What it's like to be Asian in Belize
It's time you stopped using the word "Chiney"
For the past couple of months, the world has had a sideline view of the rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, most notably the devastating Atlanta shooting in March at a spa salon that claimed 8 lives, six of whom were Asian women. This was preceded by many documented anti-Asian violent acts in the US taking place on the subway, in front of stores and countless others. Racism is nothing new in America, (if anything, many think the two synonymous) but it’s hard to ignore a possible correlation of the inherent spike on the heels of a virus that was dubbed the “Chinese virus” by a reality TV personality.
In the midst of May being AAPI (Asian American/ Pacific Islander) Heritage month, I wanted to bring light to this same rampant problem in Belize that no one wants to talk about: how we treat our own Asian-Belizeans here at home.
I can’t think of it being anything other than a funny bit when local social media friends grace their Instagram Stories with the hashtag #StopAsianHate, yet claim “the Chinese” are taking over Belize IRL. Or exclude them when gushing about the “diverse” cultures of Belize, or blasting them on social media when they don’t act the way you want them to.
Of course, as good as my intentions may be, I am not the source to speak on a topic that does not affect me personally every day. Which is why I reached out to a friend on Facebook, who has been anything but silent when it comes to the nauseating prejudice our fellow Belizeans go through everyday, and asked her if she would be willing to share with us her experience of being an Asian-Belizean in Belize.
The following column was written by Mendy Lee and edited by Gisselle Hernandez.
Let’s break down the common nickname many Belizeans use when referring to Asians in Belize. I’m sure you’re very familiar with it.
After generations of using this moniker, it is now so common that it’s often overlooked in our country. But what people may not realize is that it communicates hostility and implicit racial biases. The normalization of this name-calling is actually quite indicative of how ingrained this culture of racism against Asians in Belize is.
I think in this day and age, most people understand the extent to which racism and xenophobia can have harmful effects on a person. It is no unknown fact that Asian-Belizeans commonly own small businesses, either restaurants or grocery stores and oftentimes, both. My parents are no different. They are no different in their occupation, and they are also no different in their response to the racism and microaggressions they endure on a daily basis. As a child of immigrant parents, I relate strongly to the sentiments about how my parents have sacrificed many things in order to better their children’s future. In Asian culture, there’s a huge emphasis placed on education as the frontrunner toward success –– do well in school and you will be successful. Among these sacrifices are little things such as tolerating the racially charged comments that people say toward them in the long-term. Growing up, this was difficult to watch because I knew that my parents didn’t have the means to defend themselves against racism due to their language barrier. Each time, I simply sat in the back, enduring it as well because my parents wouldn’t let me say anything in response since it wasn’t my place, or it wasn’t something I should have gotten worked up about.
There’s something to be said about the silence among the Asian community when it comes to addressing racism and discrimination in Belize. We might be getting better at it as the younger generation grows older, but there’s still work to be done. Why were these subtle racist comments considered something I should have ignored? From my personal experience, Asians tolerate racist comments to avoid confrontation and escalation of the situation. The mindset of many Asians of the older generation is very much catered towards what we can actually control – we can’t control what others say or change how they think, but we have full control over the way we react to these situations. In a way, traditional Asian culture views it as being the bigger person by letting go of what you cannot change. One key aspect that’s missing is that we can change the way others understand phenomena such as racism.
There is a pervasive stigma against Asian culture in Belize, particularly when it comes to how Asian immigration affects the Belizean economy. This perspective is very similar to the American sentiment that immigrants are stealing the jobs of Americans. Many Asian-Belizeans own small businesses, which actually helps to stimulate the economy. On that matter, starting a business isn’t easy. There’s so much talk about small businesses now, especially on Tiktok –– but it takes a certain level of ambition and grit to power through and make your way toward success. We know how much time it takes for the street tacos vendors to make their Orange Walk tacos, and we know they open early – some even as early as 6:00 A.M. I admire our street vendors because they are dedicated, much like how I see my own parents. Most people working 9-to-5 jobs only work on the weekdays. My parents work every day of the week, and 13 hours a day without a break. Sometimes I see my dad dozing off in the shop in the middle of the afternoon. Working non-stop your entire life will eventually take a toll on you. Seeing my parents’ determination has only made me more heartbroken about their lived daily experience with racism.
During my recent visit home, a customer walked into our store requesting an exchange for a beer they didn’t purchase from our store. They said they were coming to Orange Walk from Corozal and their beer got warm from the car ride. They came into our store solely for that purpose, still without purchasing anything from us. When we refused to issue an exchange, they were evidently aggravated and mumbled about how we were being unfair and couldn’t “help a man out.” I thought it was incredulous that they felt entitled to an exchange, and felt entitled to label us as inherently “bad” because we didn’t do what they wanted us to do. If they walked into Sam’s Club in Chetumal with this request, would they have gotten an exchange? Likely not. Because that’s not how businesses operate. So why was it expected from an Asian business? It feels almost too easy for Asians to be placed in a negative light when we are standing up for ourselves.
There’s a long, unaddressed culture of racism toward Asians in Belize –– I’ve witnessed it growing up, and I still see it when I visit home. I see it in the “chiney” and “ching-chong” name-calling and in the manner some rude customers address my parents. I’ve observed some progress in the support for the Asian community in Belize. I’ve noticed some posts on my Facebook feed from friends who are thoughtful and who are allies to the Asian community, who speak up against Asian hate. One time a younger neighbor called out another customer for calling my mom a derogatory term, saying, “Don’t call her chiney. She’s Miss Lee.” It warmed my heart –– this was a small thing to do, but it meant volumes.
I really hope that I can see more growth and less ignorance among the Belizean community, with regards to the deep-seated racism towards Asians. I believe that perhaps more and more non-Asian Belizeans are starting to acknowledge the culture of xenophobia towards Asians in Belize. With that, I’d like to ask you all to take a moment to recognize how deeply embedded this issue of racism is, and become an ally by speaking out the next time you witness an act of discrimination towards the Asian community.
Mendy Lee is currently pursuing her bachelor’s in Psychology and Linguistics, with an East Asian Studies minor, at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia.