chinese international student, the walk made her feel like an outcast.

“As the only one who was wearing a mask, and being Asian … I just feel like a lot of people were staring at me and tried to walk past me or keep a distance from me,” she said. “And that was really awkward for me, to walk among people who [were] not wearing a mask and just staring at me.”

Step outside now and mask-clad faces are more common than not. But what remains the same is the anti-Chinese sentiment that COVID-19 has only exacerbated.

A quick search on the r/UBC subreddit brings up a plethora of discriminatory comments. One commenter questioned why Chinese students are so “egregious” at not integrating with the rest of campus, and another was surprised that BC was not harder hit given the number of Asians who the user said were bringing the disease over.

One Redditor asked point blank: “Is it just my experiences or are some Chinese international students just rude?”

According to the BC Human Rights Tribunal, racism “is a belief that some people are better than other people because they belong to a particular race or ethnic group.” When these Redditors place negative stereotypes on Chinese students, they are perpetuating racial discrimination, even unknowingly.

Similar beliefs have led to increased violence, threats and harassment as the pandemic progresses.

But closer to home, COVID-19 has drawn attention to veiled discrimination on campus against Chinese students, largely fuelled by misconceptions — particularly with Chinese international students, who make up the largest demographic of internationals at UBC.

Hidden prejudices

The university’s 2019 Undergraduate Experience Survey reports that while 90 per cent of white students feel that “students of my race/ethnicity are respected on this campus,” the number drops to 72 per cent for Chinese students.

Associate VP Equity and Inclusion Dr. Sara-Jane Finlay said that this isn’t specific to UBC, but speaks to a broader societal issue: “We live in a culture where whiteness is the norm.”

According to the 2019 AMS Academic Experience Survey, just over a third of all students reported ever experiencing race-based discrimination. But the stat for Chinese students was higher — 50 per cent of Chinese students reported discrimination, and the number rises to 63 per cent for Chinese international students.

Julia Burnham, former AMS VP academic and current student senator, said that she “wouldn’t be surprised” to see an increase of reported instances of discrimination in 2020 survey results given international conflicts affecting Chinese students on campus — like the Hong Kong protests or the COVID-19 pandemic.

“There’s a need to recognize that all of this fear and anxiety around coronavirus is being unduly placed on Chinese people,” said Burnham.

Dr. Benjamin Cheung, lecturer in the department of psychology, said he has not had any students approach him about racial discrimination from fellow classmates as of late. Still, he recounts a story of one of his students — a Chinese international student— who was walking in west campus when a passerby yelled at her to go back to China.

“Absolutely, this can manifest really anywhere that you have intercultural interactions with each other — which is literally everywhere on campus,” said Cheung.


Online, Chinese students are fighting back. Nick Pang, pharmacy student and student senator in his fifth year at UBC, posted a selfie wearing a mask with #HATEISAVIRUS written on it. The photo is part of a trend to raise awareness about anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, especially those who brave both discrimination and health risks while working in essential services.

UBC prides itself on being an international university with a diverse student population, but especially under the veil of internet anonymity, prejudice from the greater community still exists. Pang said the surge in racist incidents isn’t indicative of anything new, but rather has given pre-existing anti-Asian sentiment an outlet.

“It revealed some people’s deep, dark secrets that they’ve always had,” said Pang.

Take the Lennon Wall in the Nest, where students are welcome to post sticky notes in solidarity with Hong Kong activists. Before the AMS closed the Nest in mid-March, someone had written messages blaming China for the novel coronavirus, which was incorrectly referred to as the “Wuhan virus.”

UBC The Enlightenment of HK’s Phoenix Au-Yeung, a member of the group behind forming the wall, suspects that the messages were a response to the Chinese government’s silencing of coronavirus whistleblower Dr. Li Wenliang. When non-geographic alternatives like ‘COVID-19’ and ‘coronavirus’ exist, calling the bug the ‘Wuhan’ or ‘China virus’ associates Chinese people and those who look like them with the disease, leaving them vulnerable to discrimination based on appearance, said Cheung.

“It spreads from just calling it the place of origin to generalizing it to everyone who has any sort of perceived attachment to that term. So it no longer becomes the China virus as a virus that happened in China, but rather it’s a virus that comes from China and Chinese-looking people,” he said.

“And I think that’s the biggest danger.”

50 per cent of Chinese students reported discrimination, and the number rises to 63 per cent for Chinese international students.

— 2019 AMS Academic Experience Survey

Beneath the misconceptions

Misconceptions about Chinese international students contribute to cultural divides. Online comments and the Lennon Wall message represent some of the main negative perceptions of Chinese students that exist on campus, and Chinese international students are particularly subject to negative stereotyping.

On average, a domestic arts student pays $5,500 per year in tuition while their international counterpart pays $39,500 — over seven times more. This gap, coupled with the UBC Board of Governors’ 2015 decision to raise international tuition by nearly 50 per cent over the following three years, has added to what Cheung said is the idea that international students are all rich.

That’s far from reality for many internationals like Jin, who has had to work multiple part-time jobs to make ends meet with rent and tuition.

“There’s definitely a lot of perception where you hear, ‘Oh, you’re a Chinese international student. Oh, you pay so much. Oh, you’re rich,’” she said. “But at the same time, I’m not. I’m paying more but then I’m at the same financial level as a lot of other domestic students.”

And when the university relies so heavily on international tuition, forecasted to be $507 million in revenue for 2019/20 without considering the effects of COVID-19 compared to $386 million for domestic, Pang said it’s “counterintuitive” that the university would support them financially.

“If you’re using that to balance your budget sheet, why would you allocate more resources to support that?” he said.

“It minimizes them as this horde of people coming to UBC with all of their money, and just not being real students. And I think that’s really harmful because it almost reduces them to [where] their success isn’t deserved,” said Pang.

Yet another belief about Chinese international students often expressed online is that they tend to stick to themselves and don’t integrate with the others on campus. But for international students adjusting to new cultures, languages and education systems — all while miles away from family and friends — being around other international students, not necessarily even of the same ethnic background, helps with change.

“It’s a matter of comfort, and I think anyone deserves to have that level of comfort wherever they are,” said Cheung.

“We’re not gonna force somebody to participate if that’s not what they want,” added Finlay. “But we do need to make sure that the options are there for people to be able to engage in their studies in the way that best suits them, best supports their learning while they’re at UBC.”

Changing the culture

Racial discrimination on campus is governed by Policy SC7, which outlines what constitutes discrimination and the investigation process following a complaint. But in the case of online comments where there is no one to investigate, or when the person facing discrimination does not want an investigation, what can the policy do?

Finlay said the university understands that not everyone may wish to launch an investigation, and for those, there is a “full suite” of alternatives to resolve issues such as mediation or conflict resolution.

Despite this, Burnham said that the “complaints-driven” nature of the policy hampers its ability to shift a broader culture of discrimination.

“They are reactive by nature because they are only really enacted when someone comes forward with a complaint of discrimination … It’s tricky to have that be catch-all for all the instances of discrimination on campus.”

That’s where the Inclusion Action Plan (IAP) comes in. It’s UBC’s 2019 strategy to improve inclusivity and is a part of the university’s 10-year plan, Shaping UBC’s Next Century, which aims to improve inclusion on a systemic level, including hiring, academics and university decision-making.

“The kind of culture change that it speaks to and the kind of embedding of equity and inclusion into policies, processes, programs — that’s a long-term strategy,” Finlay said.

Questions remain over how this will affect students as departments are at liberty to implement the plan how they see fit for their unit, but Finlay said the flexibility allows for units to consider what they can tangibly do. Units will also report progress annually to the Equity & Inclusion Office.

But in the meantime, Pang stresses the need for culturally sensitive supports for international students. A former residence advisor, he recalls the difficulty of communicating the resources he could provide through residence life to students who were new.

“That idea of knowing everyone on your floor, being really close to your RA is a very Western philosophy.”

As the pandemic stretches norms and reveals racial tensions on campus, empathy is more important than ever.

“What if the virus started in your country, and it’s your country against the world? Your own nationality against the whole world, how would you think about that?” said Jin.

“It’s not one country against each other — it’s the world against the virus.”