“I’m afraid to sneeze or cough in class because I’m Chinese,” said my adopted daughter Lucy, counting the cost to American race relations of China’s novel coronavirus.
Lucy and her sister Grace, also born in China, had come home to Chicago from their universities in the US Midwest so that we could celebrate the lunar new year as a family, just as we did when they were growing up in China. But as we got ready to go out for a festive meal, my girls were less focused on their “red envelopes” (new year cash from parents to kids) and more transfixed by a TikTok video that had gone viral of an Asian woman eating a bat, the animal blamed as the source of the virus.
That video, it turns out, wasn’t even shot in China but the damage has been done: there’s been an outbreak of anti-Chinese memes on social media. My girls say they feel blamed for the virus, purely because of their ancestry. “It’s become an excuse for anti-Chinese rants about the weird foods that Chinese people eat,” Lucy said.
I didn’t think that was the moment to remind her that when she was 10, I dragged her off to a town in rural China where every restaurant only served dog meat. Her point was serious: because of the virus, sneezing while Asian had suddenly become an offence in the US. And she didn’t like being stereotyped that way.
My kids aren’t the only ones feeling singled out: OCA, which advocates for Asian Americans, has issued a warning against “unwarranted discrimination towards ethnic Chinese and other Asian Americans due to harmful stereotyping and misinformation about the coronavirus”. It added, “Asian Americans are once again being targeted as aliens . . . and wrongly accused as public health threats.”
Frank Wu, author of Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White says there is a long history of blaming Asians for disease. “Chinese immigrants in the late 1800s were said to be unclean,” he says. The exclusion movement, which barred Chinese immigrants from the US for decades, “was based in part on the claim Chinese would spread disease. There was a plague outbreak in San Francisco, for example, and Chinese were held responsible.”
But that was more than 100 years ago, and today’s America had been showing tentative signs of recognising Asian Americans as full members of US society. They are the fastest growing US ethnic group, rising 72 per cent between 2000 and 2015.
Although Asian Americans vote at a lower rate than other ethnic groups, the presidential candidacy of Andrew Yang has been a source of great pride. He has drawn far more support than expected. In lily-white Iowa, where I covered this week’s presidential primary caucus, Mr Yang received 6 per cent of the vote in the first round of polling at the place where I caucused, almost half as much as Midwesterner Amy Klobuchar.
The picture isn’t all rosy: Donald Trump’s administration has targeted an increasing number of ethnic Chinese scientists, including US citizens, as spies. And the pressure my kids are feeling smacks of the textbook definition of racism: judging someone purely by racial characteristics.
But Mr Wu, a University of California law professor, is more measured. He says that while he was riding public transport earlier this week he cleared his throat and “a young lady, white, seated near me put on a face mask. I haven’t set foot in China for two years. Was that rational? Racist? Who knows. But I would not begrudge her. She wants to be safe. She has no idea . . . where I am from.”
Sniffling while Asian isn’t just an offence in white eyes at the moment. I meet regularly with a Chinese graduate student at Northwestern University, where 14 per cent of graduate students and 22 per cent of international undergraduates are from China, to help him practise English. He told me: “I think I would also feel very nervous if there was someone [Chinese] sitting next to me and coughing”. A Northwestern spokesman says the college has had no reports of stigmatisation.
And my daughter Lucy says she is now avoiding coughing Asians too. “I don’t want to be the Asian person who’s sick right now,” she says.
Lucy should be able to cough (into her elbow, as her mother taught her) just like her white classmates. Anything else is un-American.
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