How the Coronavirus Outbreak Is Changing My Asian American Experience
I am a proud Asian American, a proud Chinese American, first generation raised in America, first to go to college and earn a Bachelor’s and Master’s, currently pursuing my doctorate, and just truly so proud of my culture and who I am.
To many, and hopefully my family and in some ways even myself, I am the epitome of the American dream.
This is sadly not about that.
I want to detail what it has felt like to be an Asian person in America since the outbreak of the new coronavirus.
Imagine the first time hearing about the outbreak of the coronavirus in Wuhan leading up to Lunar New Year, THE biggest holiday in China. As someone with a majority of my extended family in mainland China, the first thoughts are worry, concern, and just a hope that everyone is OK.
As Lunar New Year occurred, my extended family in Shanghai didn’t even all meet up on this big holiday—the first Lunar New Year since my grandmother passed away.
It was supposed to be a momentous Lunar New Year, one celebrating continued life of the younger generations.
Instead, all WeChat conversations that I was a part of focused on the spread of this virus, the travel bans in and outside of China, and warnings amongst family members to stay indoors as much as possible.
Better safe than sorry—I get it.
In fact, my paranoid self even tried to stay away from Chinatown at first—until I realized the suffering of Asian businesses because of sinophobia.
I mostly heard about the new coronavirus from my Asian/Asian American community until the first confirmed case occurred in the United States.
Immediately, my newsfeeds on Facebook and Instagram were flooded with warnings to get protective health masks to try to prevent its spread. I immediately googled the effectiveness of health masks to mixed results—but I also wanted to be proactive and safe, for myself and my family.
By the time I went to a pharmacy, I had found out that all health masks were sold out EVERYWHERE—including on Amazon. I shrugged it off and figured the paranoia and “proactivity” would blow over—but the masks never restocked.
As days and weeks started to pass by, I started to read about racist attacks against Asian Americans and then the experiences people were having in NYC: People with Asian-sounding last names not being picked up by Ubers or Lyfts, racist slurs being targeted toward any Asian people who would cough on a subway, and people moving away from any Asians with a face mask on (which, by the way, is seen as a proactive measure in East Asian countries and preferred, as opposed to a reactive “I am sick” statement as it is received in the West).
It was so disappointing to hear, and it became even more disheartening when I started to read social media posts from people I personally knew about the racist attacks they experienced firsthand.
But it didn’t affect me personally until this week.
I work as an elementary school music teacher, and I heard students spreading rumors that I possibly had the new coronavirus.
I immediately felt heated, and I knew the rumors were only happening because of the misinformation and the association of the virus with “Asian-ness.”
I ended up addressing the coronavirus with my elementary school students (for now) as follows:
●︎ There are things that you hear that are false and things that you hear that are true.
●︎ Not all news is factual–there are some things on the news that are false and some that are true.
●︎ It is hurtful when I hear that some students have been saying I have the coronavirus because it is false. There is no evidence to support this claim. Just because I look like a group of people who are primarily affected by this virus does not mean I have it. Yes, I recognize that I am Asian/Chinese, but if you are thinking that I have it simply based on the way I look, it is an unfair assumption.
●︎ It is even more hurtful if you heard someone say it, and you either laughed at it, or affirmed that this may be true. This is perpetuating misinformation.
●︎ I am similarly reading information about the coronavirus on the news and am fine to have a discussion or debate about what we hear based on what we know.
●︎ I sincerely hope that any students who may have said something, laughed/affirmed something that was said about me having it, or even THOUGHT about it take the time to reflect on their thinking. I do hope to hear some apologies without personally requesting them from any students just because they feel that they need to.
●︎ If there are any questions you have about my Asian-ness or Chinese-ness, please ask instead of assuming.
I was really proud of this response (because it took a lot of my own personal self to talk it out), and I was also grateful to hear students come up to me personally to apologize on their own accord for either saying, laughing at, or bystanding in the situation. But I also knew that just because I addressed it with some students it wasn’t the end of this and I had more to do as a teacher.
As recently as three days ago, the NYC Department of Education issued a letter about the coronavirus to all employees citywide.
Imagine my shock when online, in NYC teacher forums, educators were joking about the GREATER likelihood of school shutting down for the coronavirus than for snow days.
Imagine my further dismay reading non-Chinese fellow educators make casual comments about the coronavirus that furthered the underlying racist attacks that so many news outlets are insinuating.
Imagine my uneasiness in spaces where the coronavirus is joked about and others are laughing about it.
Imagine my anger finding out that my friends who are Asian American educators as well have had to hear children utter racist comments that equate the coronavirus to Asianness, and also hearing that so many schools have not been proactive in addressing—some even going to lengths to avoid these difficult, necessary conversations.
It has been infuriating.
All at the same time, in this past week, I have received more racist comments than I remember receiving in a long time. I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I was either walking or on the subway, coughed (because of asthma, not because of me being sick, and COVERING my cough), and having one or a combination of the following reactions:
●︎ People giving that cold, harsh, eyes-of-caution stare
●︎ People literally telling me to cover my cough multiple times (even though I have)
●︎ People moving immediately away from me
●︎ People muttering unkind, racist slurs under their breath (but just audible enough for me to hear)
I have turned the volume up so high on my headphones this week while going about my life because I cannot bear to hear, read, or experience anything further.
I am so tired of social media because all I read about is the coronavirus, and this is so unfortunate because there are people who are truly affected by this virus and their health is at risk. But I cannot focus on the facts, because there is too much racism between the lines.
I want to be invisible and LOUD ABOUT THIS simultaneously.
I want to help create a change in perception, for my students, for my community, but I have felt so RACIALLY FATIGUED, a term my friend explained to me this week.
According to Critical Race Theorist William Smith, racial battle fatigue (RBF) is:
“a public health and mental health illness [based on the] cumulative result of a natural race-related stress response to distressing mental and emotional conditions. These conditions emerged from constantly facing racially dismissive, demeaning, insensitive and/or hostile racial environments and individuals.”
Smith writes that racial battle fatigue stems from racism and microaggressions and to find these in society today, “one must not look for the gross and obvious...but the subtle, cumulative mini assault is the substance of today’s racism.”
Racial microaggressions are a form of psychological warfare and are defined by Smith as:
●︎ subtle verbal and nonverbal insults directed at people of Color, often automatically or unconsciously
●︎ layered insults, based on one’s race, gender, class, sexuality, language, immigration status, phenotype, accent, or surname
●︎ cumulative insults, which cause unnecessary stress to people of Color while privileging whites.
I can’t feel like I constantly have to stand up for my race and explain my Asianness. Non-Asian, non-Chinese people need to STAND UP also.
As Stacy Torres, Ph.D., and Xuemei Cao, a Ph.D. candidate, explain in a recent opinion piece for USA Today:
“We must go beyond educating students about basic infectious disease prevention, such as hand washing. We must also address the growing stereotyping, racism and discrimination that pose long-term threats to our health, economy, and individual and collective psyches.”
Words matter. Actions matter.
Words hurt. Actions hurt.
I am so proud to be Asian American, but I am so tired of being Asian
This personal essay originally appeared on alicetsui.com.
From Shine HQ: If you're experiencing microaggressions as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, know you're not alone—and if you're experiencing anxiety about the coronavirus, learn more about how to care for yourself here.
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