Racial Narratives on Repeat: Reflections on Collaborative Research on Asian International Students in COVID Times


On May 5, 2021, we came together via Zoom to reflect on our ongoing research on Asian international students’ experiences and understandings of the COVID-19 crisis. We share our reflections in the form of a dialogue. We narrate how our motivations and plans for the project emerged and shifted in the course of research. We also highlight how various narratives—in the media, by government and universities, and from our research participants—play a central role in shaping the contours of anti-Asian racism in COVID times, especially as lived, felt, and negotiated by Asian international students. Part of what we do in our dialogue is to think historically about racial narratives of Asianness in this current moment and to situate them in the longer arc of Asians’ conditional belonging in Canada. We do so in response to the discourse of Canadian innocence and exceptionalism that sometimes frames anti-Asian racism in Canada as a recent and aberrant phenomenon perpetrated by individuals. In addition, given our project’s focus on racialized students, we reflect on the university itself as a racialized space and institution. Among other things, we note that universities are racially contested sites where Asian subjects are rendered simultaneously desirable and threatening. We note that the intensification of university internationalization strategies, as well as the history of Canadian universities as sites of anti-Asian racism, constitute important contexts for our participants’ experiences of anti-Asianness during COVID.1


As anti-racist feminist scholars trained respectively in the fields of geography and political science, we came to this research with long-standing interests in migrant and racialized subjects, the institutions and discourses that shape their lives, and the agentive tactics of community organizing and counter-narration that they employ to negotiate their presence, place, and politics in Canada and transnationally. Our current research is an instantiation and extension of our shared commitment to theorizing structures, discourses, and practices of racialization in Canada, focusing particularly on its intersectional manifestations. We employ mixed methods of data collection, combining focus group interviews with Asian international students at UBC and York University, our home institutions, and the compilation and analysis
of a corpus of texts comprised of relevant media coverage, governmental policy documents, and institutional (university) statements about COVID-19.


As researchers of Filipinx Canadian descent, we come to our research with our own lived experiences of racialization both as first-generation settler immigrants to Canada and as scholars of colour in the neoliberal university. While the transcript of our dialogue below does not necessarily foreground how our positionalities inform our research, we note here that we and our families are embedded in histories, regimes, structures, and discourses of anti-Asianness that shape what it means to be racialized as Asian during COVID times. Our interest in the racial politics of Asianness is thus not only conceptual but also deeply personal. We hope that the “I” and the “we” in the dialogue below get us at least a little bit closer to the lived and embodied quality of researching anti-Asianness in COVID times, not only as scholars but also as Asian Canadians.


On Origin Stories


JP: I want to begin by recognizing that this is a really exciting and important opportunity for the two of us to come together to engage in a dialogue about our collaborative project on Asian international students in COVID times. We are a year into this project, and we are just over a year into the pandemic. This conversation can be a way to check in on some of the lessons that we have been able to learn from our project and particularly from the stories of our participants. Maybe we can begin by thinking together about the origin story of this project. How did we come to enter into this collaboration and why this specific kind of formulation of the project?


Ethel: It has been more than a year since COVID became an ever-present reality in our lives. I remember approaching you in February 2020. I was thinking at the time that COVID would be similar to SARS and that COVID would lead to a rise in anti-Asian racism. At that point, COVID was being portrayed by the news media as something that happened in China. I remember messaging you and asking you if we should look into this issue and begin a project where we examine how Asian international students are faring, especially with the backlash against COVID as an “Asian disease.” It was research unfolding in real time. We soon realized that COVID was worse than SARS, and that it was having a lot of material effects on everyone’s lives. And so, we pitched this project in April 2020 with a plan to conduct focus group interviews with Asian
international students at York and UBC, and to investigate how they are faring during this political moment. We got SSHRC Explore funding for the project. As we were doing this research, events were unfolding that required us to figure
out ways to adapt our research. These included major policy developments such as border restrictions and stay-at-home orders, as well as shifts in everyday practices including mask wearing. This is how I remember this project starting out. I am curious to see if it resonates with what you are thinking.


JP: One way that I’ve been thinking about the origin story of our project is that we began with a concern with how the origin story of COVID-19 itself was being framed. I see our project as a response to what the media, government, and public discourses around COVID-19 were saying, at the beginning of the pandemic, about the origin and transnational circulation of COVID-19. Part of the impetus for this project was a concern about the public narration of the pandemic as coming from China and from Wuhan in particular. We became interested in the lived effects of the circulation of that narrative. We eventually decided to broaden our focus to Asian international students, but we began with Chinese international students specifically. With the public narrative of China as the origin of the virus, we suspected specific impacts on international students of Chinese descent. However, we were soon challenged by the fact that the ensuing racism was larger in scope. So, we needed to make methodological adjustments for our project. While we began with Chinese and Hong Kong international students, we eventually ended up expanding it to Asian international students.


Ethel: As our research proceeded, we started being challenged by the people whom we were trying to recruit. We had folks ask, “I’m a Chinese international student from New Zealand. Do I qualify?” We had to amend our project to be more flexible in terms of which narratives to include. While we were attuned to the politics of categories like “Asian” in our research, we also made use of and thus enforced existing categories. Methodologically, we realized we had to open up who could participate in our research and recognize the biases in our forms of categorization as well. It’s funny that we thought at first that this project should focus on Chinese international students when racists can’t tell Asians apart anyway.
JP: My recollection is that our initial decision to restrict who our participants were was, in part, to make the project a little bit more manageable, to give us a sense of what’s doable and also because we had a particular kind of funding for this project that only allowed us to do so much. For me, that was partly why it was important to start small and then to expand.


Asian International Students, Bordering Practices, and the Limits of Ethnonationalism


JP: What is it specifically about international students from Asia as opposed to Asians more broadly, including Asian Canadians, that we wanted to focus on?


Ethel: I remember that we were talking about, well, why not focus on Asian Canadians? I think our thought process at that point was, international students do not have the same support networks as residents of Canada have, that they are especially vulnerable because they are usually living by themselves, within institutions that don’t necessarily cater to their well-being, away from more familiar spaces and systems of support. Along with focus groups, another part of this project concerns the institutional narratives created by our respective employers (York and UBC) about COVID but also specifically about international students from Asia.


There’s the question of immigration policy as well. As borders were closing, some of our participants were wondering whether they should just go back home because they weren’t sure whether borders would reopen. We became attentive to the specific pressures faced by international students as a result.


JP: Another narrative that informs our focus on international students is the different relationship that they have to Canada. Asian Canadians, for example, could and do strategically deploy ethnonationalist frames to make claims to belonging in Canada in ways that are not available to international students (Coloma 581). Asian Canadians might be able to say, “We are Canadian too,” however precarious that claim to citizenship might be. International students do not have that kind of toehold to cling to as a strategic narrative to deploy in the face of anti-Asian racism. There is something then to the borderings of Canada as a polity and of Canadian citizenship that shapes the specificity of Asian international students’ experiences. These bordering practices shape international students’ sense of place in everyday life.


Ethel: Some of our original questions involved how international students negotiated space and understood themselves as belonging in certain communities and neighbourhoods. The theme of borders kept coming up over and over. Some of our research participants talked about enforcing their own internal bordering practices. The issue is not just border policies as set by nation states but also internal bordering practices that students create for themselves to ensure their own safety in navigating different parts of Toronto or Vancouver. The spectre of anti-Asian racism affects the way they navigate the city as well.


JP: Our participants talked about the mind maps that they use to navigate the city. They identify as part of their mind maps spaces of relative safety, including, for example, stores in Chinatown where there might be strength in numbers.
Examples like this testify to the impact of racialized discourses and forces on Asian international students and their everyday lives. They also highlight these students’ capacity to deploy their own tactics in order to be able to live in and survive and negotiate the racial dynamics of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on their daily lives.


International Student Narratives as Critiques of Institutional Diversity Narratives and the Model Minority Myth


JP: Let’s chat more about the possibilities enabled by our methods. We have done focus groups with Asian international students, along with media and institutional discourse analysis. These kinds of qualitative methods open up space for our research participants to surface narratives about COVID that are not necessarily present or visible if we only stick to more formalized narratives that come from the university, the media, or the Canadian nation-state. For me, part of what is powerful about the project is its capacity to solicit a different side to the story than what is publicly available.


Ethel: Why don’t we talk a little bit about these different narratives? One thing I noticed is that there were differences in university responses to COVID-19, and that there were silences regarding the specific pressures Asian international students were facing. In general, York and UBC did not really publicly address issues of belonging. Instead, they were fixated on managing this moment through, for example, lots of emails concerning online learning, remote learning. For international students, some of the messages concerned whether you could still live in residence. I think what was interesting is that, with cases of anti-Asian violence, international students weren’t just concerned about remote learning or border closures or about being able to live in residence. They were also afraid of the risks involved in navigating the city. These fears were not really addressed in institutional narratives, which focused more on technical fixes and how we get on with the normal functioning of the university.


JP: One way that this was made visible, this kind of silence around racial violence, was the constant reiteration by institutions of commitments to diversity. I’m thinking here with Sara Ahmed (2012) on diversity initiatives in universities as “non-performatives” (17): this constant talking up of one’s commitment doesn’t actually produce change on the ground. To a certain degree, the kind of publicized narratives about universities being committed to diversity rang hollow in the face of everything that was happening, and they didn’t translate into the kinds of support practices that would have been useful to Asian international students. Cynically, part of me was thinking that the constant invocation of a commitment to diversity was directly related to the university’s neoliberal commitments to internationalization as a revenue-generation tactic.2 In this sense, one way to understand this constant reiteration is to read it alongside the neoliberal desire to ensure that current and future international students do not jump ship.


Ethel: Despite proliferating incidents of anti-Asian harassment in Vancouver and Toronto and, more recently, the targeted violence directed at Asian-operated massage parlours in Atlanta, my institution did not write a statement naming and responding to these issues, at least not immediately. It took prodding from me and other faculty of Asian descent to get the university to respond. Is there something specific to Asianness that shapes institutional responses to these kinds of violence?


JP: One way that I understand this is through the notion of comparative racialization, which gets us back to narratives about Asian international students. I think part of what we are seeing is a certain kind of narration about Asians as a model minority, as always already being privileged, which translates to “they can fend for themselves and they don’t need any support. They can manage and do quite a lot with what few resources they have available.” There is a long history of instructive writing around model minoritization as a tactic of white supremacy. This narrative of Asian international students and Asians more broadly as model minorities is plugged into a tactic of divide and conquer. This idea of Asians as closer in proximity to whiteness and to automatic class privilege gets weaponized against other racialized groups including and especially Black folks. It is thus a profoundly anti-Black narrative.


This simplified narrative of Asian privilege is also present in other realms of social life and politics in the Canadian context. We see it in public discourses on the housing affordability crisis in Toronto and Vancouver, for example, with Asians being blamed, often through their equation with “foreign buyers.” This is a relatively new iteration of an older construction of Asianness as threat to Canadian ways of life (Kojima et al.). That’s how I’m making sense of those kinds of institutional silences about the specificity of Asian racialization in the current context. It calls up that history for me.


Ethel: Absolutely, the model minority myth is something that has affected Asians in Canada, including Asian international students. The most dominant media representation of international students as singularly and always already privileged, which sometimes get reiterated in institutional responses to racism, taps into and reproduces model minority discourse. Basically, this representation goes as follows: all international students are rich; they come here with a lot of money; they can afford exorbitant international student tuition fees; they don’t really need much support; they can cope and manage. These seem to be the predominant frameworks. What COVID has brought to the fore for me is how, once again, Asians and Asian international students are only conditionally included. On the one hand, you’ve got all of these university initiatives trying to recruit Asian international students into our universities because they bring in the money, yet there’s also resentment when Asian international students do come to our institutions for being too numerous. Hence, the Maclean’s article noting that our universities are becoming “too Asian.”3 What’s interesting to me is to consider this history alongside the narratives that the international students in our study have shared. So one question is, how do the students that we interviewed contradict these hegemonic narratives? How do we make sense of how these hegemonic narratives exist alongside these counter-narratives? Well, a lot of them debunk this myth that they don’t need support. In fact, a lot of them were trying to get more support from an institution that doesn’t seem receptive to their concerns. There was a lot of anxiety expressed in our interviews. Many of the students also said that they were not rich, that they and their parents have had to make tremendous financial sacrifices for them to study at York or UBC.


History Repeats Itself: Temporal and Discursive Circulations of Anti-Asian Narratives, and the Political Work of Counter-Narratives


JP: I think it is really worth reiterating that what we are seeing relatively frequently in the media these days, but also in our participants’ narratives, is a continuation of a long history of Yellow Peril discourses that treat Asia writ large as a threat to the vitality of Canadian society. The idea that Asian international students are taking over, making things unaffordable and displacing people by their presence, has direct parallels to narratives in the late 1800s and 1900s about Chinese workers taking over jobs from white workers (Kojima et al. 72). As racialized categories, the Asian international student and the Asian foreign investor are tightly linked, conceptually and politically. These are not new discourses either. They are genealogically linked to the Maclean’s “Too Asian” article from 2010, as well as to the 1979 CTV W5 “Campus
Giveaway” episode; both narrate Canadian universities as being overrun by Asians to the point of inaccessibility, by which they mean to white students (Ho). White entitlement to universities and to Canada more broadly thus comes to be taken for granted. What Helen Ngo refers to as “white ontological expansiveness” (121) is thus foundational to the making of universities as anti- Asian and more broadly racialized spaces.


Ethel: I also wanted to touch on this notion of Asian international students taking up too much space. It seems to me that this notion gets applied not just to postsecondary education but also to other issues, such as overheated housing markets. The idea of Asians simultaneously being interlopers and also being desired keeps coming up.


How history is repeating itself is clearly evident in some of the accounts shared with us by the international students, but a lot of the stigma that they express is different. One thing that folks have mentioned is the rise of social media, that there are Reddit forums and other such spaces where the idea of Asian international students as sources of contagion has been circulating. The widespread circulation of this idea on social media has also amplified a lot of their anxiety. At the same time, social media has also allowed them to feel more connected to families back home.


JP: What is insidious about these narratives and why it is important to pay attention to their circulation is that they have embodied, felt consequences, as our research participants remind us. Our participants courageously name how these narratives have shaped their lives and what they have had to do to negotiate what it means to be an Asian international student during the COVID crisis. The circulation of these narratives is important to attend to because these narratives do things in the world. At the same time, our participants’ counter-narratives chip away at the truth status of these circulating narratives.


Ethel: Absolutely. And I think what’s fascinating about some of these counter-narratives is that they add nuance to dominant public discourses about Asian international students, which tend to reproduce stereotypical portrayals, such as those found in the book and the movie Crazy Rich Asians. Our participants note, “We’re really not crazy. We’re not rich.” I also think what’s interesting is hearing from students about how they are starting to rethink their understanding of Canada and its mythical status as a benevolent nation-state because the COVID moment, along with their experiences of microaggressions and, in some cases, physical aggression, have contributed to them reconsidering their idea of Canada.


JP: Our participants’ experiences surface the limitations of the idea of Canada as a multicultural, welcoming nation-state. During the COVID-19 crisis, I’ve seen narratives that claim that anti-Asian racism is out of place in Canada, that rising incidents of violence against Asians do not accurately reflect Canada’s identity. As a type of comparative or negative nationalism, this claim relies on the narrative of Canada as innocent, as unlike the US. But as Kojima et al. point out, anti-Asian racism has a long history in Canada (71-73). The presence and persistence of violence against Asians—spectacular violence but also institutional kinds of violence (including violence against Asian international students)—that we are seeing during COVID is actually part of a much longer history of anti-Asianness in Canada.


Ethel: What this moment has also revealed to our research participants is how the Canadian state is very extractive when it comes to the labour of Asian international students. In the past, there were restrictions for international students in terms of only being allowed to work at most twenty hours per week, but because of the care crisis during COVID, this restriction was lifted, and different industries, such as care homes, have recruited international students because of labour shortages. Some of the people we interviewed have noticed how extractive the nation-state is: it extracts their money for tuition, and it extracts their labour in order to meet labour shortages. This is another way that Asian international students question the narrative of benevolent, multicultural Canada.




1 In their respective works, Kim (2016), Ho (2015), and Coloma (2013) cogently point out
how the figure of the “Asian student” is rendered foreign through media discourses that
assume and reproduce whiteness as default in Canadian universities. We build on their
insights on anti-Asian racism in the Maclean’s “Too Asian” article by highlighting its
continuation during COVID and its specific impacts on Asian international students at
UBC and York University.

2 Kim and Sondhi (2019) identify revenue generation as one of the top reasons that
universities use to explain internationalization strategies, along with purported
commitments to global citizenship and intercultural understanding.

3 Gilmour et al.’s anthology “Too Asian?”: Race, Privilege and Post-Secondary Education
offers an important set of analyses of the publication of the 2010 Maclean’s article,
originally titled “Too Asian” (Findlay and Köhler). Various contributors to the anthology
point to the assumed whiteness of Canada and its institutions as a prerequisite for the
discursive production of Asians as racially out of place in Canadian universities.


Works Cited


Ahmed, Sara. On Being Included: Racism and Diversity in Institutional Life. Duke UP, 2012.

“Campus Giveaway.” W5, hosted by Helen Hutchinson, CTV, 30 Sept. 1979.

Coloma, Roland Sintos. “‘Too Asian?’ On Racism, Paradox and Ethno-Nationalism.”
Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, vol. 34, no. 4, 2013, pp. 579-98.

Findlay, Stephanie, and Nicholas Köhler. “The Enrollment Controversy*.” Maclean’s,
10 Nov. 2010, www.macleans.ca/news/canada/too-asian/. Accessed 22 June 2021.

Gilmour, R. J., et al., editors. “Too Asian?”: Racism, Privilege, and Post-Secondary
Education. Between the Lines, 2012.

Ho, Rob. “Model Minority Convergences in North America: Asian Parallels in Canada
and the United States.” Killing the Model Minority Stereotype: Asian American
Counterstories and Complicity, edited by Nicholas D. Hartlep and Bradley J. Porfilio,
Information Age, 2015, pp. 117-32.

Kim, Ann H., and Gunjan Sondhi. “Explaining International Student Mobility to Canada:
A Review.” Outward and Upward Mobilities: International Students in Canada, Their
Families, and Structuring Institutions,
edited by Ann H. Kim and Min-Jung Kwak,
U of Toronto P, 2019, pp. 56-75.

Kim, Christine. The Minor Intimacies of Race: Asian Publics in North America. U of Illinois P, 2016.

Kojima, Dai, et al. “Introduction: Feeling Queer, Feeling Asian, Feeling Canadian.” TOPIA, vol. 38, 2017, pp. 69-80.

Ngo, Helen. “Simulating the Lived Experience of Racism and Islamophobia: On ‘Embodied Empathy’ and Political Tourism.” Australian Feminist Law Journal vol. 43, no. 1, 2017, pp. 107-23.

Please note that works on the Canadian Literature website may not be the final versions as they appear in the journal, as additional editing may take place between the web and print versions. If you are quoting reviews, articles, and/or poems from the Canadian Literature website, please indicate the date of access.