As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads throughout the United States and the rest of the world, another follows: xenophobia, anti-Asian discrimination, and classism. As a first-generation Chinese-American, the recent outbreaks of coronavirus hit a little too close to home for me. My extended family lives in China and have faced the real threat of the disease. Then, it hit America. However, in America, healthy, young individuals are at a relatively low risk of dying from COVID-19. What we are suseptible to is the xenophobia and discrimination this global crisis is provoking.
Perhaps the biggest complaint I’ve heard from my peers in the past few weeks is about the cancellations of school, sports, state championships, and graduation. In an era where we’re all so connected to the rest of the world, high schoolers are restless when placed in isolation. Many say that the reaction is unwarranted and that because we’re at such low risk, the precautions America is taking as a nation—as well as those of the rest of the globe—are an overreaction. I live in Lake Oswego and even though the first case in Oregon was found in our district, my peers seem disturbingly unbothered by the looming threat. I’ve overheard multiple classmates state that they don’t care about the lower socio-economic classes nor those in heavily impacted countries such as China, Italy, and France. Since many people in the Lake Oswego School District have the money and resources to recover from and test for the virus, they don’t even blink at the millions affected globally.
But beyond my school hallways, it is online that I see the most xenophobia. When such a massive crisis hits the world, there is always speculation, gossip, and blame. One classmate posted their theories on their public social media account, claiming that China had purposefully released the virus as a biological weapon in an attempt to defeat the US in a war. While there are many problems with that statement (namely that China’s motive to do this is absent), the root cause is an anti-Chinese sentiment. This virus is allowing people to hide behind a screen to pass on their xenophobia. When I messaged this classmate to ask them to take their post down, they responded by telling me to do my research, claiming I fell for Chinese propaganda, and reporting that the government of China couldn’t be trusted due to being communist. I was told that my family's struggles and grief were invalid and at the fault of their own government. All over social media are warnings against eating at Chinese restaurants, false claims of the virus starting from bat soup (which is absent from Chinese culture), and perpetuations of negative Chinese stereotypes.
These forms of explicit xenophobia are the easiest to spot and report. The discreet, hidden comments, jokes, and dialogue, however, are much harder to find. They also far outnumber the latter. These jokes plague every inch of social media, discouraging people from eating Chinese food, being friends with Asian-Americans, and respecting Asian culture. Post after post mocks Asian-Americans, telling us that we are at fault for the global pandemic. These posts also perpetuate the continuous sentiment that all East-Asians are Chinese. Americans of Japanese, Korean, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Thai, and other descents are facing just as much discrimination from the community beacuse of this pandemic.
I find that many of these sentiments are being echoed from our government. President Donald J. Trump recently published a tweet calling COVID-19 the “Chinese virus”. After rightful backlash, he claimed his phrasing was to combat Beijing’s alleged disinformation campaign to remove the blame from China and disassociate. Although it did originate in Wuhan, China, by associating it with one country only, Trump is placing the blame on China. Many other government officials, including US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, have also deemed this global virus as China’s problem in a series of dog whistle terms. These political terms are meant to appear one way to the general audience but perpetuate another idea to a certain subgroup. During the COVID-19 outbreaks, they take the form of the “Chinese virus”, the “Wuhan virus”, the “Asian virus”, and “Kung Flu” which come off as accusational and racist to many Asian-Americans. In general, the United States has had a history of anti-Chinese sentiment, including tariff wars, xenophobic statements, and of course, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. During the Cold War, many Chinese-Americans, including top scientist Qian Xuesen, were deported after accusations of being communist. Donald Trump, especially, has used anti-Chinese sentiment to build a political platform and gain voters. His tariff war on China has the support of many Americans but seems to stem from xenophobia. While I don’t agree with all of the political actions of China’s government, the American public’s prejudice towards my country disappoints me.
I’m not going to pretend like I know how to solve racism or that I know the whole picture of xenophobia in America. My only expertise is in my own experiences and opinions. This problem isn’t just a Chinese one. The COVID-19 outbreaks are a real problem that will need global cooperation to fix. However, xenophobia and classism in America will be an even larger battle. Around the country, Asian-Americans are being harassed for a virus they had no role in creating. When the H1N1 and Ebola viruses appeared, there were no claims of a country intentionally releasing biological weapons. The blatant racism against China is noticeable and appalling. As a Chinese-American, I have loyalty towards the people of both nations. This virus spreading throughout the world is not just COVID-19 but the additional xenophobia that stems from it. When our world gets past this pandemic, I hope that we begin to find the cure to America’s anti-Asian sentiment.
Emily Zou is a freshman at Lakeridge High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.