• on May 12, 2020

More Than a Virus: The Growing Pains of Asian Americans

Like many others, my parents and I immigrated to this country for the sake of employment. We worked hard to achieve the American Dream, and we did everything we could to be the “model minority” that Asian-Americans are often labelled. However, that didn’t stop every racist impulse, and in 7th grade I was told to go back to my home country. Most Asian Americans do not feel the same constant threat of race relations that some of our counterparts deal with daily.

Sadly, COVID-19 has destroyed even this societal norm. I didn’t really realize just how mad the world was about to get until around early March when, on the way to my internship, I realized I had got a section of Metro seats to myself for three whole weeks, not because I was lucky enough to find the one spot of the train that wasn’t crowded, but because people would see my complexion and sit at the other side of the coach. Meanwhile, my siblings were being bullied at school and my mother, a nurse, was being spat on by the same people she would soon have to treat, risking exposure every day for patients who blamed her for the pandemic.

Yet, somehow, my family’s exposure to the sudden rise in Asian-American racism has been more tame than the experiences of others. Go through Subtle Asian Traits, a Facebook group famous for providing the Asian community a place to communicate with one another, and you will find post after post of people sharing their personal experiences. Some Asian-Americans have been told by neighbors and peers to “go back to China” despite many of them being born and raised American. Others have been verbally and physically assaulted, their businesses vandalized and even stabbed. Today, we are more openly discriminated against.

Many have spoken out about this rising issue, and there has been plenty of discourse regarding how the Asian American community should respond to the spike in racism. Perhaps the most notorious example of this was Andrew Yang’s Washington Post Op-Ed, which suggested that Asian-Americans should wear their patriotism as a badge of honor to “prove” their Americanness. However, even if one were to ignore the fact that even military service did not stop Japanese-Americans from being interned during the Second World War, we should not have to prove our worth to be accepted in the community. The biggest threat to our community is not our need to assimilate, but the bigotry and scapegoating that has arisen in this horrid time.

The current president has exacerbated this situation. By constantly calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” and the “Wuhan Virus,” he normalized a culture where it is socially acceptable, perhaps even encouraged, to harass and commit racist acts against Asian-Americans. While he has since backed away from this rhetoric, choosing instead to attack the World Health Organization (which is a whole other mess), the damage has been already done. Alongside the spike in hate crimes inspired by the president’s rhetoric, actual policy has been affected by this needless bigotry. Last March, the G7 could not produce a joint statement because Secretary of State Pompeo would not sign a statement unless the coronavirus was called the “Wuhan Virus.” By insisting on blaming China for the entire virus, the US government has stoked hatred towards Asian-Americans while disrupting the G7’s ability to coordinate a unified response to the issues at hand.

Naturally, the responsible thing to do would be to apologize for his part in stoking the xenophobia that Asian-Americans experienced, but instead, Trump seems poised to lean into his fear-mongering ways. Last month, a Trump ad calling Biden “soft on China” included a clip of Biden with Gary Locke, the former governor of Washington, Commerce secretary and ambassador to China, implying that Locke himself is a Chinese agent. Unfortunately, Biden’s retaliatory ad is only marginally better, implying that the current China travel ban was smart but poorly implemented, although research shows pandemic travel bans do little to reduce the spread of a virus, especially one already in the population. 

There is a difference between calling a virus Chinese to galvanize a political base by vilifying a separate group of people and releasing an ad which calls an opponent’s policy poorly executed, but the end result is still the needless maltreatment of Asian Americans. As the land of opportunity, the United States needs to be better than this. Americans need to come together and call out this bigotry in all forms. If we still wish to be the leader of the free world, the bastion of liberty and equality for all, we have to be above irrational hatred for one another. 

When this pandemic finally ends, there will probably be a stigma against all things related to coronavirus. Already, biometric ID companies are hoping to separate the vulnerable from the healthy through implementing intrusive measures. It’s possible this may lead to tensions between those who are at risk and those who may carry the virus. If America incorrectly assumes all Asians are part of the latter group, then the discrimination Asian-Americans face today will continue for years to come. The shared experience of the pandemic will haunt the American people for a generation, leaving behind a lasting legacy. We must ensure this legacy does not include a hatred towards people based on illogical fears. 

I will not pretend to be the ultimate authority on race relations and the American experiment. Racism will not go away anytime soon, but this is the United States. We are far from perfect, and as the preamble of the Constitution reminds us, the American experiment is an attempt to forge a “more perfect union.” A pandemic should not stand in the way of achieving that goal. Founded on the principles of liberty and justice for all, our nation was built upon pluralism, multiculturalism, and inclusivity. We have an unfortunate history of failing to give minority groups their just deserts, and while the debate on what to do to make up for those mistakes rages amongst greater minds, I know we cannot allow another failure to occur when it is easy to stop. As Americans, we must call out senseless bigotry when we see it and work towards a “more perfect union” promised by the Constitution. The American experiment depends on it.

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