COVID-19: Through The Eyes of An Asian-American

Chris Chen

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               art by Rebecca Lopez

I remember the first time I saw the news break about COVID-19 spreading throughout the world and I saw our very own President adamantly insist on labeling it as the “Chinese Virus”. Along with the Kung Flu and Wuhan Virus, these derogatory nicknames with arguably questionable origins circulated through the media like wildfire, and I knew it would only result in encouraging the staggering waves of racist-fueled vitriol that would follow. The problem was only exacerbated by supposedly one of the most powerful political figures in our country publicly sticking a racially-charged, anti-Asian label on the deadly virus picking us off like flies. Our country suddenly morphed into a danger zone overnight, a minefield we had to carefully traipse through with our facial features, last names and physical appearances serving as handicaps. The so-called “greatest country in the world” enabled thousands of ignorant, closeted racists who were being fearmongered by half-accurate information and conspiracies to use the spreading pandemic as a thinly-veiled excuse to target Asian-American people for simply existing. The racism tasted even more bitter knowing that this country was built on the backs of immigrants and natives yet this will just be another check on the list of uncontrollable issues blamed on an innocent group of people, scapegoated by the government that swore to provide them sanctuary and safety.

Of course, I’m no stranger to xenophobia and racism; as a person of color growing up in America, I’ve had my fair share of experiences and I know almost all of my friends can relate as well. People screaming slurs at us as they ride by on their bikes, whispering “ching-chong” or “ling-ling” behind my back the second I stepped off a public bus and giggling obnoxiously amongst themselves about it, even experiencing it indirectly as a child while watching white men on television pull their eyes back into slits and say they “looked Asian now”; none of this is new.  However, as is usually the case with covert, normalized racism that’s never taken fully seriously and brushed off as “harmless teasing” quite often, it’s only a matter of time before something lights the match and sets everything ablaze. My biggest worries were no longer being called racial slurs or having my eye size mocked by strangers on the streets; no, now I had to worry about potentially being beaten up while walking around my own neighborhood by some angry, misinformed racists who wanted to take their anger out on any random Asian-looking person they set their sights upon. My fears weren’t unfounded, considering I spent the first few weeks before quarantine scrolling through articles and seeing headlines of Asian people being followed around, verbally harassed, beaten and even set on fire.

I knew very well that I could have easily been one of those people who was verbally harassed, insulted and cursed at for being a “disease-carrier” who needed to take people’s advice and “go back to where I came from.” So I stayed home almost every day and shied away from people on the streets, scared that they would start spitting insults and threats at me regardless of whether or not I was Chinese because every Asian person carried an invisible target on their backs. I feel pity for myself now, that a teenage Asian-American boy feared getting publicly targeted and abused in the city he’s grown up in his whole life because our “President” couldn’t have left it at the coronavirus and had to paint that target on the entire Asian-American community with his own words and his own two hands. (This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt unsafe under this presidency, as I’m sure any person of color or immigrant can agree with; the thought of a possible four more years with this man in such a position of ludicrous power frightens me, to say the least.) Regardless of what he said, the virus supposedly originating from Wuhan would have eventually caused this influx of hatred and division anyways; his words simply ameliorated what was inevitable considering how normalized racism against us is and has always been. I won’t go much further into the extensive, too-long history of anti-Asian sentiments that have been perpetuated in American society both systematically and historically, but to say this is the “land of the free” feels like an utter joke at this point in time.

At one point I dreamed of living in a utopia, where I wouldn’t be targeted for my skin color, my facial features, culture, language, everything that makes me who I am. I would be able to walk in any street without having to fear somebody telling me to go back to Wuhan or leave the country that I was born and raised in. The sad reality is that a utopia won’t exist and never will, and there is no absolute cure for our problems, societal or pandemic. There’s no guarantee for whether or not we’ll ever see an end to the hatred and violence that damages us more than COVID-19 could ever societally. The problem lies within how people refuse to properly educate themselves and prevent the spread of misinformation, providing motivation for these racially-motivated hate crimes. 

Normalization of racism against Asian people is so common that my generation struggles against it still, brushing casual racism off as jokes and choosing to perpetuate toxic stereotypes over actual truth. Our media and news mimicked this behavior and only fed into streams of racist misinformation pouring from every outlet. Deliberately correcting the coronavirus’ name in headlines to the “Chinese Virus”, developing a negative association between Chinese people and the virus, fueling rampant xenophobia amongst impressionable Americans—these were the consequences of a lack of effort from our authorities and media, contributing to our country’s anxiety, stress and fear. So, how can this be fixed?

To put it bluntly, I don’t think it can be; not perfectly, at least. Joining and supporting informational campaigns that help spread education is a start, but clicking a few buttons to share people’s posts on social media will only go so far. It’s up to us to make it our responsibility, take the initiative and make changes, both collectively and individually let our voices be heard to make a statement, in order to prevent every potential hate crime that another Asian-American could face someday. We can try our best to educate those who are ignorant, protect those who are weaker and more vulnerable than us (against sickness, bullying or abuse), and try to remain strong in the face of blatant discrimination.

Asian-Americans are not to blame, we are not the cause, source or the reason behind this pandemic and should not be scapegoated by the media in order to have some villainous perpetrator to shift the blame onto. It’s more important than ever to protect ourselves from persecution and condemnation by people too blinded by ignorance to see beyond their hatred. I hope someday I can live in this world without persecution or constant fear, without feeling ashamed and guilty for living peacefully. In the meantime, I will defend myself in any way that I can, supporting those who share my beliefs and taking pride in the knowledge that I’m helping even in the slightest.