By MARGOT LAMBILLIOTTE
Global Business Journalism reporter
Part 1 of a 3-story special report
PARIS – Elisa Cheng is a 24-year-old French-born Chinese who has been calling Paris home her whole life. Nothing about her life in the country felt “un-French.” She supports the French national football team, loves to sing French songs, watches French television series and volunteers at Les Restos du Coeur, a popular French food bank in her spare time. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Cheng did not think twice about being Asian and living in the 18th arrondissement of the French capital.
Now, everything has changed. The virus has killed more than 100,000 people in the country, Asian-looking people have become the scapegoats.
“I have to admit that I do not really feel safe when I go out,’’ said Cheng. ‘‘I have spent all my life trying to adapt, but the coronavirus made me realize that because I look Chinese, I could never be one of them. We all know that some places are not safe here in Paris, because there are a lot of pickpockets who think that Asians are an easy target. But since the beginning of the pandemic, many Asians are not only being robbed, they are also victims of violence."
A year into the pandemic, "nothing has changed,’’ Cheng said.
Her feelings reflect the findings of a survey conducted by the author in cooperation with l’Institut National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales in Paris. The study found that 91% of Asian people or French people of Asian descent agree with the proposition that racism targeting their communities has increased since the beginning of the pandemic. Half of them say they experienced verbal or physical attacks in 2020.
Whether they have fallen victim of violence, discrimination, bullying or other kinds of abuse, a new wave of anti-Chinese prejudice has left many Chinese wondering where they fit into French society.
“What is the most painful for me is that my parents both immigrated to France when they were teenagers," said Cheng. "They had no education and were really poor, they sacrificed and gave everything so me and my sisters could get a brighter future, but now they are really scared for us. Unfortunately, many say there is no racism in France, nobody believes you unless they see it."
This discrimination traces back hundreds of years when the first Asian communities arrived in Europe. One of the persistent myths or charges about immigration in the French society is that immigrants do not assimilate, are too many, and bring diseases. During these times, many European media were used to spread these prejudices and target specific populations for exclusion when there was very little danger of contagion.
This was especially true with Asian immigrants, and with Chinese people in particular. This myth suggested that there was something genetic or biological specific to Chinese people – and Chinese culture – that made them more likely to spread viruses. The xenophobic attacks the Chinese community is facing in France at the moment are an echo of racist rhetoric of the past, sometimes magnified by instantaneous sharing on social media.
In recent years, two new terms have emerged to describe different strains of anti-Asian prejudice: ‘"racisme bienveillant" (or indulgent racism) that relies on ethnic stereotypes and "racisme ordinaire" (or ordinary racism) that reflects reflexive racial hatred. To many French people of Asian descent, that abuse is a daily fear.
‘‘Back in autumn, my 15-year-old little sister was in the subway when some people started to mock here and told her to go back to her own country,’’ said Helena Qiu, a French entrepreneur of Chinese descent. ‘‘She was shocked and really scared when she got back home. The worst is when you understand that this hate and stupidity is being passed down. When she described it to me, it was just a flashback of all these times that happened to myself. You cannot understand how painful that is until one of the people you always want to protect suffers from that."
Recent collected data show that 61% of Asian people or French people of Asian descent agree to say that public transportation is the place where they are most likely to face racism. Bullying experiences from years ago still leave the victims outraged.
For Qiu, growing up in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, also famous for being the Parisian Chinatown, racism was not always obvious, but it was always there in some form. For the French citizens of Asian descent, times have not change too much. Most of them have grown up in a world of micro-aggressions.
Asian businesses started to suffer from the effect of the quarantines and the curfews before the other businesses. Most of them were already noticing a stark drop-off. The difference was especially striking in the 13th arrondissement of Paris, the biggest Chinatown in Europe. “My mother works in an Asian restaurant,” said Doan Trinh Doan Thi, whose parents immigrated from Vietnam to France when she was 7 years old. "It is usually really crowded. The clients are not only Asian people, there are also a lot of non-Asian people."
That was before the coronavirus spread around the world.
"Everything has changed since the COVID-19 crisis," Doan Thi added. “I remember at the beginning of the outbreak, when only China was impacted, some people even asked if it was safe to have a walk in the Chinatown streets."
One month after the beginning of the pandemic, Asian restaurants in France witnessed declines of up to 40% in traffic. For many, the Chinatown of Paris represents a community that has been built on immigrant efforts and sacrifices. In the whole area there are still a lot of immigrants owned businesses. Many people rely on this not only to survive, but also to keep their roots, and tell their parents and grandparents’ stories. It goes way beyond a place to live and a place to get food. For them, it is a place where the culture of their hard-working families and the Asian identity speak up.
There have been many projects to help the neighborhood's struggling businesses. Through an online money pot, the community has raised more than 137,300 euros in about six months to save businesses in the Chinatown of Paris. With the grants, they are hoping that it will help alleviate the overhead costs that they have been racking up during their closures like paying utility bills, rent or even adjusting for new expenses linked to the sanitary measures.
Politics and the way the media have been misleading information related to the pandemic did not help in this stressful and unprecedented situation. According to a survey, 59% of Asian people or French people of Asian descent believe that media play a major role in promoting xenophobia. For many French people it was a way to look for other people to blame.
For many people from the Chinese community in France, this is a time to try to bring people together. Many are using social media to spread information online and to describe the xenophobia and racism they have been facing for many years. On Twitter and Facebook, many pictures and videos showing racist behavior toward the community have been published since the beginning of the pandemic. This also led many people to organize gatherings and peaceful protests across the country to support help them mobilize for their rights. It's an old problem, but the COVID-19 pandemic has prompted new action to combat racism.