(opinions) COVID-19 Grocery Store

The empty toilet paper isle at the University City Boulevard Kroger, March 14, 2020.

In response to the growing fears over COVID-19, there have been several incidents of discrimination against Chinese people or East Asian people in general throughout the nation. These victims were targeted as they were simply checking into a hotel or riding the subway while wearing a face mask.

The latter is a growing concern for Jianuo Huang, a native of Wuhan, China, who serves as the president of Virginia Tech’s Association of Chinese Students and Scholars (ACSS) and is a senior studying mechanical engineering. As it is common for people in many East Asian countries to wear a face mask for everyday reasons, the differences in our cultures and our lack of understanding of them are highlighted.

“Right now, a lot of students are wearing masks … especially Asians. Their parents even send masks to them all over, across the Pacific Ocean. You can see Chinese students wearing masks and that’s a cultural difference that somebody might mention lately,” Huang said. “Western societies don’t usually wear masks, but even for normal days, like cold days, people in Asia — like Japan, China and Korea — are wearing masks to keep warm or some (other) reasons. It’s a cultural difference. Wearing a mask is not that odd in our society.”

He attributes this in part to our nations’ different responses to the virus. As a Chinese native, he understands wearing a mask, as experts there have advised that it will help stop the spread of the virus because it serves as a barrier between bodily fluids that can transfer from one person and infect another. At the same time, as an international student studying in America, he understands why masks are so critical as supplies dwindle.

“Under these circumstances, American students and American people might be scared or feel offended when someone wearing a mask passes by them because they might think they will probably get the virus, or they think you are overreacting,” Huang said. “I can imagine that happens because it’s just a cultural difference.”

This stigma surrounding masks is all too familiar for junior Jia Dong, who majors in industrial systems and engineering and serves as the ACSS recreation and sports chair. Just recently, she and her boyfriend were wearing masks while shopping for resources in Christiansburg when they were approached and criticized by a stranger for their personal decision.

“At that moment, I was thinking, ‘If I looked like a typical American, will you say anything to me if I am wearing a mask or are you just saying things to us because we are Asian?’” Dong said. “After all his rudeness, nobody says anything … staff was there, but they didn’t do anything or say anything. They were just standing there watching us … Every time we wear a mask in public there are always people who look at us in a weird way. A lot of people will comment on us by saying ‘Is it really necessary?’ or just by telling us, ‘It’s not working’ or ‘It’s not necessary’ and then they will just walk by us without starting a conversation, but just comment.”

Unfortunately, this is just one of many occurrences. A similar experience was shared by the wife of assistant professor Theodore Lim of the urban affairs and planning department when she was out shopping as well. 

“My wife was followed and harassed by another customer, who kept repeating racist things to her, calling her a ‘Chinese virus’ and telling her to ‘take her defective Chinese masks back to China.’ Even more distressing to her was that no one — other customers, or staff associates — intervened,” Lim said. “We have been very conscious about wearing protective masks in public, because while many believe that wearing masks are a critical public health behavior, both for self-protection, and to inadvertently spread diseases to others, they are not yet accepted in this country.”

Lim explains that these experiences have become the harsh reality that those of East Asian descent have had to face in this difficult time. 

“Many people are being affected in different ways by this global pandemic. It helps to have an ‘intersectional’ and community-based outlook to understand what people are going through, and by that I mean, there are many parts of our identities, and if ‘Asian-American’ is one of yours, then you may face unique challenges related to discrimination, harassment, lack of connection to community, or fear of those things happening,” Lim said.

These fears have become so intense that East Asian families, like that of Diana Hall, a sophomore in public and urban affairs, are taking difficult precautions to try to protect themselves. 

“My mom sent a text to my sister and I and she talked about how she works in a restaurant and she’s Filipino and she works with her co-workers, who are Japanese-Cambodian, and how a customer approached her coworker and kind of harassed her about not getting tested for (the novel) Coronavirus …  My mom didn’t really specify, but the customer made them all feel really uncomfortable,” Hall said. “She told my sister and I to be careful and if someone asks, say that we’re not Asian because we’re both half Filipino and my mom was just really worried about the harassment that we could experience because she’s experienced that before. It really broke my heart that she wanted us to hide our identities because of xenophobia.” 

Dong doesn’t feel it is fair that Asian people have been at the center of these attacks or blamed. Those who have decided to scapegoat the Asian community for a virus that’s origin has yet to be confirmed are misinformed. 

“Don’t use wearing a mask as an excuse to discriminate (against) Asian people. I feel like it becomes an excuse,” Dong said. “Also, blaming Asians when we all are victims … we are all victims here. We are all trying our best to do a lot of protections like wearing a mask when we go out, washing hands …”

Despite all this, Dong is still able to understand why people react in such a way. 

“I think it’s normal because a lot of people in America are not used to it (seeing people wear a mask),” Dong said. 

However, not everyone is able to have this dual perspective of those who experience life in two different cultures.

“When Chinese students are willing to know more about why American students act like this, they can because they can read English news and analyze what is happening in America,” Huang said. “However, it is hard for American people to understand why we act like this if they don’t look at Chinese news or if they don’t trust China at all.”

This negative rhetoric used to paint China as unreliable has an impact. Huang highlights that Chinese students can feel discouraged when they see it.

“From (a) personal point of view, I think recently a lot of news makes Chinese students and Chinese people pretty upset because a lot of the news is always talking about the negative side of China. When China locked down Wuhan, there were news reports that it’s an offense of human rights. However, when the same thing happened in Italy and other European countries, they complimented them for the same stuff, so it makes us feel offended and like the stereotype is being enhanced,” Huang said. “When this kind of news floods everywhere in the media and online, people will always get a negative view of us, the Chinese government, our country, our homeland even though we are trying hard to contribute. It’s a very sad thing.”

Huang hopes that the gap between these two cultures can be bridged by open dialogue. But first, there needs to be a willingness to learn.

“How to break that; one thing is if they (Americans) were willing to know more Chinese news, or they were willing to talk more to Chinese students like us. Ask why we act like this, try to understand us, try to analyze this, to be clever, to be smart because right now we are in an internet world,” Huang said. “Information is flooding and it’s really hard to pick the correct information from everywhere, but there are always key points in each piece of news. We need to gather different information and reassemble in our mind and then get what is useful for us. Also, using critical thinking to validate others’ points is very helpful. That’s something we need to do to understand the entire thing.”

It takes efforts from both sides to make our community a whole. Although we come from different lifestyles, that should not be viewed as an obstacle. Rather, it is an opportunity to learn more about each other, especially in such a trying time where the strength and heart of humanity is more important than ever.

“American people and Chinese people need to understand each other more, especially through the international Chinese students,” Huang said. “We need to communicate more to break this barrier, to let each other know what is actually going on.”

In a turbulent time filled with instability like this, people look to their leaders for guidance. Instead, many are left disappointed.

“Some of this news also spreads out in Chinese social media and Chinese people feel angry about it, especially yesterday (March 16) when our president sent out that tweet,” Huang said. “It went viral. When that came out, everyone was furious.”

As COVID-19 spreads throughout the world, President Donald Trump and other leaders have taken to calling it the “Chinese Virus.” This practice continues despite warnings from the World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the chairwoman of the Asian Pacific American Committee in Congress, Representative Judy Cho, as it may lead to stigmas and racist attacks against East Asian people. As this debate heats up on the internet and in the media, it is becoming real life for East Asians in the United States.

“There are thousands of comments that say China is doing bad. Even if there is a positive piece of news, there is always flooding; ‘You shouldn’t trust Chinese government. You shouldn’t trust a member of China.’ Jack Ma sent medical supplies to the United States, which is a very good thing. However, under the tweets, there are a lot of comments that it's political propaganda again,” Huang said. “Why is everything going to political propaganda when we just are helping fight this virus? I don’t think this is considered racist, but I don’t think it is a good stereotype of the Chinese government and Chinese people … This really upsets a lot of Chinese students and Chinese people.”

To many, like Huang, these trivial comments should not distract us when we should be focused on dealing with this crisis as hospitals become full and lives are lost.

“I think we should put our attention away from where it originated from. I think we should put our attention away from whether this is a bio-weapon or not. As human beings, our attention should be, I always want to express this, take care of yourself and people around you. No matter where you are — Europe, China or America — we need to take care of not only ourselves, but the society’s hygiene,” Huang said. “You should be grateful. It’s a strong word, but you should be grateful when you see people wearing masks on the streets because they are protecting themselves and protecting you, no matter if they have the virus or not. You should be thankful they’re contributing a little to slow down the virus spreading.”

Dong echoes this and takes pride in wearing masks to contribute to slowing the spread of the virus despite the unsolicited comments and judgments she has faced.  

“I feel unsafe to go to a place like (the store) wearing a mask,” Dong said. “But I still will wear a mask. I think I should be proud to wear a mask.”

Since the incident Dong faced, she noted how sources have backtracked and have actually begun to encourage Americans to wear masks in public

This only highlights how we need to be more mindful of what we believe and consume. With something as unprecedented as COVID-19, we have to remember that there is a lot of uncertainty. Considering multiple standards from other countries, especially of those who have been dealing with this virus efficiently, is far more beneficial than criticizing the precautions that others are taking. 

Avoiding this rhetoric is key to preventing it from translating off the screen and into real life. When it does, we see incidents of hate like those that have been witnessed throughout the country amid this pandemic.

“I heard cases in New York and in California that Chinese or Asian people wore masks and were being beaten, being attacked, being insulted. It’s bad. It’s not a fun thing,” Huang said. “I can see these things going on and understand why people say them, but it is racist definitely.”

Huang believes that combating this prejudice means making sure your voice is heard, even when it may be difficult. If these actions are called out and corrected, progress will follow.

“What I want to say is I think when Chinese students and Chinese people in America experience this, we need to speak out in American society, not just for ourselves, but against any type of racism,” Huang said. “This is what exactly our younger generation is doing. We need to address people’s awareness and build a good relationship between the U.S. and China from the bottom to let America really know China.” 

Lim also notes the importance of bystanders speaking up and trying to help those who have been targeted by racism and xenophobia, even if it doesn’t directly affect them. 

Virginia Tech's Asian Cultural Engagement Center (ACEC)  has produced some materials on bystander intervention. Everyone should be aware that harassment of Asians and Asian Americans is increasing, and that there are things that witnesses of this kind of behavior can do to not escalate the situation, but to let the victim know that this kind of behavior is not okay. You don't necessarily have to confront the aggressor if you don't feel comfortable, but asking the victim if they are okay, or offering to walk with them can go a long way,” Lim said. “Let the person being harassed (know) that you see them, and that you do not condone the harasser's behavior. Second, victims of this kind of harassment should know that they should report the incident for tracking purposes. If not to the police, then to organizations that are specifically tracking hate crimes and harassment incidents of Asians and Asian Americans.”

While these issues are increasingly becoming an issue of concern within our nation, when it comes to our community in Blacksburg, Huang has hope.

“It’s a very friendly environment here in Blacksburg. My friends are also saying that they haven’t heard of anyone having this kind of experience in Blacksburg … We have (social media) groups for each grade, so each group has probably 300 to 400 people,” Huang said. “So far, I haven’t seen anyone talking about being attacked or offended around campus or in Blacksburg. That’s something I’m very proud of in our society. That’s very good.”

Now especially, Dong notes that others can be allies to the Asian community in this difficult time as well by staying informed and aware of what they are going through

However, as this carries on, simply coexisting is not enough. In the long term, we have to take the initiative to connect with each other on a deeper level so that these harmful instances based on ignorance no longer occur. Huang believes that this can be achieved if we work to build relationships between communities that allow us to better understand each other and become familiar with each others’ cultures. 

“At the very beginning, probably, Chinese students are willing to find American students to be friends. However, they cannot. They just feel it’s hard,” Huang said. “The consequence of this is it makes communication a little bit hard. It’s hard for us to express our ideas or opinions to the American society. It’s hard to understand what the American society knows about us, think about us. When people always say, ‘Chinese students or Asian students would like to stay together as a small circle,’ it’s because it’s really hard to get into a different circle, especially somewhere where we didn’t grow up.”

If we make sure that this place that we call home includes everyone, we can maintain a welcoming environment for diversity.

“You want to communicate more, but it’s hard to communicate more so this is the dead end. In order to break this dead end, I think, on a small scale, the university can do something; have more programs or more activities” Huang said. “We can have more of these kinds of cultural communication activities and I think the focus should be more on how to build cultural bridges between students since we have a lack of students' communications and students’ relationships. Cultural events are a good start, but just having cultural events is not enough. That’s something that is always our goal with our association.”

People’s fear of COVID-19 may have emphasized a dark flaw in our society, but it has always existed in different forms and levels. It won’t cease to exist either, unless people are willing to learn.

“This will last for a long time I can imagine that. It’s not a blink of an eye. It’s not a sudden thing,” Huang said.

Though the spread of the virus will settle down eventually, this ignorance and its consequences will remain. Instead of seeing this as a divisive measure to place blame and instill hatred against others, this pandemic should serve as a reminder that there is no room for prejudice. We are all the same in that our hearts ache for those who have lost someone, we fear for the health of our loved ones and we wonder when we will return to life as we know it. Rather, let’s look forward to a return to a better life, one where we see each other for who we truly are and cross barriers.

Recommended Stories