Photo by Ben Dumond

As An Asian American During Coronavirus, I Don’t Know If Racism Or The Virus Is Worse

As of April 13, the novel coronavirus, which causes the respiratory illness COVID-19, continues to upend life around the country and the world. In affected areas, many people in quarantine are struggling with the effects of lost jobs, shut-down schools, health concerns, and more. But some people have additional worries. The virus is believed to have originated in Wuhan, China, in December 2019 — an origin point that has led to racist misconceptions associating the novel coronavirus with Chinese people.

For Asian Americans around the country, the mental burden of dealing with the stress and uncertainty of the coronavirus, which was declared a pandemic on March 11, is exacerbated by a rise in racism and even violence. In late March, President Donald Trump repeatedly referred to the virus as “the Chinese virus” despite warnings it could exacerbate racism. In the span of two weeks in March, the advocacy group Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council reported more than 1,100 instances of harassment or assault toward Asian Americans, with women harassed at twice the rate of men. Alice Tsui, 30, is a Chinese American living in New York City, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak. She spoke to Elite Daily's News Editor Lilli Petersen about the extra burden of dealing with racism, her biggest concern during the pandemic, and what everyone can do to support the Asian American community.

I've been really lucky to grow up in New York City, which has a pretty diverse population and a strong Asian community. Growing up, I experienced my share of microaggressions and racism about being Asian, but nothing I would call major. I have extended family in China, and I heard about the coronavirus as a health concern around Lunar New Year, in the middle of January. At that point, it still hadn’t been making waves in the news, but I thought, “This will inevitably come to New York City.” The first New York coronavirus case was confirmed on March 1, and the city went into shutdown on March 22.

I didn't know if wearing a mask would mark me as a potential target for physical violence.

I started to notice little things on my commute. When I coughed into my elbow on the subway, people would automatically move away quickly, and some people would give me uncomfortable looks. I've heard this echoed from so many of my Asian and Asian American friends as well. There was even one time when I coughed and someone came up to me really closely and said, “Cough into your elbow,” over and over, even though I had. They wouldn’t stop. We were between stations on the train, so I couldn't even get out of the situation. No one did anything or said anything. I felt so trapped.

I've also seen a lot of racist imagery used about the coronavirus. It feels like we're back in the Chinese caricature days of the Exclusion Act. When all the first reports of the virus came out, there were always images of Chinatown, even if there were no people in the photo. The association was always with China, even if it wasn't stated. That visual message says a lot.

Courtesy of Alice Tsui

In my experience, in Asian culture, wearing a mask is a protective measure, whereas in the U.S., it's seen as a reactive measure. But I struggled for a long time about if I should wear a mask. I didn't know if wearing a mask would mark me as a potential target for physical violence. It was kind of, I'm doomed if I do wear a mask, and I'm doomed if I don't. I only started wearing a mask last week, and when I walk past people, I feel like I get looks of disgust. I wonder if people are looking at the top part of my face and my Asian features, or the bottom part with the mask and thinking I’m sick? And whether there’s a crossover between the two? I keep my walks outside short, even when I'm walking my dogs. I don't feel safe at all walking around.

Will Asian people have to die from racism, or will they have to die from COVID-19?

Honestly, I’m most concerned for my parents. Like a lot of young people, I’m in quarantine away from my parents and I can't do anything. There have been physical attacks against older people, and my parents fall into that category. I don't know how to feel when they have to go grocery shopping, and I wonder if they'll come home safe. Sometimes I think about — and this is a little morbid — if push comes to shove, will they have to die because of catching the coronavirus, or because of a racist attack? And why do I have to think about these things? That has been a really stressful mental load for me.

With all the worries everyone has right now, that’s the thing I’m most concerned about. Will Asian people have to die from racism, or will they have to die from COVID-19? That sounds so heavy, but it's my genuine concern. I think about my Asian and Asian American friends who are doctors and nurses, or working on the front lines, or having interactions on the street. I fear for my safety in a way I've never felt in my life. I don't feel American, even though I am. I feel like an actual foreigner or outsider, and I don’t know how we can move forward. I'm really fearful for everyone in my personal life, and America overall, and how we’ll live past this.

Courtesy of Alice Tsui

I’m an elementary school music teacher, and we’ve been working from home since March 23. I feel really lucky to still have a job, but the mental strain of dealing with all the racism and also trying to be there for my students is something I really can't put into words. It's getting heavier and heavier every day. We're working in a time of a pandemic, so nothing is normal or feels great, but I feel a responsibility to keep sharing my voice so people can understand this experience.

I hate that it has to be said, but it's not “the Chinese virus.” The disease is called COVID-19. That’s the official name for it, and it is not OK to call it “the Chinese virus.” People don't get to decide that it’s OK to say that because it has dangerous ramifications. We need to talk about race and racism with regard to this.

Little actions can go a long way.

If you want to be supportive, there are a couple of social media movements. There are hashtags like #washthehate, #racismisavirus, and #hateisavirus. You can repost things you find that help support the community, or write the hashtags on your own mask and take a picture with it. Also, if you see something or hear something that's not OK, think about what you can do or say out loud to push back. It's not always comfortable, but experiencing discomfort is part of talking about racism. You can also support Asian American businesses. Asian restaurants that are still open are having a tough time, especially with the misconception that the coronavirus comes from Chinese people eating bats. And honestly, just check in with whoever in your life is Asian. Just say hello — simple things like that.

Little actions can go a long way, because you never know who can see them and who was able to shift the way they think. A lot of the time, people think they need to create monumental change, but so much monumental change comes from little changes each day.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

If you think you’re showing symptoms of coronavirus, which include fever, shortness of breath, and cough, call your doctor before going to get tested. If you’re anxious about the virus’s spread in your community, visit the CDC for up-to-date information and resources, or seek out mental health support. You can find all Elite Daily's coverage of coronavirus here.