On COVID-19 and Racism Toward Asian-Americans

3.22.2020


I don't remember the first time that I knew I was Asian, but my mom tells me it went something like this: I emerged smiling from my kindergarten classroom, equipped with my hot pink Hello Kitty backpack. Parents clustered outside, waiting to pick up their kids after a day of counting by tens and drawing potato-heads we thought were portraits. My mom greeted me in Korean, her native tongue. Suddenly aware of my classmates and the stares of their parents, I declared to the eyes around me, "I don't know what she's saying."

I don't remember this moment. But I know now that it made me feel other. I thought that rejecting my mother's tongue and making sure that these strangers knew that I spoke English would dye my hair and bleach my skin. I could claim the whiteness of my dad, and my mom could be other.

In elementary school, I was again reminded that I was other. A warm summer evening, the kid next door tugged at the corners of his eyes and asked me if I was Chinese. I chased him across our front yards, pinned him to the ground. He was beneath me, but still smiling, spat "Ching chong."

Several times in middle school, I was asked if I ate dogs. Once, just for kicks, I said yes, and watched shock stretch the features of my classmate's face.

At a high school track practice, I struck up a conversation with some sprinters. A curly-haired, lanky kid I recognized from my grade asked me where I was from. I explained to him that my dad was in the military, so I recently moved in from New York. "Oh, so you're an American citizen?" he probed, surprised. I wanted to scream at him. I was born in North Carolina, of course I am a citizen, I am an army brat, how much more do you want. I said nothing.

I am American. But sometimes, in my country, I am a perpetual foreigner.

*

My mother has lived in the United States for over twenty years. She renounced her Korean citizenship so that she could claim an American one. Her entire family still lives in Korea. She speaks English fluently and raised my sister and I mostly in English. Every day for the past month, she read the COVID-19 news in English and Korean, parsing through CNN updates, New York Times articles, and Korean newspapers to prepare for what her family might face. 

My mom is Korean, but she is as American as I am. Yet in our country, the perpetual foreigner stereotype chains her to different, to must be Chinese, to must have coronavirus, to other. 

On Friday, she went grocery shopping-- her first trip out of the house in a week because we are social distancing. At the store, an elderly white woman scolded her for touching a bunch of bananas. Another covered her face with her shirt as she walked past my mom. While waiting to check out, my mom noticed customers leaving space around her, but remaining close to each other in line. 

When my mom told my sister and I, we exploded. That's so racist, that's disgusting, let us go to the grocery store next time, we'll tell them. My mom just looked at us. "It's not new."

*

The perpetual foreigner stereotype is the idea that no matter how a person of Asian descent strives to assimilate-- finding work, speaking English, forgetting culture -- they will never be truly American. Historically, this mold was abused to set neighbor against neighbor, paint caricatures of Asians with yellow skin and buck teeth in popular media, and send Japanese-Americans to internment camps. The perpetual foreigner stereotype pervades and shackles. It sentences American citizens to an endless life of other.

The spread of novel coronavirus has made clear that another ugly disease infects America: racism against Asian-Americans.

As my friend walked with her classmates across a Pennsylvania college campus, a driver stopped and yelled at her, "If you have corona, go back to China." White House press correspondent for CBS News Weija Jiang shared that a White House official called COVID-19 the "Kung-flu" to her face. 

Source

These instances of discrimination and violence represent just a few of the countless cases of hatred that have afflicted America. San Francisco State University's Asian American Studies Department found more than 1,000 reported instances of xenophobia against Chinese-Americans alone between January 28 and February 24. This statistic is not representative of the unreported cases that occurred within this window and after it, every word and gesture and punch that told Asian-Americans, go back to your country, you don't belong here, you are other

When a U.S. senator of our country says, "China is to blame because [of] the culture where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that," he spreads the same poison that ailed the student who giggled "Ni Hao" behind my back when I visited my high school French teacher and the boy who told my younger sister, "You're a chink but you're hot." He says, you are not us, you are foreign, you are to blame, you are other.

When the President of the United States of America insists on calling the novel coronavirus the "Chinese virus" despite the dissent of the World Health Organization, he exposes the nation, my country and my mom's country, to the epidemic of racism. 

He plagues us with the idea of the perpetual foreigner. He defiles us as scapegoats spreading a foreign disease that is a foreign problem, the fault of a foreign country. I see the symptoms of his discrimination in the eyes, inflamed by judgement, that followed my mom at the grocery store, in the voice, harsh and accusatory, that chased my friend at her college campus, and the mindset, fueled by frustration and hatred, that consumes assailants hurting fellow Americans in the name of mitigating coronavirus.

The outbreak of discrimination towards Asian-American people is not novel. It is a strain of the perpetual foreigner stereotype that has festered, untreated, for years, and will continue to ravage our population without advocacy and cultural change.


11 comments :

  1. Hi Claire. I am so, so sorry that you and your family have had to endure such racism over the years. Sadly it’s not unlike many of the stories that Asian-Americans (and in my case, Canadians) have faced. And it’s only gotten worse since the outbreak. My dad’s Italian and even though Italy has exceeded more deaths than China, I doubt people would react the same way if he went out speaking Italian than how they would treat an Asian person simply from being Asian. All I can offer you is love and support during this tough time.

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  2. That'a sobering post. I'm really sorry that this virus outbreak only managed to reinforce hatred and racism against people like you. We're all in this together, for goodness' sake. Like Emily above, I'm sending you love and support - and I hope your family won't get affected by the blasted virus on top of what you have to endure.

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  3. This makes me so sad to read. I am so sorry to hear that you and your family have experienced terrible racism and ignorance, and I feel so disgusted to hear that is the way people choose to act towards their fellow Americans. I hope that you and your family stay healthy and safe during all this. Thanks for sharing this and opening my eyes to something I heard a bit about, but did not realize the scale it was happening. I hope your post changes some hearts, or inspires others to stand up for those being discriminated against.

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  4. I feel like we've already touched on this topic when were talking to each other the other day. Reading such stories is heartbreaking, and seeing you and your family going through this feels even worse. Again, I can only say that by the time this madness is over, we can only hope people will wake up with sobered feelings, showing more compassion and love for each other. It's so brave you're shedding light on your own personal expereince!

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  5. I'm 100% Asian, and this really angers me because a lot of people I personally know don't even live up to the common Asian stereotypes. :( Automatically assuming that all Asians are infected with the coronavirus is a logical fallacy that I personally don't like. I see people avoiding Chinese food because of the virus, but I don't see them avoiding pizza. Really sorry that this happened to you, Claire. Also, it's been such a long time since we last talked, I hope we can catch up soon one of these days :)

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  6. I am deeply sorry for what you and others have been through/and are currently experiencing. There's no excuse for it. People suck. It makes me stabby, but there's little you can do about the feelings of others. Some people were raised by racist parents, and others choose to be willfully ignorant. My parents are racist, and it's why they have very little interaction with my children. It baffles me since my half-sister married an African American man. He's family, despite my parents refusing to go to their wedding. My father didn't walk his eldest daughter down the aisle because of stupid prejudice reasons. They're so defensive of their beliefs, too, so I've stopped trying to make them think differently.

    People are people are people. Love is love is love. I think we should celebrate the differences because they're what make us unique and interesting. I'm Native American, Choctaw to be specific, but I get called "Mexican" and other less-than-stellar names all the time. They're inaccurate, but still hurtful. It's because I have dark hair, eyes, and skin, so people make assumptions on appearances alone. Even other Spanish-speaking individuals will start conversations with me in Spanish, and I have to tell them I don't speak the language. THEN they yell at me for abandoning my heritage, so I have to further explain that I'm not Hispanic. I shouldn't have to explain anything to anyone, but people are set in what they want to believe about people based on what they look like or where they came from.

    It doesn't help that our president is a racist douchebag.

    Lindsi @ Do You Dog-ear? 💬

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  7. The fact that anyone of color in this country has to face such casual racism every day boils my blood. What does it matter if you're a citizen, where your/your family is from, or what the color of your skin is? People are people and should be treated equally. I was in Scotland when I started hearing about all of the racist treatment of all Asian people in the USA due to COVID-19. I was upset, but unfortunately not shocked. I am so sick of this kind of behavior and I am so sorry you ever had to face it. Every time I hear Trump call it the "Chinese virus" I want to move back to Scotland. Not that the UK is free of racism at all. I hope one day our world can develop into a place of kindness and understanding rather than hatred and fear. I hope you and your family are doing well.

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  8. Thank you for sharing these distressing incidents, Claire ��. No one should have to go through what your family and friends are facing, especially in the crisis we are /all/ in right now.

    The thing you said about Asian Americans being perpetual foreigners really stuck out to me. Living in a diverse community, I thought that I don’t have to worry about my Asian parents being discriminated against, but I’ve been shocked that my parents still have to deal with upturned faces and comments like “go back to your country”. This whole matter has proved again that even if some Asian American families have been here for generations, like you mentioned, or have been tolerated in European American-majority communities, and even diverse ones, some people still see us with a degree of animosity and otherness.

    I completely agree that there needs to be advocacy and major cultural change because it seems that we’re not as accepted as we like to think and being the “model minority” doesn’t exclude us from hatred. A couple of Asian American blockbusters films and more Asian American representation in media is a good start, but it’s just a beginning.

    Really wonderful post, Claire! I hope you and your loved ones stay safe and well ��.

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  9. Thanks so much for this post, Claire. It takes courage and vulnerability to share about your experiences. I agree that the treatment towards Asians as the other has been an ongoing process. What coronavirus has done is bring it to the surface and give people an "excuse" to say what they're thinking (if they haven't already been doing it). To move forward in the reconciliation process, our country needs to understand that the current discrimination against Asians is rooted in deeper prejudices.

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