“Cough into your elbow.” (Comes closer) “I SAID COUGH INTO YOUR ELBOW!” (Repeats multiple times in a train between stations, so I cannot get out).
“Get away from me.”
– What people have directly said to me
COVID-19 is most definitely changing my experience as an Asian American. When I first wrote about the coronavirus “back in February” (so… just a month ago), I had no expectation that my life would be where it is today. (Did anyone though?) What I shared on video with USAToday had a greater impact than I thought it would – for better, for worse, for everything in between.
Starting in March and as COVID-19 started to escalate in the United States, my commute to work started to feel awkward and uncomfortable. People would move away from me, and glare at me. They didn’t need to say anything racist; I felt the racism with their eyes. “Are you sick? Are you a carrier of the coronavirus?” These were the questions that their eyes tried to pierce at me.
In Asian culture, it is a proactive measure to wear masks, but for so long in American culture, masks had an association of being negative, and perhaps still does, of automatically labeling someone as sick. Maskophobia is real, and I struggled for weeks in my decision to wear a mask or not. Did wearing a mask mark me as a target of racist attacks? Did NOT wearing a mask make me susceptible to violence? To mask or not mask, there was no clear answer. There is still no clear answer. I only started wearing a mask this past week, and I always walk quickly, shifting my gaze downwards to avoid being a victim of a hate crime.
As a result of sharing my thoughts online, I started getting so many messages from people I have met in my life, and from countless strangers as well. I am grateful to have so much support, but the hate continued to spew as well:
“Forget racism. I am so sick of people turning everything happening to racism.”
– A white person.
“Welcome to the freaking club. Here, make yourself right at home.”
– A person of color.
I unfortunately expected it from white people. The rhetoric was nothing new.
But it has been incredibly hurtful from people of color.
Here I had subscribed to the media channel where Asian people have truly “made progress”, having finally been highlighted with “Parasite” winning the Oscars, and movies like “The Farewell” changing the landscape of what it meant to be Asian American – for the non-Asian American. But these accolades and the continuation of the model minority myth (which has its own harmful effects) were quickly shoved aside by the endless headlines of the “Asian virus”, and not the “New York” virus. This isn’t my first encounter with being called “chink”, or “dirty”, or “smelly”, or being told that “Chinese people are disgusting.”
How do I even respond to, “welcome to my world”, when I’ve suffered from racism since I was a child?
What is the proper response for “welcome to the freaking club”, from another person of color?
How dare I think that the racist tropes of Chinese people, of Asian people, could not possibly make such an overwhelming comeback in my lifetime.
One comment I have been severely criticized for was,
“Yes, I am Asian, Yes, I am Chinese, and I’m really proud of that.”
I didn’t realize that by saying that I would be interpreted as supporting the Chinese government and communism (which, to be clear, I do not). After all, I just wanted to express that I was proud of my Chinese culture, and where my parents came from. Lo and behold, tons of Chinese people verbally fought each other online on this one statement alone, either denouncing the Chinese government and the evils of communism or standing by the Chinese response to this outbreak.
People interpreted “I am proud to be Chinese” as a political statement. I hated that what I said polarized and divided people. It kills me that this one statement is as divisive as saying “I am proud to be American” today. What are the “United” States anyway?
I also received so many messages about how sorry people were that I had to experience this with my students. Racism is learned behavior, and NO CHILD IS BORN RACIST. My intention was never to create a pity party, and especially not one that would further marginalize my predominantly African American, Caribbean American, and LatinX students.
How can I talk about racism without igniting further racism or marginalization? Explaining to every person that my students were not at fault, but were reinforcing learned racial stereotypes was exhausting. Yet, I continued trying to extinguish fires of misunderstanding. Did I end up actually putting out the fires, or did I simply fan the flames? Did I inadvertently pour more gasoline on the fire that seemingly divides people of color? I felt my racial fatigue continue to burden me, with no sign of an end in sight.
I can’t stop thinking about the Asian American youth. As a born and bred New Yorker, and product of the public school system, I am so disheartened when I read about the experience of Asian American children and teenagers. Katherine Oung, a Chinese-American teenager in Florida shared this experience,
“Not only do we have to be afraid about our health. But we have to be afraid about being ourselves. Class basically just started. One of the girls said all Chinese people were disgusting. And so I literally like raised my hand up and was like “I’m Chinese.” She didn’t even say sorry. She didn’t.” (Katherine Oung, New York Times).
When NYC schools were still open, Stuyvesant High School teachers penned a letter pleading for the closure of schools, citing that
“Compounding [students’] terror is the racism many of our Asian and South Asian students are experiencing as they commute to school. Not only is this a viral epidemic, it is a threat to our global mental health.” (New York Teachers, New York Times)
I went to Brooklyn Tech, another public specialized high school in NYC with thousands of students. How would 14-year-old me respond to exacerbated comments on my Chineseness and my Asianness – in AND out of school? If I am experiencing extreme discomfort as an adult, what are the almost 200,000 Asian kids in our public school system feeling? It’s horrific to imagine and I want to do something, but I don’t really know what to do. Are they voiceless, and if so, how can I help speak up for them? How do I empower them to #washthehate? What long-term effects in mental health can I possibly help in combatting on their behalf?
The feeling of helplessness as an Asian American educator is paralyzing.
I may be scared for myself, but I am truly terrified for my parents – on so many levels. My parents are senior citizens who enjoy walking outside. One of the reasons my dad immigrated to America was for cleaner air. My dad has severe asthma, and has experienced near-fatal asthma attacks a number of times in his life. I tell my parents constantly to stay home (as if I’m the parent now ha), and I’m scared that the airborne spread will infect them if they are not careful.
I am merely scared for the actual spread of the virus, but I am beyond terrified of my parents potentially being on the receiving end of a violent, racist attack. With over 650 racist acts over the last week (and those are only counting reported incidences), many of them against elderly Asian people, I can’t help but live in terror for my parents. Will they make it back from grocery shopping safe, alive, breathing, and unharmed? Will they come back from their walk commenting on the trees they saw blooming, or having been spat at by others? Will my parents have to die from the air they sought to breathe here or from the hate that we label as “freedom of speech”?
HATE is a virus that is spreading quicker than COVID-19, and I constantly wonder if my parents have already been victims, but just haven’t told me.
My mom saw the video where I shared my experiences, and hasn’t talked to me about it. Through my brother, I found out that she wished I hadn’t said anything. She fears for my safety, and is afraid it marked me as a target.
A few days ago, I received these posts on my personal Facebook wall:
“Just saw your video how you were like I am proud to be a Chinese well then fuck you because you guys have put everyone in danger if you love your country so much ask them to be hygienic stop eating bats snakes rats because it’s easy to say you love your country but stand up for what is right or wrong and I f****** hate china and Chinese people.”
“I am against racism but then you guys are just acting like nothing happened look at the world around you and your country did this.”
I literally felt frozen, and unable to physically move. My mind went completely blank. This personal attack cut me, even though I tend to pride myself as someone who doesn’t mind the thoughts of others.
My friends reported both comments as hate speech (fun fact: I am not able to do that even though it is my personal Facebook). The first one was removed. The second one wasn’t, and still lives on my Facebook wall. I guess microaggressions aren’t considered “hate speech enough“.
People apologized to me for having to experience this. “That guy is stupid and doesn’t know what he is talking about!”
Oh, by the way, the person who wrote that is a woman of color.
When people ask me “How are you?” I’m truly uncertain how to respond. Do I say yes to make you feel better? Do I say yes to mask my incoherent mind and thoughts? Do I say yes and wear an actual physical mask?
Or do I say no and make you privy to all that I am thinking and feeling? Does saying no make you feel sorry for me? Does saying no make you feel pessimistic instead of wanting to be optimistic in this time? Does saying no make me selfish?
How am I?
I am incoherent.
I am still uncertain if I should wear a mask or not, even though I have currently decided that I should.
I am apprehensive of writing, recording, and sharing my thoughts because I do not want to further divide people, or add fuel to the racism that exists.
I am wary of everyone around me because of my Chinese face.
I am nervous for our Asian American youth.
I am terrified for my parents’ lives. For all Asians and Asian Americans’ lives.
I am worried for my own students in this time, who are facing an extreme number of inequities – if the inequities can even be counted.
I am skeptical of the media’s portrayal of COVID-19 for likes, subscribes, and follows, and not for spreading TRUTH.
I am uncertain if my friends who are healthcare workers will survive.
I am alarmed by people who continue to commit sinophobic acts of prejudice – verbal, physical, violent, all of the acts.
I am afraid that people will stop caring about violence against Asian Americans, and Asians around the world.
I am America’s unwanted daughter. Raised here, I live and breathe my freedom of speech, but it is undesired, unwanted, and HATED. I am hated.
My mom wishes I would just stay quiet.
But I can’t. And I won’t.