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Anti-Asian Racism at the University of Toronto

Updated: Jun 25, 2022

Written By: Mingyi Li

Published: February 7, 2022

Edited: February 17, 2022

Since the end of January, various people around the world including the many domestic and international students at the University of Toronto (UofT) were in the midst of celebrating the Lunar New Year, the Year of Tiger. This time of celebration was particularly sensitive for the international students who couldn’t return to their families and friends in Asia to celebrate and have been facing the ongoing challenge of being a student during the pandemic. More than 80% of UofT’s international students come from East Asian countries. Many find themselves living at Graduate House, UofT’s largest single-student residence.

On February 1st, an act of anti-Asian racism occurred when staff at Graduate House put out a bowl of red envelopes. The distribution of red envelopes is customary for the Lunar New Year celebration. Sadly, these red envelopes contained “death money”/ “hell money” / 冥币/冥幣. In Chinese tradition, hell money serves as the official currency for the afterlife. Living relatives offer them to dead ancestors by burning the money as a payment to Yanluo (閻王/阎王) for their ancestors release from hell or for their ancestors to have funds to spend in their afterlives. Giving hell money to a living person is an extremely inappropriate and offensive act. In some places in Asia giving hell money to a living person is the equivalent of cursing them or sending them a death wish.

Graduate House administrators sent out an apology by email to the residents, stating that their intentions were not malicious and gave a list of contact numbers for counselling services. The response from Graduate House followed the typical check box response and failed to discuss how joss they would take specific steps to prevent something like this from happening again. The incident demonstrates a lack of cultural understanding and sensitivity. You would think that one of the most important holidays (in Chinese culture) would not be botched this bad. It doesn’t help when you think that for Graduate House to purchase the hell money a staff member would have had to gone to specifically to a speciality store to make the purchase and the fact that is says “Hell Bank Note” in English on the money itself or that a quick Google search would have prevented this entirely! Regardless of the intent there should have been more care for the victims. Put yourself in the perspective of an East Asian international student at the time. You just received a death wish from and unknown person during one of the most important celebrations of the year and you’re in a foreign country in the midst of the pandemic where xenophobia and racism against East Asians have drastically risen. The unsatisfactory response led to the Asian Student Alliance (ASA) club at UofT’s Ontario Institute for Studies in Education (OISE) creating a space to discuss incident and support individuals. On Monday, February 7th the ASA held a Zoom event which would be interrupted by racists (see for more details).

These two incidents continue to show the anti-Asian racism is alive and well. Possibly more telling is the lack of response and traction these incidents have garnered. OISE did send out a message condemning anti-Asian racism in response to the Zoom event. However there still has not been a wider address from UofT on either matter. It is obvious that there is still long way to go in order to combat anti-Asian racism. As educators, we need to commit to fighting against all forms of racism and hate.

Currently there is a petition started by Asian Communities at UofT calling on UofT to address the Hell bank note issue. The goal is to have 10,000 signatures and currently sits at 8,526.

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