Trinidad and Tobago is a weird place. We preach tolerance and practice racism daily. Hypocrisy and irony are easily two of our defining characteristics as a culture. Recently a debate raged on FB. It involved the use of stereotyping and racism against the Chinese immigrant community here. And to make things worse, the racist comments were validated by statements from the Minister of Health in the current government. Minister Khan's ignorant statements were further aided and abetted by some lazy members of traditional media. I got the chance to talk to a young lady. She has Chinese parents, a lovely mind and a bruised spirit. She feels under represented, unempowered and overwhelmed. This is her story. In her words. She had a lot to say, so I've split Lily Kwok's story up. Part 2 will be posted on Saturday. Enjoy.
1. I want you to explain to me what has you so damned hot and bothered on Facebook these days?
This first began with the incident of the 4 Chinese nationals who were involved in the stealing of the turtle eggs in June, 2015. I was absolutely flabbergasted that anyone thought they could steal turtle eggs. As someone who loves animals and enjoys turtle-watching, I was very upset at the situation. But you know what else also upset me? The racialized comments that followed after on social media. There is no doubt in my mind that what those men did was criminal and they should be dealt with by the law accordingly. However, instead of purely focusing on the criminality of the action and shaming the men for their wrong-doing, many comments diverged into racial stereotyping; assumptions that “Chinee people does eat anything”. Moreover, some comments went so far as to request that “all dem Chinee need to be sent back.” I found this amusing considering that when pictures of people standing on leatherback turtles surface on social media, people rarely (if ever) involve “race” in admonishing the acts. Yes, these people get called everything from “moron” to “jackass”; but I doubt I have ever seen someone indicate whatever assumed race that the person appears to be, along with a request for that person to return anywhere, much less requests for their entire assumed ethnic group to return somewhere else.
However, those comments I saw with regards to the turtle egg incident are fairly tame in comparison to those that followed the CNC3 video with Dr. Fuad Khan. No one denies that a dog is being skinned in the video. That is indeed a fact. And yes, Chinese nationals were once again involved in such an act. That is indeed a fact. But you know what are not facts? That the preparation of the dog to be eaten is any way connected to a Chinese restaurant, that dog meat is being used as a substitute for other meat in Chinese restaurants, and that ALL Chinese people and people of Chinese ancestry eat dog. Yet, even though these are not hard, substantiated facts, many people have made extremely racist and xenophobic comments surrounding them. People have gone so far as to claim that Chinese people even eat foetuses. Do people really think that the World Health Organization or the United Nations, or any international human rights organization out there would allow Chinese people to eat foetuses? I’m pretty sure this would be a massive issue highlighted on a global scale if such a practice was indeed occurring. So yes, I have been hot and bothered on Facebook. Because instead of focusing on the real issue at hand, which is having a meaningful discussion on animal rights and protection in Trinidad and Tobago, we have devolved into using the situation as a platform to unearth deep-seated racism towards Chinese people and people of Chinese ancestry.
2. The "Chiney eating dog" stereotypes aren't new. Why did this particular issue piss you off so much?
This whole “dog meat” situation is a complex and nuanced one, and the discussion on it on social media has been neither that – complex nor nuanced. I personally see that the situation can be discussed via three different vantage points: 1. Moral 2. Cultural 3. Legal. Morally, is it right to eat a dog or cat? How do we decide which animals are worth eating and which are not? Rabbits are kept as pets in many countries, yet they are eaten elsewhere. At what point is it okay to eat an animal that is deemed a “pet”? Pigs are intelligent and have personalities. Is it okay to eat them, but not other animals? I feel like there is such a huge disconnect between what people eat and where their food comes from. Most of the meat we eat comes from animals who are mass-bred, treated inhumanely their entire lives, and then slaughtered in an inhumane manner. I am not saying that we must not eat meat, and I am not asking for everyone to become vegetarians. But I believe that we as a species must come into full understanding of what we are doing when we eat other animals, and that picking and choosing which animals to eat does not negate the fact that we are indeed doing is eating another species. For many, this is not a problem, and for others it is. This is a matter of individual choice. Culturally, people have been making arguments about the fact that Trinidadians eat iguana, manicou and so forth. We eat wild animals so much the government had to enact a two-year hunting ban to ensure these populations are continued.
I don’t think that Trinbagonians eating wild meat is a good reason to justify people of other ethnic backgrounds eating dog within the country. Just like how people of Chinese origin eating dog meat should not justify Trinidadians eating animals that could possibly go extinct. This is the most used argument I’ve seen on Facebook so far – that “we eat this” and “they eat that”, but the discussion is so much larger than this. Shifting into the legal perspective, if we as Trinbagonians do not condone the eating of dogs as a cultural practice in our country, then our energies need to be channeled towards forcing the government on providing proper animal protection laws in the country (something we are severely lacking) instead of verbally attacking the Chinese / Chinese-Trinidadian community. If you really cared about the protection of dogs and cats in this country, why are you not pressuring your government to enact legislation that will protect them? Instead, the discussion has been derailed into calling Chinese people “nasty” and asking them to return to China. How can we begin to have proper discourse on animal rights in this country, if we can’t even treat our own species with decency?
Yes, I know I have deviated from the main question, but I felt like it was very important to state what I just did. However, let me return to the issue of “Chiney eating dog”. Eating dog is a practice in China. But I feel like many people do not fully understand the practice, especially those people who are commenting. Dog eating is something that is mainly practised in the North of China, which is of course colder than the South. People eat dog in these colder regions due to the animal’s high fat and protein content, which keep people warm. This is very similar to the practice of eating seals and other mammals by the Inuit people, who also do it to keep warm. The Chinese diaspora, not only in Trinidad and Tobago, but the general western hemisphere is mainly comprised of persons from the South of China. There are bound to be people in the country of Chinese origin who have no qualms about eating dog. But there is also a large number of people who do not. So yes, eating dog is a practice in China. That is a fact. But no, not ALL Chinese persons and persons of Chinese ancestry eat dog. Claiming that they all do is a stereotype. Making these types of generalized statements are no different from assuming a particular ethnic group is prone to “committing crime” or “drinking rum”.
Such stereotypes can be dangerous; they lead to the sort of xenophobia and racism we have seen on social media and the perpetuation of a particular perception of an entire group of people. And such a negative perception can have dire consequences for people’s businesses / livelihoods and everyday lives. This is why I am so “pissed”. By assuming all Chinese people and people of Chinese ancestry eat dog and are, therefore, trying to dupe the general public into eating dog (which quite frankly makes no sense since it’s more economically effective and less time-consuming to buy chicken and other meat wholesale from local companies, like Arawak), people have become fearful of eating at Chinese establishments, or refuse to patronize because Chinese people are “nasty” and don’t deserve their money.
I think people fail to recognize the economic repercussions of this. These Chinese restaurants buy local produce and local products to prepare food and sell at their establishments. It is not uncommon to see people of Chinese descent in the market buying christophene, cabbage, carrots and other vegetables from local farmers. They buy plastic and Styrofoam containers from local businesses; they sell Solo and other soft drinks that are locally made. Business has been very slow for many Chinese restaurants since the release of CNC3’s video. If business is slow, they, therefore, cannot continue to patronize other local establishments to continue their own. This is obviously not good news for farmers, food companies and other businesses, which are all part of the economics of food-selling in this country.
People are also under the assumption that “Chinese people don’t contribute to the economy because they send all their money back home.” Clearly, this must be an attack on “Chinese nationals” and not “local Chinese” who are found in every field in this country from medicine to the fashion industry. Regardless of that, however, that statement makes no sense at all. When people come to live in a country, they buy property to live on, they buy property to start businesses, they sell local products through their businesses, they themselves need to eat so they make food from vegetables and meat sold by other local businesses, they drive around in cars fueled by gas that they bought here, they pay for entertainment here. Do people really think that immigrant populations do not put any money back into the country in which they live?
I also find it amusing that we have a problem with immigrants working and living here, although the Trinbagonian diaspora is quite large and vibrant itself. We have so many Trinbagonians living and working in places like Toronto and New York, as well as various parts of the UK. It seems to be okay if we leave the country and make a life elsewhere, but other people shouldn’t be afforded the same opportunity within our own nation – a nation that boasts of diversity and ethnic harmony.
3. Tell me how you deal with ethnic stereotypes in general?
As a person growing up in Trinidad and Tobago, I’ve had to deal with ethnic stereotypes for a long time. People used to ask me if Chinese people only bathed once a week for instance. When I was younger, I didn’t do much about it.
Now, as an adult, I believe that the best way to deal with ethnic stereotypes is through education. I believe that many people are simply ignorant / unaware of the impact of the kind of stereotypes they perpetuate on people. In many cases, they are not intentionally being malicious or hateful. They just don’t know or realise what they are doing is racist or ethnocentric. It is, therefore, our duty to teach people otherwise. It is sad to say I think; but sometimes you have to remind someone of your own humanity and individuality. People often forget that the comments they make are targeted at another human being just like his / her self. Being angry and spiteful, as I’ve come to learn, is not going to change anything. To cultivate unity, harmony and love within our society we must first begin to show love ourselves.
4. What is the group response or reaction, if you are aware of it, to this latest issue?
Many people are continuing to be xenophobic and racist with their comments on social media. Many people are turning this into a joke. Trinidad and Tobago loves “memes” – the lowest and easiest form of humour. However, it is to be expected. Yet even though the ugliness continues, there has also been a massive outpouring of support by many people. Other people have participated with their own placards and pictures; people of various racial and ethnic backgrounds. People have sent many messages showing their solidarity to the cause. I know that I cannot change each single person’s mind on the issue. It is impossible. But I think we would be a much better society if the subjectively “good” people outweighed the “bad”. And thus far, I’d say Trinidad and Tobago has A LOT of “good” people.
Nevertheless, there is a particular “response” I’d like to address. Although there are some really horrible comments being posted online, I think these people posting them may not bother me as much as the people who are complacent or see the entire issue as a “non-issue”. There are some people who think this entire thing is frivolous, that the Chinese-Trinidadian community is “beating up too much”, that we are being carried away with our emotions, and that we are the ones who are in fact racist by virtue of pointing out the very evident racism on social media. These people have the right to have this opinion. But I do find it disconcerting. For a long time, the Chinese-Trinidadian community has been very muted on issues such as these. We have come to be deemed as passive and quiet. People think that we never stand up for anything with regards to our community. Yet now, even though we have finally said something, even this is a problem. It feels like a very lose-lose situation. I also do not understand how people think that being racist and xenophobic towards Chinese people and people of Chinese ancestry is “not a big problem”. It is part of a wider problem of general racism and xenophobia in the country. It is an issue currently impacting the businesses and livelihoods of many. As a minority group, it is too easy to have our problems cast aside as “non-issues”; to have our feelings of unfair treatment be invalidated; and to have our voices easily overshadowed by the majority.
I would also like to address another type of “response” to this issue. People have told me that they do not have a problem with Chinese-Trinidadians, “local Chinese”, and that they are more concerned with “Chinese nationals” and the recently immigrated “infiltrating” the island. How is this a proper criterion for deciding who we treat with respect and who we do not? Is citizenship how we decide who is worthy of racial slurs and who is not? I identify as Chinese-Trinidadian or just Trinidadian because I was born, raised and educated here. Hence, the “I Am Trinidadian” on my placard. However, even if I was NOT Trinidadian, what gives anyone the right to treat me as subhuman scum? Is this the mentality we perpetuate on all foreigners in our country? We have Italians here, Venezuelans, Colombians, Syrians, and so many other people of different nationalities within the country working in the food industry, academia, construction, finance and so forth. Are they not to be all treated equally as your fellow Trinidadian? We must not mix up the legalities of immigration with how we should treat immigrants. The government has a duty to control and deal with immigration accordingly. You, as a person in a “callaloo country”, however, have no right to humiliate or dehumanize another human being on the basis of their “status” within the country. This “us” versus “them” mentality, perpetuated since the dawn of colonialism, is a little too old for 2015.