Being an Asian American son or daughter during COVID-19 is worrying every time your elderly monolingual parents step out of the house. It’s telling them not to wear masks because it transforms cautious people into sickly targets, and engaging in a conversation about the cultural differences of the significance of masks here in the US vs. “back home.” It’s hearing your mom tell your dad to buy essential things like water but only if it’s fully stocked and not almost sold out because “what if someone decides to fight you for it?”
Being an Asian American teacher during COVID-19 is telling one class that’s 90% Asian American to please beware of viruses and racists. It’s then telling another class that’s 95% non-Asian that Asians aren’t inherently diseased (that that was a myth popularized and deployed in the 1800s to enforce and justify Asian exclusion) only to have said students look back with unconvinced eyes because five minutes can’t undo decades of exposure to cultural racism. It’s having the one section on Asian American history (including the lesson on the exclusionary era) cancelled due to school shutdowns.
Being an Asian American living in a neighborhood populated by co-ethnics during COVID-19 is watching the flow of money slowly being drained out of your neighborhoods and its residents, businesses, and industries. It’s worrying about the health of your local community which for decades has had a uniquely successful concentration of small businesses and family shops. It’s witnessing your neighborhood go from a hub of “authentic cultural consumption” to a disease-ridden space almost overnight. It’s wondering, will we recover? Which of these stores will remain standing in the wake of disease and racism?
Being Asian American during COVID-19 is developing disproportionately escalated concerns about your seasonal spring allergies and its attendant running nose, sneezing, coughing, itchy nose and throat, etc. and how it’s being perceived when you’re out in public.
It’s hearing your friends tell you about getting their food or drink slapped out of their hands, being asked to leave gyms or to “not contaminate” someone else’s belongings or someone else’s air, being verbally harassed on their way to or from work, or watching videos of being people who look like your parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, siblings assaulted—knowing you can’t do much about it and knowing it could easily happen to you too.
It’s hearing about other Asian Americans stocking up on guns, while you are fully aware of the ironic rise of self-inflicted harm caused by the possession firearms. It’s about fundamentally disagreeing with the possession of guns, while understanding why people might feel so inclined given the circumstances.
It’s about so much more than this year and this virus. It’s being reminded of all the times we’ve heard of relatives, friends, and friends of friends who’ve been assaulted seemingly out of nowhere because we also know in our gut: When people see Asian bodies, they see easy quiet targets with no real political, social, institutional clout.
It’s being discouraged to call out “racism” as “racism” because how can Asians be among the richest, most educated, and highest achieving people and be racially subordinate? It’s knowing that you are preparing for two viruses, two diseases, two disasters. One against biology and one against society, but both kill.
Being Asian American during COVID-19 means coming to the realization (again) that “Asian Americans” are diversely scattered across racial, ethnic, and class strata. Each of us live different lives, and each of us are positioned in ways that differentially shape the ways we are able to deal with disaster. While all these statements may resonate deeply with some, it can also sound completely foreign to others—even if we’re all of Asian descent.
It’s about losing your job or gigs, but also wondering whether people blame you for their lost jobs and gigs as well. (Will there be another Vincent Chin? Has there already been one?)
It’s feeling a tiny weird sense of relief following the announcement of quarantine because at least you can’t be attacked or harassed if you’re not allowed to leave home in the first place.
It means our elderly who die may not be honored with funerals. Especially if it’s COVID-19 that killed them.