In the Western world, everything has to be put into a prism of race, including, ironically, a virus that indiscriminately kills people. Asians have been talking about xenophobia as though it either didn’t exist or it only happens to other communities, but now that it’s here, we’re stepping on our soapboxes and educating the world as if it didn’t already know. In New York, an Asian was assaulted for wearing a face mask, in Los Angeles (and I suspect every other major American city) Chinese people were called filthy. “We are under attack!” screams random Asian person Tanny Jiraprapasuke…as though violence wasn’t happening to us before the coronavirus. As many Chinese businesses are suffering (my current hometown of Flushing, Queens has seen dramatic drops in hotel fares, restaurants around America are left empty on weekends), there have also been numerous little news stories about Asians being denied service, called names, rumored to eat bats, mislabeled as Chinese. But rather than feeling outraged, I honestly feel that if this Level 1-type xenophobia is rattling our community, many of us have certainly forgotten the history of internment camps and the yellow peril. Our brown-skinned Muslim friends who’ve went through the xenophobia ordeal after 9/11 can give us a preview of how much worst it can get…and we better pray it never escalates to that level with the coronavirus.
So far, I refuse to join in on today’s Asian diaspora version of the xenophobia outrage because it’s undermining the real Asians who are suffering: The Chinese living in Wuhan, China. There, an entire city is being quarantined, every family being ordered to send one representative to pick groceries a day, daily activities are shut down and thousands have been infected without a real cure in sight (meaning they’ll likely die). These are terrifying times…for the people in China. In terms of race, I’m only irked by the instances of the Western media where China and the Chinese people’s efforts were reduced to solely the negative and used words that incited negativity. The Chinese people have been brave, supportive and in the case of the doctor who died, heroic. Yes, there were shady things (including how the doctor wasn’t listened to by the Chinese government) and the quarantine hasn’t been perfect, but things could’ve been far worse. And maybe it still can.
Cases are coming to South Korea, the Middle East and Italy and with the potential of it being a big deal in the U.S., some of the more chest-thumping activists and keyboard warriors in our community may be getting just the outrage they were sadly asking for. Despite UC Berkeley’s insensitive wording that xenophobia is a “normal reaction”, I do agree that fear and xenophobia go hand-in-hand. I make no grim predictions about how awful Asians (Chinese or otherwise) can experience in a deeper level of xenophobia, but if we take past incidents of other community’s experiences with xenophobia into account, we can expect greater levels of violence, shunning, loss of business, mysterious layoffs and online bullying.
Optimistically, I don’t think that nightmare scenario will ever happen. Despite the fanfare, the coronavirus has killed fewer people than the average flu and people are better off now getting a flu shot than avoiding anyone who remotely looks Chinese. The deeper value from the coronavirus in the West is that your average diaspora Asian should take bigotry more seriously now and that no amount of model minority good behavior would ever shield us from racially charged fears. We should also have more compassion when other communities are experiencing bigotry and recognize the biasness and fearmongering of mainstream news. Racism is real and I see the coronavirus, safely far away from America and hopefully pretty well-contained by China, as a test.
Sorry if this wasn’t the outrage you were looking for.