I Was Beaten Unconscious in an Anti-Asian Hate Crime
The world was shocked when eight people, including six Asian-American women, were shot dead in an act of wanton brutality.
Sadly, anti-Asian violence is nothing new. Anti-Asian violence didn’t start with Vicha Ratanapakdee, who died after two days in a coma after a young man barreled into the 84-year old, full force, completely unprovoked.
I haven’t spoken much about my own experience with anti-Asian violence. However, the decades-old incident is still fresh in my mind. After all, I’ve only ever been beaten unconscious once in my life.
What Happened on the Night of my Attack
In the winter of 1999, I had just started my final year reading computer science at Cambridge. I was still completing my programming assignments in the computer labs as I had not yet connected my laptop to the internet.
Readers who are unfamiliar with Cambridge’s layout should be aware that university facilities are spread across the city, sometimes a fair distance away from the student accommodations in their colleges.
For convenience, here’s a map depicting the areas involved in my story.
I had just finished an assignment in the Computer Laboratory’s tower on the New Museums Site on Downing Street* (location 1). The New Museums Site is an approximately 1km walk away from my college (Clare College).
On my way back, I ducked into Senate House Passage (location 2), the narrow passageway cutting between the Old Schools (left) and Gonville & Caius College (right). I became aware that two men had followed me into Senate House Passage from St. Mary’s Street.
I wasn’t yet concerned as Senate House Passage is a well-travelled footpath for anyone wanting to walk quickly between Trinity Lane and King’s Parade. Most people would take a right at the end of Senate House Passage to head to other locations down Trinity Lane.
Few people took a left to Clare College (location 3). So, my heart started racing when I realised that the two men had also gone left and were following me towards Clare College.
Clare College is a relatively small college with 600 students. I knew most Clare students. The men who followed me didn’t sound like anyone I recognised.
I started running towards the open Clare College gate knowing I’d be safe if I made it.
What Having a Bottle Smashed Against Your Head Feels Like
I didn’t feel the first of the two beer bottles smashed against my retreating head. I heard a tinkling noise, like a glass bottle being dropped from a distance away.
My ears started ringing. Softly at first, like mild tinnitus, in my right ear. Very quickly, the ringing in both ears reached a crescendo when it sounded like I’d stuck my head in a giant church bell.
Then came the heat, like someone had applied a steam iron to my head. The heat started at the point where I was struck, spreading quickly across my entire head until I felt like I’d immersed it in boiling water.
My knees gave way as I crumpled to the ground.
I remember still being lucid at this point. I knew I wanted to lie on the ground in a foetal position, using my hands to cover my face.
I thought the two men might still have been holding the broken stem of their bottles in their hand. I feared they could use the jagged edge to slit my throat, cut my face, or stab me. So I wanted to go down in the least threatening pose possible.
They kicked the side of my body and stamped on my head a few times when I was on the ground. Strangely, these blows didn’t hurt. I only remember the heat and the ringing in my ears.
After they’d had a few blows in, one of the two men told me to give them my wallet. I told them clearly I would be reaching into my pocket to get it for them. I didn’t want them thinking I was going to try to fight back.
Once I got my wallet out, I used the remainder of my strength to fling it some distance down Trinity Lane, where we had come. They weren’t pleased. One of the two said, “You fucker”. They proceeded to kick me a few more times but went to retrieve my wallet before fleeing off into the night.
At this point, I lay back on the ground and lost consciousness.
The Aftermath of My Attack
The next thing I remember was my collegemate, Pauline, with her bicycle. She was leaning over me with her hand on my shoulder. She told me, very slowly, that she had called the ambulance and the police.
I faded in and out of consciousness. At some point, the college porter came and helped Pauline keep me warm until the emergency services got there.
I regained consciousness as I was being stretchered onto the ambulance for the short trip to Addenbrooke’s Hospital.
I felt slightly better by the time I arrived at the emergency department. I noticed five other people, men and women, of various Asian backgrounds nursing similar injuries to mine.
The emergency doctor conducted some basic neurological examinations on me to determine the extent of my concussion. He told me it had been a busy night — the five people I saw outside the examination room had also been attacked by two men.
Fortunately, I was only moderately concussed and didn’t need to spend the night in the hospital ward. Once the doctor was sure I was okay, he released me to talk with a detective from the Cambridgeshire Constabulary.
Before I fell to the ground, I caught a good glimpse of the attackers. So, I was able to give a reasonably good statement to the police. I told the police as much as I could remember.
My description must have been adequate because it only took a few days for the two men to be rounded up. Over the next few months, they became wrapped up with the court case while I tried to get on with life.
Recovering from a traumatic experience like this wasn’t straightforward. The physiological and psychological impact took a while to resolve.
I had a few scary moments. A particularly harrowing one occurred about two weeks after the attack. I was wandering around the Cambridge city centre in complete confusion. I couldn’t remember where I was or what I was doing there.
But with the professional help of the Cambridge University Counselling Service and many supportive friends and teachers, I was able to make a full recovery from the incident.
What I Learned About Racism That Night
My parents were obsessed with preparing me to deal with racist attacks. My dad made me go to martial arts classes I didn’t enjoy. My mum reminded me to always watch my back when I was in a foreign country.
It’s sad they felt it necessary to drill this into my head. It’s even sadder that I was still poorly prepared for my attack when it came.
My attack taught me several lessons that I’ve since taken to heart.
1. No security infrastructure in the world can eliminate racist attacks
The UK has one of the world’s highest density of CCTV cameras. Surveillance in Cambridge was particularly dense. In my final year, it was rumoured that Prince William’s family was considering sending him to Cambridge, where his father and uncle graduated.
Even though Prince William ended up going to St. Andrews, the university and city of Cambridge beefed up security that year.
None of that extra security deterred my attackers.
According to the detective assigned to my case, the attackers said they didn’t make detailed plans to assault Asians that night. They never bothered concealing their identity.
They were bored. They wanted to “have some fun” that night. After some liquid courage, it seems their idea of “fun” turned to assaulting and mugging Asians.
No security infrastructure in the world could have predicted and stopped such an impulsive decision.
Similarly, nothing could have stopped someone from yelling “Chinese!” at Xie Xiaozhen before punching her in the face on a busy San Francisco street. In broad daylight.
2. Racists hide in plain sight
In turn-of-century Britain, white racists were stereotyped as poorly-educated, working-class youth with anti-social behaviour. This group were angry for perceived “slights” from foreigners and formed the support base for far-right parties like the BNP.
My assailants did not fit this stereotype at all.
According to the detective, the two men had typical middle-class backgrounds. They grew up in stable families in a relatively nice part of the city. They attended good schools. They had no disciplinary record. Their teachers couldn’t believe the police were investigating them.
Even their neighbours were shocked. Cambridge is a cosmopolitan city where residents from multiple ethnicities have lived together for generations.
They didn’t live in an “all-white” neighbourhood. Some of their neighbours were of Asian descent. No-one suspected the family of racism or any far-right political activity.
I felt quite disconcerted at this information. I’m almost relieved if I see a goose-stepping, sieg-heiling skinhead with swastika tattoos. That’d be a dead giveaway.
It’s the hidden racists that are the most frightening. You don’t know where they are or what they’re capable of doing until they reveal themselves violently.
3. Racists don’t always “hate” you. Some of them simply don’t see you as a human being.
There wasn’t any sign that my two attackers actively hated Asians. They’d lived with Asians all their lives. They went to school with Asians. No-one the police interviewed ever said they had any trouble with the two men.
They just wanted “a bit of fun” that night. I still wonder what was especially “fun” about treating Asians like human piñatas.
Their statement makes me believe they never felt Asians were full card-carrying members of the human race. They didn’t feel any hate or disdain for Asians. Instead, they might regard an Asian as they would a toy or a games console, an object for their amusement, to be used or discarded as they wanted.
The two men were found guilty of assault motivated by racial prejudice. The jury arrived at this conclusion based on the finding that all six of their victims were of Asian descent.
Also, they never kept or used any of the money or credit cards they took. When I got my wallet back, all my cash was still in it. The two men had kept our wallets as trophies to remind themselves of what they did that night.
The men were each sentenced to five years in prison.
Despite being beaten unconscious in a racially-motivated assault, I have no hatred for “white people.” It is only incidental that the two men happened to be white.
But so was Pauline and the porter who stayed with me on that cold night until the ambulance and police arrived to take me to the hospital.
So was my tutor, who stayed up until an ungodly hour to make sure that I got back to my room safely after being dropped off by the police.
So were the police, nurses, doctor, staff, academics, and fellow students at the University of Cambridge. They were all professional and compassionate in helping me recover from the vicious attack.
The two racist attackers who beat me unconscious don’t represent “the English” or “white people”. They made the decision to commit the crime on their own.
Besides, lumping people into overly-broad categories and associating negative behaviours to all members of that category is exactly what a racist would do.
* The Computer Laboratory was relocated to West Cambridge in 2001.