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Age of Coronavirus: Quarantine Diary

An Asian-American View of Xenophobia in the Heartland

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Above image credit: President Donald Trump has repeatedly used the phrase “Chinese virus” to refer to COVID-19. Famously, during one press conference in March, Trump crossed out the word “coronavirus” in Sharpie and wrote in the oft-used phrase. (Adobe Image)

A couple of weeks ago I picked up groceries for my parents — my first excursion into a crowded space since Kansas City’s stay-at-home order took effect.

The COVID-19 outbreak has heightened anxieties around once mundane errands like grocery shopping. Be careful to maintain a six-foot distance in jam-packed aisles. Don’t handle unnecessary produce. Keep your cool when essentials are sold out.

But after seeing reports of attacks against Asian Americans and facing rampant xenophobia on social media, it forced my guard up in a different way.

Making my way down each aisle, I was extra vigilant to stifle allergy sneezes, fix my gaze downward and thrust hands in my pockets. I felt like every eye was on me, even if it wasn’t.

I waited in line for a few minutes, listening as the cashier buoyantly joked with the sacker and chatted kindly with each customer before me. When I approached, both of them fell silent for the duration of my checkout.

The cashier clearly seemed distracted. First, he told me my total was $20 more than what appeared on screen. Then he forgot to ring up my eggs after I had asked three times.

The moment I walked out of earshot, roaring laughter came from their direction. Perhaps they were laughing at me; perhaps it was a projection of my own misgivings.

But we’re living in a moment in which no event seems inconsequential, and no phrase seems innocuous. 

Since the coronavirus made its way stateside, it’s been labeled by the Trump administration and some media outlets as a “Chinese virus” or a “foreign virus.”

Myths have surfaced, linking the outbreak’s origins to a person in China eating bat soup. A Texas senator reinforced the idea, identifying the culture as one “where people eat bats and snakes and dogs and things like that.”

The chairman of Riley County Commissioners suggested that the pandemic hadn’t affected the area because of the lack of Chinese people residing in central Kansas.

Asian-owned businesses in major cities saw an immediate downturn, while other businesses openly prohibited Asians from entering. Discrimination, harassment and violent assaults against East Asian-appearing people have spiked.

These all point to another troubling effect of the pandemic — an overt resurfacing of the archaic idea that Asian Americans will never be quite American enough.

“As Asian Americans, we have to recognize that there is no one person in our community who is immune from becoming a possible target of discrimination. It can happen to anyone who is perceived to ‘look’ Asian,” said Dr. Kelly H. Chong, a professor and Chair of Sociology at the University of Kansas.

Chong, who is Asian American, has not faced any discrimination during the pandemic firsthand. But she feels “fearful and concerned” when going outside.

For me, it’s a hurtful reminder of my own isolating experiences growing up Asian in the Midwest. Even around friends I often felt out of place because my lunches always smelled sort of weird, my vacations were peculiar, my face was a little too flat and my mom talked kind of funny.

These nuances of my cultural identity chipped away at a sense of belonging, and carried into adulthood. People sometimes stop me to ask, “What are you?” Then they randomly shout Asian nationalities until they land on mine — Taiwanese, for the record, which no one ever guesses — or assume that I’m new to the country. 

In spite of living in the Kansas City area since I was five months old, becoming a naturalized citizen before I could form full sentences, obtaining an English degree and achieving aspects of that elusive American Dream, it’s still not uncommon to be perceived as a foreigner based solely upon how I look. 

For many other Asian-American immigrants, these stigmatizations rehash an unsettling past.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first law to specifically bar an ethnic group from immigrating to the United States, and was not fully dismantled until 1965.

During World War II, the U.S. forced more than 100,000 Japanese Americans — two-thirds of whom were native-born U.S. citizens — into concentration camps.

This history is not only significant in understanding the evolution of Asian culture in America, but the bigotry that other immigrant groups still face today.

In recent days, an FBI intelligence report warned that hate crimes against Asian Americans will likely surge due to the spread of the virus.

The anecdotal incidents are already staggering. There was the stabbing of an Asian-American family in Texas, the beating of a high schooler in California who was hospitalized, multiple assaults on the New York subway and countless verbal attacks on people who appear to be Chinese but often aren’t.

“At minimum, I think these incidents will remind the Asian-American community not to fall into any kind of complacency, that it must not stop being vigilant about racism and xenophobia,” Chong said. 

While Asians make up only 2.8% of the Kansas City metro area’s population, it’s worth noting that they are also the country’s fastest-growing ethnic group — increasing by 72 percent between 2000 and 2015, according to data from the Pew Research Center. Yet from U.S. politics to pop culture, Asian Americans have been historically underrepresented or oppressed with damaging stereotypes.

This is why my trip to the grocery store was significant, why these characterizations are dangerous and why they need to be eliminated from the American psyche.

Nobody said a word to me or overtly distanced themselves from me. And throughout my life, most of my encounters with racialization have been almost as subtle. But they still exist, and they’ve ascribed a discrepancy between who I am and how I look.

In this new normal we’re living in, I worry about how such encounters will play out.

Michelle Bacon is 90.9 The Bridge’s content and database manager. Michelle is also a multi-instrumentalist and an independent consultant for local musical acts.

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