Photo: Reuben Goh, 2020.
On the 24th of February 2020, a student named Jonathan Mok was assaulted on the streets of London. He was a student at UCL, a Chinese Singaporean, and was reading law. It happened in the evening at Oxford Street, a group of four teenagers following and harassing him. One shouted, ‘I don't want your coronavirus in my country'. Jonathan was shocked. He turned back before the violence erupted- an explosion of blood by a stray sucker punch, a vicious kick to the stomach, his nose bloody, his facial bones broken. His attackers have since been brought to justice.
Fear shot through me like lightning when I read about his case. He had taken to Facebook to bear testament to the assault, a warning to those of us of East Asian descent, British or not. Those differences are petty to the inflamed spirit.
I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve never been racially assaulted in Britain. There’d always been a slight weariness I practised, for the axle of prejudice turns on short notice. In Singapore, where I grew up, I’d worn the garment of privilege that came with passing as a member of its Chinese majority. My features reflect my Chinese and Korean heritage, making my presence at English lectures particularly conspicuous. I remember that estrangement- rows and rows of my white female cohort mates, my eyes scanning across the hall until, relieved, they met those of a guy of Afro-Caribbean descent. In supervisions and conversations, I’d eluded microaggressions, by and large.
It was only in the evenings, as I made the trek back from college, that my body would seize up. Large groups of drunk men made me most apprehensive. The swell of boisterous voices was enough to make me take a wide berth. There’d been maybe one or two unpleasant altercations: once when someone shouted ‘ching chong’ at me, which my friend didn’t register, another when a group of boys and suits made similarly patronising noises while I waited on my bike for the lights to turn green.
When I arrived in Cambridge I joined the Cambridge Chinese Christian Fellowship (CCCF), a Christian organisation of international students largely from the Chinese diaspora. It defied my sharpest instincts as a Christian- the vision of the church is multiethnic, and ethnocentricity is nowhere to be found in the Bible. In the book of Galatians, Paul insists,
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
The warmth and intentionality of my seniors convinced me to stay. It became part of a constellation of my Christian community in Cambridge, a triangle of the Gospel Choir, my small group at Holy Trinity Church, and my cell group in the CCCF. As the terms came and went, the urgency of bringing these circles together became apparent. My position settled into the concession that a cultural familiarity helps people to adjust, especially for those coming to Cambridge from the places to which so many Brits remain inarticulate: Singapore, Malaysia, and Hong Kong in particular. The task was dual-pronged- to bring people into the larger Christian community and to break the stronghold of ethnic complacency.
This is where the story diverges, however momentarily. I’d just come out from a meeting with the CCCF committee at St. Andrew the Great, a church in central Cambridge. We turned a corner and a man seated at a café got agitated at the sight of us. He shouted, ‘Look! It’s the fucking Chinese!’ The four of us who’d left the meeting turned- the man was white and dishevelled, face covered in a grizzly beard, dressed in camouflage print from the neck-down. Hoping to defuse the situation, I proclaimed, ‘Yup that’s us!’ We laughed. He got angrier. He began to follow us, variously shouting ‘fucking disgrace’ and ‘fucking communists’ as we dispersed toward our different colleges. It was only when I turned a corner and saw a policeman on patrol that I felt safe.
I returned to my room, still seething, running through a gamut of angry thoughts. They were the same that had plagued my mind any time the spectre of racism emerged, whether to me, my East Asian friends, or my friends who identified as BME (black and minority ethnic): ‘There’ll never be a place for me in this country’, ‘These people will never learn’, ‘I’d be safer elsewhere’. It took time to regain my composure, to recognise the essentialism that was infecting my thinking, to remember the hospitality of my white British friends, and to pray for the man who’d chased us. There were clearly things that had scarred him. I prayed for the peace of Christ to come upon him and to address his fear, always the same plea: ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing’. At that moment, the CCCF was the only place I could turn to process what had happened.
Racism is one of our oldest and most insistent prejudices. Solomon knew this well- in the ancient text Ecclesiastes he writes of the incessantness of human behaviour:
‘What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.’
Racism doesn’t take much to instigate. In an instant, a pandemic transformed the dizzying affirmation of East Asians through the Oscar victory of Parasite into a carnal, sneering rejection. The allegation of uncleanness is particularly effective- it drags out every old stereotype about poor hygiene and false eating habits. More insidiously, it causes a nativist instinct to harden, for under the shadow of the coronavirus, every yellow body is an infected body.
The yoking of disease and prejudice is an ancient practice. In Greek tragedy, this was expressed as the miasma, a contagious power with a life of its own, a spiritual pollution enacted by an act of wrongdoing. It is not too far from the moralism that accompanies the allegations of dirtiness that are levied against East Asians in Britain, or in Australia, or in the United States, or across Europe. There are enough videos of East Asians being sprayed by disinfectant or beaten up or insulted by people of various ethnic backgrounds to validate this.
Yet, the axle of racism continues to turn, especially when the targeted groups are vulnerable. In Singapore, as the disease ravages the community of transient workers from Bangladesh who live in cramped dormitories, they are derided for not being ‘responsible for their own hygiene’. In China, where the pandemic claimed its first victims, African workers have been evicted by their landlords in Guangzhou, deemed a ‘viral transmission hazard’. Discrimination is couched in the language of precaution: these people are unhygienic, these people brought the virus. It is a cycle that continues to turn.
Racism, like COVID-19, is asymptomatic, until it’s not.
In the space between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, there lies Holy Saturday. It is the liminal period after the crucifixion of Christ and before His glorious resurrection, the period where Jesus was well and truly dead. It is often elided in the celebration of Easter, an inconvenient diversion in the narrative of Christ’s ultimate triumph. The theologian Alan Lewis comments,
Every instinct says, "Here, at least, there can be no place for God, however loving, however strong. How could God, the infinite and everlasting, be one with so vulgar an expression of carnality and time as the buried man from Nazareth?"
Christians believe that Jesus’s soul descended into hell in this period, where He proclaimed His victory over the powers of death. In the interim, for those three days, His followers mourned and went into hiding, fully convinced that their faith had been a sham and that their despair was conclusive.
The liminality of Holy Saturday is where we can grieve for this mutilated world, where despair can sear like the hottest ember. It is here that every agonising question about suffering turns and turns because we look at the corpse of Jesus and insist God is silent and God is absent. We are yet to be convinced that the body will begin to breathe again, in quite the same way we must believe that this created world one day will.
The conviction to hope is a totalising impetus for the Christian, one we must cling to when things seem most dire, even in the desperation of a deafening silence. It is hard to insist on when patients are dying, doctors are exhausted, and racism lingers like a spirit that cannot be expunged.
And yet, we see the body of Christ roused from the dead, emerging from that sealed tomb, the burst of light that cuts across the darkness. It animates the possibility of reconciliation, of articulating and overcoming difference, and of helping wounds heal, one that stems from repentance, the resurrection that happens within every day.
Even if, as Philip Powell writes, ‘The puzzle and pain of what can be and what is never goes away’, the quiet persistence of the Holy Spirit floods our limbs and our lungs. Even as the Christian life continues to turn, the love of Christ gives us enough compassion each day for a hurting world.
It is enough to help us forgive where we once couldn’t.