In my facekini: How wearing a mask to shield me from the sun couldn’t protect me from racist America

Kelly Yang says her personal experience on holiday in the US has made her question the future of a nation that has welcomed immigrants for centuries and successfully profited from their skills and talent

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 2:24pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 27 January, 2016, 2:24pm

Hate. Racism. Hostility. That’s what flew in my face this summer when I wore a facekini while on vacation in the US. A facekini, in case you are not familiar, is a tight lycra-blend mask, one which covers your entire face and neck. No more messy sunscreens! No more visors flying off in the wind! And while my facekini proved to be excellent protection from the blazing California sun, it failed to shield me from the torrent of racist comments, from “Look at that Asian freak!” to “If you don’t like the sun, why don’t you go back to where you came from?”

People said this to my face, even in liberal California. Maybe it was Donald Trump fever or the fact people forgot that, underneath my mask, I still had ears. Whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of American xenophobia, feeling sad, alone and vulnerable under my mask.

They were not feelings I expected to experience in the US, a place lauded for its tolerance and openness. I grew up there and remember always being accepted, even when I wore pyjama pants to school and had the haircut of a poodle.

Whatever the reason, I suddenly found myself on the receiving end of American xenophobia

So, who were these people, I wondered, as I peered out at them. Was it the mask? I’ll admit, I did look weird. But then again, this was the US. Being weird is practically a birthright in America, no?

As the questions swarmed in my mind, a little boy came running up to me. As soon as he saw my facekini, he told his mother he wanted one too. The look on her face was one of fear and disgust as she screamed, “Oh no you don’t! See that, son? That’s what our future’s going to look like if we’re not careful!” That’s when I started thinking that all that hate was not about my mask. It was perhaps about what was underneath it.

And if it was, then the ramifications are far greater than one tourist’s bad experience. It would fundamentally change America as we know it.

For centuries, America has successfully welcomed, leveraged and profited from the skills and talents of immigrants. That is the key to America’s success – not its capital or education system, but the fact that it is able to consistently attract the best people from around the world. For this to happen, America has built a culture of tolerance and acceptance, one which welcomes and appreciates diversity. If America were to lose this, or even the perception of this, it could set the country back in ways it couldn’t even imagine.

At the same time, if America’s xenophobia continues, it will be an opportunity for the rest of the world. Nations, if they are smart, could fill the void and reap the benefits of a diverse and skilled workforce. Hong Kong, in particular, stands to gain a lot from this approach. Now, more than ever before, the city is in dire need of innovation. It can’t just rely on the same old refrain – property, tycoons, finance and tourism. That song’s been played one too many times and it’s simply not working. We need to reinvent ourselves.

We need to welcome, not fear, fresh blood. We need to learn from countries like the US and what they did right, when they were doing it right – which is to be tolerant towards others, and welcoming and accepting of diversity. Only then will we have a shot at success in the global marketplace.

Watch: What Happened When I Wore a Facekini in the United States

At the same time, we need to equip the next generation with the tools to compete globally, which means being able to communicate well in a global language such as English.

I was disappointed not to hear any mention of how to raise English standards in the chief executive’s recent policy address. Leung Chun-ying stressed the need to innovate but, without the right language skills, how can the next generation, and their businesses, go global? Similarly, if we don’t raise the English standard, the best talent in the world will also have little reason to come to Hong Kong – because they simply won’t be able to communicate with local staff.

Unlike the US, where elections seem akin to reality TV shows at the moment, our politicians are not as beholden to “likes”, hashtags and sound bites. Let’s hope they take advantage of that and make bold, brave and smart decisions that truly transform Hong Kong.

Kelly Yang teaches writing at the Kelly Yang Project, an after-school centre for writing and debate in Hong Kong.