Graphic directly inspired by @denanguyencom on Instagram
Written and Drawn by: Cindy Xu
For the majority of my life, as a Chinese-American teen living in a city as diverse as New York, I have been fortunate enough to never feel the need to fear how my identity is perceived by others. As a proud daughter of Chinese immigrants, I learned to wear my Chinese heritage on my sleeve, eager to share the beauty of my culture, speak Chinese in public, and educate others about my experiences. Other than the occasional ignorant remark or offensive micro-aggression, I had never felt like my safety was threatened or endangered because of my Asian appearance.
However, the emergence of the COVID-19 outbreak from Wuhan, China last year unearthed the rampant anti-Asian sentiment, xenophobia, and racism that still clearly exists in America and the rest of the world today. I vividly remember the mass hysteria that surrounded the onset of COVID-19, as people speculated the source of the virus. From TikToks on my “for you page” to memes on Instagram, I began seeing a massive influx of incredibly racist slander across the Internet. Twitter threads and news articles were quick to spread misinformation by attacking Asian eating customs and labeling China as uncivilized and filthy. It was alarming to see such hateful comments become so widespread and normalized on the Internet.
One viral video from 2016 of an Asian woman eating bat soup, began circulating the Internet early on. Despite the fact that the video was four years old and was not even recorded in China but Palau, Oceania, people on the internet were quick to associate eating bats with the virus and deemed it the source of the virus. This is only one example of how the disrespect and lack of understanding towards Asian customs began leading to the spread of fear and misinformation during the onset of the pandemic.
I was disheartened, yet sadly not surprised, to see this stigma and blatant racism online quickly evolve into verbal and physical attacks targeting the Asian community. Over the last few months, instances of xenophobic abuse, racism and discrimination have been rising exponentially all around the world. New cases have been coming up daily, where people have been beaten up, spat on, insulted, pelted with eggs, stabbed, and even shot. Data findings from Stop AAPI Hate, a resource for reporting AAPI directed hate crimes, received over 1,700 reports of “verbal harassment, shunning, and physical assaults” over the course of six weeks. Disturbingly, 9% of the reports, in other words, 154 people assaulted, were over 60 years old:
Other media resources like Next Shark, an Asian-American focus news outlet, and RacismIsContagious.com shed insight on the scale at which these attacks occur. Next Shark contains a whole column dedicated to reporting coronavirus-related hate crimes while RacismIsContagious.com provides an updated map of the USA that visualizes where hate crimes occur.
One significant moment of the COVID-19 pandemic was on March 16th, where President Donald Trump and his administration branded the virus as the “Chinese Virus.” The erroneous label sparked a lot of anger amongst the Asian community, specifically Chinese-American, especially because of the underlying negative connotations of the label. By branding the virus as “Chinese,” Trump went against the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization (WHO), who have said naming viruses after geographic locations or groups of people is inaccurate and inappropriate. Other variations used by Trump and his administration were the “Kung-Flu,” “Wuhan virus,” and the “Chinese Flu.”
We interviewed several Asian teens on their opinions regarding Trump labeling COVID-19 as the “Chinese Virus” and the implications of that label on the Asian community. Hannah Liu, a senior at the Nightingale Bamford School, expressed how the label only increased unrest and fear amongst the Asian community: “after the whole coronavirus was renamed ‘the Chinese virus’ by Trump, a lot of community members were more scared of attacks by the public than the actual virus.”
Christina Salas, a junior at The Chapin School, also addressed the direct harm that comes with calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus”: “[the label] is being used by many in racist attacks to perpetuate stereotypes and further marginalize Chinese people.”
Adding onto Hannah and Christiana’s points, I believe it was completely unnecessary to label the virus as “Chinese” because it only resulted in more harm and stigma against the Asian community. As Russell Jeung, chair and professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, explained, “If you stigmatize a group, that opens up and gives license to direct hate and to direct violence against people. It dehumanizes people, objectifies people and equates us to a virus.”
We also wanted to bring to light personal experiences that Asian teens have faced in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis—how have we been treated, what have we been doing to combat the hate and other short anecdotes.
As a result of the hostility towards Asian people, many people have felt extremely alienated in the country they are supposed to call home. Caroline Lee, a senior at the Chapin School, mentioned how “some of [her] relatives that live in Chinatown went out to Taiwan because it was safer and they wouldn’t get harassed.”
In order to support those affected by COVID-19 hate crimes, there have been many initiatives online such as Go Fund Me pages for victims of assault. Lori Sun, a senior from New Jersey, participated in an initiative by NextShark to raise money for an elderly man who was attacked while picking up cans in San Francisco: “I bought [a t-shirt]… where the proceeds go to a Go Fund Me for the old man… that was harassed.”
Finally, Daphne Chi, a sophomore at the Chapin School, addresses the generalization of all Asian people as Chinese: “Assuming all Asian people are Chinese is racist. Assuming all Asian people have Corona is racist. Covering your mouth with your T-shirt when you pass me because of my race is racist.”
In the meantime, especially during quarantine, it is difficult to predict the trajectory of the virus as well as prevent the racism that follows it. However, it is crucial that as a society we realize just how apparent and deep-rooted xenophobia still is in America. In the future, just because COVID-19 clears up does not mean that the racism and trauma that arose from the pandemic disappears as well. In order to eliminate the deep-seated racism and prejudices that still exist in the social fabric of American society, we need to actively condemn hate when we see it. Ultimately, the Asian community cannot be the only ones trying to advocate for themselves, but there must be a collective effort amongst the entire POC community and allies so we can lift each other up.
Stay safe and don’t forget to social distance in these difficult times!