2020, the Lunar New Year of Rat, was accompanied by an unexpected outbreak of a mysterious yet pernicious virus that started in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China.
In early January, epidemiologists in China announced the discovery of a new coronavirus. At the time of Lunar New Year, which is traditionally a time for visiting distant relatives, this outbreak put an abrupt termination to festivities.
Many international students spent Jan. 24, the Lunar New Year’s Eve, watching the Chinese New Year Gala in a pretense of gleefulness. At the same time, they had underlying anxiety about the imminent international travel back to their schools in the U.S. for a new semester.
For the same group of international students, all of March and the months to come have been filled with anxiety, fear and homesickness, as the outbreak in the U.S. started. They are scared, not only of the virus, but also of racism in America.
It started as a cultural difference. Chinese people wear masks as a protective measure, but Americans associate masks with sickness, even accusing mask-wearers of spreading fear.
On March 9, Congressman Kevin McCarthy referred to the coronavirus (COVID-19) as “Chinese coronavirus.” He faced widespread criticism for his statement. Nevertheless, this incident was one of the earliest examples of Americans blaming the Chinese. It was in no way the only one.
Politicians started reducing the Chinese as a whole to bat-, snake- and dog-eating savages. The media accused Chinese officials of failing to contain the disease through cover-ups and inefficiency. Other politicians theorized that this virus was produced in a Wuhan “super lab,” even though science has concluded that this was not the case.
The Asian communities in the U.S. are suddenly confronted by an eruption of hate, which is all too similar to the kind faced by American Muslims, Arabs and South Asians after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. However, then President George W. Bush urged tolerance of American Muslims. This time, if anything, President Donald Trump is inciting racism.
Trump started overtly calling coronavirus the “Chinese virus” repeatedly, setting off a wave of anti-Chinese sentiment, despite widespread criticism for his name-calling and a warning from the World Health Organization. In the daily briefing session on March 19, Trump was photographed with his reading note, on which the word “corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese“ to describe COVID-19.
Trump later defended himself. “It’s not racist at all,“ he said. “It comes from China, that’s why.” Trump also expressed that calling COVID-19 “Chinese virus” was a retaliation to Chinese “false claims” that the virus originated in the U.S. Army. However, the real origin of COVID-19 should not become a political weapon against an innocent group of common people.
Encouraged by the publicized animosity toward Chinese, many people started targeting those of Asian descent with racism and xenophobia. Numerous Chinese restaurants had to temporarily or permanently close, suffering from low patronage. Asian faces are treated with assaults, both verbal and physical.
A report by San Francisco State University found a 50 percent rise in news articles related to the coronavirus-induced racism from Feb. 9 to March 7. Moreover, the lead researcher believed it’s “just the tip of the iceberg,” as the media reports only the most outrageous cases.
And there are a lot of outrageous cases. In the San Fernando Valley in California, bullies attacked a 16-year-old Asian American boy and accused him of spreading the coronavirus. The boy was so badly beaten that he was later sent to the emergency room. In a New York City subway station, an Asian woman wearing a mask was kicked and punched while being called nasty names. In Queens, a man followed another man and his 10-year-old son to a bus stop. He shouted profanities at them and hit the father over the head.
It’s not just egregious crimes that Chinese international students are afraid of. If through Western lenses, Chinese international students are no more than “Communist stooges,” what may happen to them in a time of crisis, when politicians and policymakers view them as a plague?
If they choose to return to China, will future policies allow them to come back? Is it safe to come back even after the virus is gone?
The current travel restrictions may terminate visas of the Chinese students who are out of the U.S. for over five consecutive months if they fail to keep up with their schoolwork. This can be challenging when one is in a different time zone, in quarantine and in deep anxiety and stress. With the antipathy toward Chinese worsening by the day, there’s no guarantee of what would happen to future policies regarding visas, job searches and more.
Referring to a virus by the name of an ethnic group is not only dangerous for its social consequences, but also for its public health implications. Even though some associate COVID-19 with only Asians, coronavirus can spread among Europeans, Americans and Africans. The cold hard truth is, even though people can discriminate against others based on race, ethnicity or origin, a virus does not.
As of March 31, the U.S. has over 175,000 confirmed cases. This surpasses the number of cases in all other countries. The surging number will only continue to raise the anxiety of the American public, which can be translated to more frequent and intense racism. In light of all this chaos, what can we, the international students, do?
If you find yourself a victim of racist attacks, whether verbal or physical, report to the authorities. If it’s just acts of microaggression or passive aggressiveness, like sarcastic comments on Twitter, just know that the people who use racism project anxiety. They are also victims of an outbreak, both of the virus and of misinformation. Arguing the true origin of a string of viruses or debating discriminating terminologies used by state media are the jobs for the diplomats and politicians. You just need to be forgiving and take the high road. Most importantly, avoid physical conflicts and stay safe.
The COVID-19 outbreak is a glass half full, not only for Chinese students, but for all of humanity. While some are hoarding hand sanitizers and trying to resell them at astronomical prices, others see the exposed social issues and try to help the vulnerable, whether it’s the victims of racism or the socially disadvantaged. Many celebrities also encourage their fans to socially distance, and many went on Instagram live to entertain their fans isolated at home.
Even in the worst times, great people rise and make things better. There are resources at Hopkins and resources from the Chinese embassy to help you get through the difficult times. So, my advice: Just embrace whatever is coming and do your best to adapt, and don’t let your anxiety and chronic stress overwhelm you.
Even though Trump stated on March 24 that he would no longer use the term “Chinese virus,” racism has been released from Pandora's box. As international students, in a time of unprecedented hardships, we will have to put in all we have to stay safe, healthy and sane.
Will we replan our future, in consideration of the volatile international tensions? Yes. Will we wear masks and other protective gear in spite of potential ridicule? Of course. But will we have the same hopefulness, innocence and enthusiasm as when we first arrived in America, the land reputed to be abundant of opportunities and tolerable of all races, ethnicities and nationalities? I honestly don’t know.
Shizheng “JJ” Tie is a junior international student majoring in Environmental Engineering from Luoyang, China.